HC Deb 09 December 1996 vol 287 cc22-89

Order for Second Reading read.

3.31 pm
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Sir Patrick Mayhew)

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

In a democracy, politics and violence do not mix. Arms and explosives, illegally held and illegally used for political purposes, have for long bedevilled the politics of Northern Ireland and, more importantly, the lives of its people. They have to be removed from the scene. It is tempting to say that they must be eradicated. It is true that the police services on both sides of the border will continue to root them out where they can.

I believe that the whole House will wish to pay a warm and grateful compliment to the outstanding recent successes of both the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Garda Siochana. Vast potential for murder and destruction has been discovered, but it is unlikely that all the lethal weapons and other munitions in existence will be uncovered. In any case, time is very short, for the influence that those armaments continuously exert, even from their hiding places, obstructs the full success and, indeed, even the progress of the political process in which most of Northern Ireland's parties are engaged, together with the two Governments.

Expressed briefly, the natural fear is that the armaments are held on to in order that one day they may be used. Otherwise, what is their purpose? If that were correct, it would not be compatible with the exclusive commitment to peaceful methods and to the democratic process that is rightly required of all who seek in this democracy to negotiate its future. If that is judged to be absent in any party, no matter that it be an elected one, others will not sit at the table with it.

That is why such armaments have to be removed. That much almost everyone is agreed on: it is the easy bit. It gets harder when it is recognised that, illegal though it is to hold them, the yielding up of those armaments will be done either voluntarily or not at all. Therefore, to secure the best prospect of having them dealt with so that they are for ever out of harm's way, it is necessary to put in place a more sophisticated scheme than many would like.

I acknowledge that; but to those who bridle at the notion of helping terrorists to decide to get rid of their weapons, I offer this thought. A weapon which, in accordance with any such scheme, is taken out of commission can never kill in the future, as it may have killed in the past. A weapon which is retained in terrorist hands may well kill again, unless it is seized by the security forces before it can do so, which cannot be ensured.

No scheme of any kind can be constructed without a downside. But the thought that I have offered is the justification for seeking to put a well-judged scheme in place. That is the view of the Government; and we are fortified in that view by the international body, set up by the British and Irish Governments, when it reported in January this year.

The body's remit was to provide an independent assessment of the decommissioning issue, and to report on the arrangements necessary for the removal from Irish politics of illegal arms. Chaired by Senator George Mitchell, working with former Prime Minister Holkeri and General de Chastelain, the body received oral and written submissions from each Government, from political representatives from all parties, from church and community leaders and many others.

Following careful examination and consideration of the issue, the body published its report on 22 January this year. I shall call it from now on the Mitchell report. It noted that everyone with whom we spoke agrees in principle with the need to decommission", and that differences in timing and context should not obscure the nearly universal support which exists for the total and verifiable disarmament of all paramilitary organisations. Her Majesty's Government's position on decommissioning is squarely based on the Mitchell report, which we fully endorse. We agree with the report's conclusion that decommissioning must continue to be a principal objective, and that it should receive a high priority in all-party negotiations.

The Mitchell report can be seen as falling into two parts—for this purpose at any rate. The first examines the question when decommissioning should take place. The second deals with how it should take place. But this Bill is germane only to the second part of the report. It is an enabling Bill. Its purpose is to enable the Secretary of State to give effect to Mitchell's recommendations as to how decommissioning will take place, at whatever time or stages may be decided.

The latter issue is, of course, of crucial importance. It is currently occupying the parties and Governments taking part in the political talks, which have been in progress since 10 June.

Strong views, as I am well aware, are properly held on every side. I do not intend today to seem to pre-empt, or even comment on, the negotiations. They are at an important stage at the present moment. I hope and believe that it will possible to reach a conclusion before Christmas.

I can, however, say that all the participants want to see the total and verifiable decommissioning of all paramilitary arms at the earliest possible moment. Whatever may be finally agreed about that, however, there will be a need for a mechanism and a structure to enable decommissioning to be achieved. They also all support the guidelines on the modalities of decommissioning set out in the Mitchell report. I am sorry about the word "modalities"; it really means the ways in which decommissioning can be carried out.

Since talks recommenced in September, after the break, it has become increasingly clear to both Governments that there was a need to introduce legislation to provide a firm statutory basis for decommissioning. Such legislation would be based firmly on the guidelines contained in the Mitchell report and would provide a context in which further discussion on decommissioning could progress.

So the Bill now before the House is, in parallel with proposed legislation which I understand the Irish Government intend to introduce very soon, designed to provide a statutory foundation for decommissioning, and the secure context in which discussions on decommissioning can move forward.

Before I turn to the clauses of the Bill, when I shall relate them to the Mitchell report, I hope that it will be helpful to explain the general approach that we have adopted in framing the Bill. This approach is also, I understand, to be adopted in the draft Irish Bill.

This Bill is intended to reflect, and enable effect to be given to, the six principles underlying the detailed guidelines which Mitchell has provided in paragraphs 39 to 50 of the report. Those were that the decommissioning process should: first, suggest neither victory nor defeat; secondly, take place to the satisfaction of an independent commission; thirdly, result in the complete destruction of armaments in a manner that contributes to public safety; fourthly, be fully verifiable; fifthly, not expose individuals to prosecution; and, sixthly, be mutual.

Central to the Bill is the concept of a tightly defined and narrow amnesty. It will be available only to those who adhere to the strict terms of a decommissioning scheme, and only for offences that they technically commit in respect of anything done in accordance with such a scheme. Those offences are specified in the schedule. They are mainly of a possessory character.

The Bill's provisions in no sense constitute some form of general amnesty covering other offences: the security forces will go on with undiminished resolution pursuing and bringing to justice those responsible for other crimes, irrespective of when or under what circumstances they were committed.

An independent commission forms a further important element of the Bill, but it will not be established by the Bill. Rather, it will come into being on foot of an international agreement between Her Majesty's Government and the Government of the Republic of Ireland. That agreement will set out in clear terms the role and nature of the commission, and how it is to be constituted.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North)

With regard to the international commission, will the Secretary of State confirm that it is merely a technical commission and that it will never make political judgments?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

The international commission's role will, like most other things, depend on what may be agreed in the course of the negotiations. Its purpose is to provide a means by which the process of decommissioning can be structured, supervised and implemented. Its full role, however, will depend on what is agreed, and that is a sensible basis for it at present.

The Bill has 11 clauses and one schedule. Clause 1 defines the term, "decommissioning scheme", for the purposes of the Bill; generally, it is a scheme made by the Secretary of State to facilitate the decommissioning of firearms, ammunition and explosives in Northern Ireland. The decommissioning scheme will be administrative in nature, allowing for simplicity of wording so that everyone involved in the decommissioning process is entirely clear as to what is required in order to act in accordance with the scheme.

That approach has the benefit of flexibility. It maximises our ability to make, amend, withdraw or replace a scheme with the minimum possible delay in the light of the situation on the ground, as it may develop.

Clause 2 requires that the amnesty period during which firearms, ammunition and explosives may be dealt with in accordance with a decommissioning scheme, must be identified in the scheme. It also deals with its duration, in the first instance providing that it shall expire one year after the date when the Act is passed, but conferring power to extend the maximum duration for periods of up to 12 months, subject to express parliamentary approval, up to a maximum of five years from the date when the Act is passed.

Clause 3 requires a decommissioning scheme to make provision for one or more specified ways of dealing with firearms, ammunition and explosives, while allowing the scheme to make provision also for others. The ways specified in clause 3 reflect the decommissioning methods identified in Mitchell's report.

Clause 4 and the schedule give effect to Mitchell's recommendation that the decommissioning process should not expose individuals to prosecution". It provides for an amnesty from prosecution for those who commit offences specified in the schedule, but only by virtue of anything that they do when acting in accordance with a decommissioning scheme.

Clause 5 limits the use in evidence of information obtained as a result of a decommissioning scheme, and gives effect to paragraph 48 of the Mitchell report in this respect. It provides that, in criminal proceedings, a decommissioned article shall not be admissible in evidence, nor shall evidence be admissible of information derived from it, or of anything done in accordance with a decommissioning scheme, or of any information derived therefrom. The restriction does not apply, of course, to proceedings for any offence alleged to have been committed with an article that had already been decommissioned at the time that the offence was committed, nor to evidence sought to be adduced on behalf of the accused.

Clause 6 gives effect to the forensic testing recommendation of Mitchell. It prohibits certain tests and procedures in relation to decommissioned articles. But tests and procedures for safety and verification purposes are excluded from the prohibition, and so are tests or procedures in connection with the investigation of any offence alleged to have been committed after an article has been decommissioned.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

The effect of clauses 5 and 6, but especially clause 6, is presumably to permit someone who has committed an offence with a weapon to dispose of the weapon from an evidential point of view by putting it into the decommissioning system. Whereas one might see justification for that in the overall objective—that is what an amnesty requires in order to be effective—is the amnesty permanent, or when the five-year period is up, if there is a return to violence, will it then be possible to re-examine the weapon to see whether it can assist in clearing up crimes that have been committed?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. The scheme is self-contained and its purpose is as expressed. It will last for five years. It will not be possible retrospectively to take advantage of whatever evidence might be available after the expiry of the scheme. That is my understanding; in case there is anything to add to my answer, I shall ask the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Westminster, North (Sir J. Wheeler), to deal with it in winding up.

The right hon. Gentleman is right to suggest that the purpose is to enable someone who commits a possessory offence at the very least, by reason of his possession of an illegally held weapon, to come forward and to deal with it in one of the four ways specified in the Bill, without the risk of being prosecuted for the offence of possession, of which he would give evidence by virtue of coming along to the relevant place to take advantage of the scheme.

Mr. Robert McCartney (North Down)

Will the Secretary of State confirm that in the case of a person who has committed a crime with a weapon that has been decommissioned, although any evidence culled from an examination of that weapon would be inadmissible, it would not debar the same person from being prosecuted on the basis of other evidence, such as eye witnesses to the commission of the crime?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I am happy to confirm that the hon. and learned Gentleman's understanding is correct. The sole purpose of the amnesty provided for in the Bill is to prevent the technical offence of possession from being prosecuted, arising as it does by the action that is taken in accordance with the scheme. As a simple illustration, if there is a place at which articles must be dumped, someone who comes along carrying a pound of Semtex is not to be prosecuted by virtue solely of having had it in his possession at that time.

Mr. Beith

I am sorry to press the Secretary of State, but I think he may be understating the effect, justified though it may be. The forensic provisions prevent any examination of the weapon from which it might be established that it had been used in a succession of crimes. A great deal of Royal Ulster Constabulary time could be wasted in trying to clear up those crimes, in the absence of that evidence.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

That, too, is correct.

Clause 8 makes provision for decommissioning schemes in respect of arms, ammunition and explosives in England and Wales, and Scotland. It provides power by order to provide that any scheme made by my right hon. Friends to facilitate the decommissioning of firearms, ammunition and explosives, whether in England and Wales or in Scotland, and which includes provisions satisfying the requirements of clauses 2 and 3, shall be a decommissioning scheme for the purposes of the Bill, provided that it is also made for purposes relating to the affairs of Northern Ireland.

I have introduced that into the Bill in order to meet the understandable sensitivity of those who saw an entirely unintended possibility that somehow it was considered less important to bring people to justice in Northern Ireland than in England and Wales or in Scotland.

Such an order may substitute for any offence under the law of Northern Ireland set out in the schedule to the Bill a similar offence under the law of England and Wales, or Scotland.

That gives my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland the power to secure the decommissioning of arms, ammunition and explosives in England and Wales and in Scotland if, in the light of progress with all-party talks and with the preparation of the Northern Ireland decommissioning scheme, such schemes prove to be desirable. As with a Northern Ireland scheme, it provides that a decommissioning scheme established for this important purpose shall not be capable of being used as an amnesty by those possessing illegal arms who are not genuinely involved with the decommissioning process. I understand that the chief constables in England and Wales and in Scotland are content with those arrangements.

Clause 9 provides for the expenses incurred in connection with a decommissioning scheme or in connection with the commission. Clause 10 is a defining clause and clause 11 contains the short title and makes clear that, apart from the Bill's provisions, the institution or conduct of criminal proceedings is unaffected.

I conclude with the following submissions to the House. In the context of Northern Ireland's affairs, the Government, in common with the vast majority of people in these islands, wish fervently to see an end to the illegal possession of arms. That would represent a very considerable step forward and we shall continue to do all in our power to assist such progress. What we shall not do is renege on the principles that have guided us by obscuring the hard, unpleasant but incontrovertible realities that lie at the root of continuing terrorist violence. We have heard Sinn Fein proclaim its desire for peace during the ceasefire and since its collapse. At the same time, the Provisional IRA has cast its grim shadow over the people's hopes, through its disgustingly callous actions. The first ceasefire has proved to be, in the words of Mr. Bruton, "a deception".

Each successive terrorist attack serves only to reaffirm the urgent need to dispose of the instruments of such destruction. Bombs and guns do not just devastate lives: they destroy hard-won trust and entrench bitterness between those charged with the already formidable responsibility of finding a way forward. The Mitchell report has provided a template by which agreement on the means of decommissioning arms can be achieved. The Government hope that the political parties will arrive at such agreement as soon as possible and join in putting the report's recommendations into practice. Meanwhile, the Bill is a necessary and timely piece of preparation and I commend it to the House.

3.51 pm
Ms Marjorie Mowlam (Redcar)

The Labour party welcomes the introduction of the Bill and echoes the Secretary of State's comments complimenting the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Garda Siochana on their record of finds so far—that has clearly helped the process in the past few months.

As we made clear previously, we shall facilitate the Bill's speedy passage through the House. We welcome the fact that the normal procedures of the House are being employed for the Bill and that the usual Committee stage procedures will be followed. In the past—for example, with the Northern Ireland (Entry to Negotiations, etc.) Bill in April and May—we have supported the use of exceptional procedures to put new legislation swiftly on to the statute book. However, our co-operation on such pressing occasions should not be mistaken for a general willingness to override the conventions of the House. Exceptional procedures should apply in exceptional circumstances. In this case, I am sure that the good will on both sides of the House in support of moving forward sensibly with the legislation will ensure its speedy passage.

The Bill has wider significance than the issue of decommissioning paramilitary weapons. It is also about working to create an environment where talks can take place and an agreement can be reached. It is a crucial measure that is designed to build confidence. No one can doubt that the provisions outlined in the Bill are needed desperately following the events of the summer—especially at Drumcree—and their aftermath. The anger and fear among the nationalist community after the rule of law was threatened and flouted at Portadown remains strong, as does the underlying fear and distrust of the Unionist community which was expressed at Drumcree.

There is a fear that giving ground on the marches issue is just the tip of the iceberg—a small part of a much larger process that is continually undermining the Unionist way of life. I understand those fears and, in that context, we welcome this confidence-building measure. We also draw the attention of the House to the other confidence-building measures highlighted in the Mitchell report to which the Secretary of State referred, such as the policing and prison issues. We believe that rapid progress on those issues would also help the process of building trust across the communities. Urgent action is needed, too, to reduce the growing fear and worry in many people's minds over prospects for Drumcree mark 3 next year.

Dr. Peter North and his two colleagues are due to report in January next year. I hope that the House will not mind if I take this opportunity to say that it is incumbent upon us all—Opposition, Government and Members from Northern Ireland—to do all that we can to respond positively to the recommendations of the North committee, and that we try to work together to ensure that we will not face Drumcree mark 3 in 1997.

Decommissioning is an important area for confidence building. It has, as has been seen so far, proved a very demanding and difficult one. It is the baseline of any peace process. It is both an issue of confidence as negotiations progress and an objective in itself—in this case, as is often said, it is to take the gun out of Irish politics for good. But still, as we approach Christmas, people here in England—and even more so in Northern Ireland—will have on their minds as they shop for presents, "Will a bomb go off today?"

The Bill can help take us down the road of decommissioning weapons. For the vast majority of people, it can begin the process of providing security. For the paramilitaries, too, it can offer a path out of their history of violence, terror, murder and mayhem. The question for us today is whether they will have the courage to take it. Will the IRA have the courage to call a ceasefire that is clear and unequivocal; that will end the violence for good; and this time to show by their actions that they mean it; a ceasefire—contrary to newspaper reports today—that holds before, during and after Christmas? We want nothing less than an end to violence for good.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

I fully endorse what my hon. Friend said about the need for a ceasefire, and in the mean time I hope that the security authorities are fully alert to any possible IRA devices, be they in Northern Ireland or on the mainland. When my hon. Friend speaks about confidence building, will she express concern about Loyalist intimidation in Ballymena, where people going about their legitimate business of going to church are being intimidated? Should not we congratulate the Unionist mayor, who has gone out of his way to condemn the intimidation and, moreover, to show his solidarity with Catholics by standing outside the church as they go in?

Ms Mowlam

I echo my hon. Friend's comments in relation to what we saw at Harryville not just over the past weeks but at the weekend. It is an example of vicious sectarianism, which does not reflect well on the community from which these people come. Let us make it clear, as my hon. Friend did, that what is happening at Harryville does not represent the views and beliefs of the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland. As my hon. Friend said, the courage of Councillor James Curry, mayor of Ballymena, should be acknowledged in the House, and we should support the actions that Ballymena council took. For the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland, such sectarianism is not part of their beliefs or views in any way.

Decommissioning is a central part of the peace process. Let us go back to the ceasefires of August and October 1994, when decommissioning was not high on the political agenda. Then in 1995, we all enjoyed the peace, and a gesture on decommissioning—as a small but essential act of good faith—was both desirable and thought possible. It became clear, however, that such a step was not one that paramilitaries on either side were willing to take. The absence of a small step began a process of retreat on all sides. If such a step was not possible, the argument went, how could Sinn Fein be trusted over their commitment to the peace process? To many people, it was just plain logic. If someone is committed to peace, the disposal of a few pounds of Semtex or a cache of rifles was not an impossible step to take. A stand-off was all that was achieved as trust and confidence declined. Sinn Fein's failure to agree with all the other parties at the Dublin forum on the importance of consent reinforced anxieties that the IRA was not serious, and that the ceasefire was merely tactical.

As the Secretary of State said, a resolution of the issue was sought by the two Governments through the establishment, in November last year, of the international body. In its report, the international body took a pragmatic view on decommissioning. It said that the paramilitaries were unwilling to start to decommission before talks began, and that it was unacceptable to wait for decommissioning until the end of talks. Therefore, a compromise had to be struck. The compromise that it suggested was that as progress is made on political issues, even modest mutual steps on decommissioning could help create the atmosphere needed for further steps in a progressive pattern of mounting trust and confidence. Or, in the words of the Prime Minister, parallel decommissioning.

Then we had Canary wharf. Instead of mounting trust and confidence, we have seen this year a painful deterioration of the peace process. Politicians followed what they believed was the best way forward, but there is now little trust and no confidence. As my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) said, the events at Harryville at the weekend and previously epitomise that deterioration.

Given the weekend's events, it is sad to reflect on what we were doing a year ago. We had the successful visit of President Clinton, and were looking forward to a peaceful Christmas and the Mitchell report. We were talking about decommissioning then, and we are still talking about it now. Sadly, some people are now saying, "Why focus on discussing decommissioning in the talks process, when the people who speak for those with weapons are not all represented." That is to say that the present talks process can move forward on this issue only with the participation of Sinn Fein.

At the same time, others hold the view that the decommissioning of weapons must begin before Sinn Fein can come into the talks with other parties—in short, Washington 3. The Mitchell report is realistic, and makes it clear that that will not happen. Why, then, are we in danger of going back into that political cul-de-sac two years on?

Mr. Robert McCartney

Is the hon. Lady aware that the difference between last year and the events that have taken place since February this year make the basis of the Mitchell report irrelevant? As she well knows, the Mitchell report was based on a belief in the bona fides of Sinn Fein-IRA and in their good intentions about decommissioning, whereas the whole world knows that, at that time and since, they have been preparing for a further onslaught. Furthermore, the Mitchell report was based on a ceasefire that had held for 18 months—that was a valuable constituent part of its assessment. There is no longer a ceasefire.

Ms Mowlam

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the situation is qualitatively and quantitatively different from a year ago. I put it to him that however the talks process develops with regard to decommissioning and the achievement of another ceasefire, we have a chance of taking violence off the streets not just in Northern Ireland, but throughout Britain. To do that, we must—perhaps not in the same way—deal with issues similar to those that we were dealing with a year ago. Of course the context has changed—we have only to consider Canary wharf, Manchester and Thiepval to know exactly what has happened—but if we are to move the process forward in the months or years ahead, the same issues must be addressed in some shape or form. I accept the hon. Gentleman's point that there was then a ceasefire and now there is not.

Decommissioning must be addressed at some point in the talks process, and the best time is when a ceasefire is on the table. We should welcome the fact that some people are considering how to deal with decommissioning both before and after a ceasefire. That is a positive step. I hope that the House agrees that we should consider the work of Senator Mitchell, John de Chastelain and Hari Holkeri to overcome the present impasse, with or without a ceasefire. We must deal with the problem of a ceasefire at some point.

I shall deal with some specific aspects of the Bill, whose purpose is to facilitate decommissioning, and ask the Secretary of State for clarification. He said that clause 1 dealt with decommissioning schemes. Clause 1(b) suggests that provisions other than those in the Bill could be made for such schemes. The Secretary of State said that the aim was to retain flexibility in the process, and I understand the thoughts behind that, but it would be helpful to hear some examples of what he has in mind. He also told us that clause 4(2) gave him power to add offences to, or remove them from, the list in the schedule. Will he give an assurance—as I think he did in reply to the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith)—that, in circumstances in which "any offence" is affected, the provision will not apply retrospectively?

Will the Secretary of State give some specific instances relating to clauses 5(4) and 6(3)(a), in which an offence might be committed by use of an article that had already been decommissioned? He spoke of limits and used the term "self-contained", but one or two examples would help us to understand exactly what is referred to in those clauses.

The Secretary of State said, when discussing clause 8, that the scheme would apply in parallel in Scotland, Wales and England. Can he reassure us that the schemes in those countries will be identical to the one being introduced in Northern Ireland? He said that they would be similar, but we want to be told that they will be exactly the same.

The Labour party has consistently maintained that the principles of consent, increasing co-operation across the island of Ireland, fair treatment and respect for both traditions should be at the heart of the search for peace in Northern Ireland. We have maintained that the most progress is made when the two Governments work closely together, and the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the Downing street declaration and the framework documents are proof of that. We hope that, following today's meeting, the two Governments will continue to work closely together.

The two Prime Ministers should spare no effort in their attempts to overcome the current differences between them—differences which, we believe, are not matters of principle. It is in all our interests for the IRA to call an unequivocal ceasefire, and for Sinn Fein to commit itself, in word and deed, to the path of peace and democracy. There are differences relating to process and practice, but we hope that, with good will and determination, a resolution can be found.

We hope that the Government will maintain the determination that they have shown before to take the extra steps that are necessary to move the process forward. We know that their position in the House is not one in which any Government would like to be, and it is especially difficult for a Government who are trying to steward a process of delicate negotiations in which other parties in the House are involved. It is merely a statement of fact to say that the interests of any peace process are better served by a strong and stable Government than by a weak one. That is precisely why Opposition Members have supported the Government in their efforts to bring a lasting peace to Northern Ireland, and we will continue to do so by supporting the Bill today.

4.8 pm

Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke)

I listened to the hon. Member for Redcar (Ms Mowlam) with great interest. I do not substantially or significantly disagree with anything that she said, with one exception. That relates to what was said by the hon. Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney). I personally support the argument, which he briefly summarised, that the foundation of the Mitchell report is most substantially undermined by the fact that it was formulated on the understanding that Sinn Fein-IRA was genuinely committed to a peaceful solution.

We know that Mitchell was wrong in drawing that conclusion at the time, although the evidence, of course, was not immediately available. In that sense, his entire report is established on a misunderstanding. Greater significance should be given to that in our wider consideration of the process, and of the point that we have reached.

Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh)

Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that the Mitchell report's basic principles were reiterated in the joint communiqué of 28 February issued by the two sovereign Governments; that they quoted from Mitchell's two basic principles long after the ceasefire had been broken and long after that period of peace had ended; and that, in effect, when it was announced in the House, the joint communiqué was supported by the hon. Gentleman, who is now finding fault with it?

Mr. Hunter

The hon. Gentleman is reading too much into my observation. Of course I stand by the position adopted by the Government in February and to which I have referred many times, as have other hon. Members. I was merely supporting the point made by the hon. Member for South Down, who said that, in that one respect, Mitchell was demonstrably wrong; but I certainly stand by the report's wider context, and it is essential that we build on it in the negotiations that are taking place. I hope that that at least partially reassures the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Mallon

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hunter

I ask the hon. Gentleman to forgive me, but I will not give way again on the subject. Let us advance.

The decommissioning of illegally held weapons is central to the Government's policy on Northern Ireland, and the Bill is self-evidently central to implementing the Government's policy on decommissioning. As the explanatory memorandum states, the Bill gives expression to the guidelines on the modalities of decommissioning contained in the Report of the International Body. It is profitable, however, to view the Bill in the wider context of the process as a whole, as did the hon. Member for Redcar and my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

The entire policy was launched with the Downing street declaration, the third anniversary of which is in sight. The greater part of the declaration still stands as the guiding principles that should determine the way forward. The declaration extolled the virtue of an agreed framework for peace In that declaration, both Governments committed themselves to seeking peace, stability and reconciliation established by agreement", and undertook to encourage, facilitate and enable such agreement. The declaration also made it clear that the principle of non-violence lay at the heart of the envisaged process. In paragraph 10, both Governments confirmed that only democratically mandated parties that establish a commitment to exclusively peaceful methods and have shown that they abide by the democratic process, are free to participate fully in democratic politics. The Government have consistently argued that, if an organisation is truly committed to exclusively peaceful methods, it no longer has any need for weapons and explosives, and that a commitment to decommissioning is a logical expression of a commitment to exclusively peaceful methods. I have supported that position to the best of my ability.

As we all know, the decommissioning issue has arguably caused more dissent, ill-feeling and rancour between the participants in the process and between commentators on the process than any other single issue. There should never have been any misunderstanding about the Government's position on decommissioning, either before or after the international body's report. On many occasions, my right hon. and learned Friend summarised the position that the Government held on decommissioning until the early part of this year, which was most succinctly expressed in the so-called "Washington principles".

Hon. Members will recall the hostile reaction to that policy position, which was adopted by Irish nationalists, north and south, and by Republicans. It is worth recording, and right to recall in a debate on this Bill, that the Government were then accused—unjustly—of inserting preconditions that had not previously existed, of moving the goalposts, of changing rules after the contest had started, and of much else. The same accusations are being made today.

Hon. Members may recall that, in June 1995, Mr. Adams, in an interview with The Irish Times, stated: the demand for the surrender of IRA weapons as a precondition to negotiations by the British Government was never mentioned before August 31st, 1994. Many others echoed that point; and, today, they are re-editing the same theme in their accusations.

The record should clearly contain the fact that, two months before the Downing street declaration, in a radio programme broadcast by Radio Telefis Eireann, my right hon. and learned Friend stated that the British position included prior decommissioning. I have a transcript of the relevant section, and recordings of the broadcast are available from RTE.

On the same day as the Downing street declaration was published—in Dail Debates, volume 437, column 776—the Irish Foreign Minister acknowledged: Questions were raised on how to determine a permanent cessation of violence. We are talking about the handing up of weapons. The most graphic demonstration—to eliminate any shadow of doubt—that Mr. Adams himself knew the Government's position was that he condemned it publicly. In The Irish Times, of 8 January 1994—less than a month after the Downing street declaration, and 18 months before he claimed that the British Government had made up a new policy—Mr. Adams personally wrote: Mr. Mayhew goes on to say, 'Well, the exploratory dialogue will be so that we can discuss with Sinn Fein how the IRA will hand over its weapons. So, I say to myself, 'This is what they want. They want the IRA to stop so that Sinn Fein can have the privilege, 12 weeks later, having been properly sanitised and come out of quarantine, to have discussions with senior civil servants on how the IRA can hand over their weapons. Decommissioning must begin before the start of substantive dialogue—the Government said it, and the Irish Government said it. Mr. Adams knew the score, and he condemned it.

Mr. Robert McCartney

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that, in addition to the parliamentary brief, Prof. Paul Bew has set out, in extenso, all the occasions on which Adams and representatives of the Irish Government acknowledged in publications and in statements in the Dail, on RTE and in other media that decommissioning was a necessary and integral part of any peace process?

Mr. Hunter

I am aware of that work, and I corresponded with Prof. Bew about it more than once. I readily confess that I borrowed frequently from his research.

In the course of time, the Government's policy changed, from an insistence on prior decommissioning to not merely considering but implementing Mitchell's suggestion that decommissioning might take place in parallel with talks. The merits or otherwise of the policy change were argued, and can still be argued, at very great length. However, the fact remains that decommissioning in parallel with talks—Mitchell's compromise to end the impasse—is the Government's position, which is one from which no Government should retreat.

One understands that the Government are under pressure from the Irish Government—which is reflecting and expressing the opinion of virtually all nationalist politicians, north and south, and of the Sinn Fein political leadership, that further concessions should be made and a fast-track route to negotiations offered to Sinn Fein.

The Government, in the judgment of many of my colleagues—it is a judgment I share—should stand firm in their insistence on Mitchell's decommissioning in parallel. They should also stand by the policy position which the two Governments jointly adopted in the aftermath of the Mitchell report—the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) referred to it. For the Provisionals to be readmitted to the process, there must be an unequivocal restoration of the ceasefire, and the Provisionals, over a period that cannot be specified in advance, must establish their unequivocal commitment to peaceful means.

To put it another way, and to reflect wording that I have heard the hon. Member for Redcar (Ms Mowlam) use, the genuineness of a future Provisional ceasefire should be judged by the quality of the Provisionals' words and deeds, not just by the passing of a predetermined number of weeks or months.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

Does it not follow that that period could therefore be very short if we were to consider the quality of words and deeds? If there is an end to punishment beatings and to people being placed in exile, if the whereabouts of the bodies of the disappeared is explained, and if there are signs that Sinn Fein-IRA is moving quickly, there could be three simple steps and an open door into the talks provided in the Prime Minister's recent statement.

Mr. Hunter

If we were to indulge in a game of make-believe and think of various responses on the ground, I entirely agree that it is theoretically possible that the genuineness of a commitment to a ceasefire could be established in a relatively short time, but I will not be drawn too far down that path. The hon. Gentleman is seeking to reverse the principle that I outlined. What matters is the quality of the words and deeds that follow a ceasefire, not the quantity of a passage of time.

Mr. McNamara

That is a point worth pursuing. The hon. Gentleman is arguing the Government's case. If we are looking at the quality of actions after a ceasefire has been declared, why can we not at the same time give a date and say that, by that date, we shall have judged the quality of what has been offered from the declaration of the ceasefire to that date?

Mr. Hunter

I will not pursue that line too far. Certainly, as the hon. Gentleman says, I am adopting a position in support of the Government. I believe that the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Westminster, North (Sir J. Wheeler), will be winding up the debate. Clearly, he is far better qualified than I, but my short answer to the hon. Gentleman's question is that, once we impose the artificial factor of a date, we shall be complicating and compounding the issue, not coming up with a simple solution.

I was referring to the need for the Provisionals to establish a genuine commitment to exclusively peaceful means over a period that cannot be specified, and I was expressing the opinion that a change in Government policy would be undesirable. Indeed, it would be more than that—it would be disastrous. I believe that it would be received very badly by many hon. Members of all parties, and rightly so. I do not believe that any Unionist of honour and calibre could or would remain at the talks in such circumstances—as the Provisionals walked into the negotiations through one door, every self-respecting Unionist would walk out through another.

Above all, the Provisionals would see such a concession by the Government as further evidence that eventually British Governments always give way to force or the threat of force. That would be their perception, and it would merely encourage them to remain intransigent, and to continue their ballot box and Armalite tactics.

The modalities of decommissioning outlined by Mitchell in the report emerged from his dialogue with the two Governments and the parties. I have no reason to doubt that they reflect a consensus of opinion that was put to him.

I am concerned about only one aspect of the Bill. I accept the principle of amnesty from prosecution for people who handle weapons or explosives in the process of the decommissioning scheme. However, I am concerned about banning detective work on those weapons once they are in the possession of the authorities.

The Royal Ulster Constabulary will have spent a great deal of time trying to bring to justice the perpetrators of some horrific crimes, and I hope that it will continue to do so. It seems strange that a possible source of evidence, intelligence or information in the possession of the authorities as a result of decommissioning should not be available to the RUC. Perhaps I am missing the point. No doubt it will be forcefully explained to me in due course. I accept the principle of amnesty from prosecution for individuals handling weapons and explosives in the course of implementing the scheme, but I find it hard to accept that no further work should be done on those weapons.

Apart from that point, I accept and support the Bill. However, my overriding reaction—this does not detract from or otherwise qualify my support for the Government and for my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State—is that the Bill is unlikely to play a part in transforming the politics of Northern Ireland; nor will it feature in the long-awaited solution to the Irish question.

I suspect that, at some time—perhaps in the not too distant future—Sinn Fein will announce a second ceasefire, but my understanding is that the Provisionals are not remotely interested in anything other than the remorseless advance of their political objectives. A future ceasefire would be purely tactical, just as the previous one was. There is no evidence that the provisional republican movement is preparing for anything other than a continuation of its Armalite and ballot box strategy. I hope that events will prove me wrong, but I fear that the provisionals are exploiting the good intentions of the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume), and taking him for a ride.

4.27 pm
Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

On behalf of some of my hon. Friends, I apologise to you, Madam Speaker, and to the Secretary of State for their absence at the moment. Unfortunately, travel from Northern Ireland has been inhibited by the familiar problems with air traffic control. The flights this morning were running one and a half or two hours late. I should not be surprised if some of my colleagues who were hoping to take part in the debate arrived in the next half hour. I trust that they will be given some indulgence for their failure to be here at the beginning.

In broad terms—very broad terms, subject to reservations that I shall mention later—I welcome the fact that the Bill is being introduced and debated. The hon. Member for Redcar (Ms Mowlam) referred to the situation in Northern Ireland a year ago. As she pointed out, President Clinton had just visited Belfast. It was a time of a significant outpouring of feeling, with people demonstrating their welcome to him and to the fact that Northern Ireland had been at peace for some time. They endorsed that peace, and wanted it to continue. They were also looking forward to Christmas.

A year ago, however, we did not know that Sinn Fein-IRA had already decided to resume violence. Furthermore, the decision had been taken even before President Clinton arrived in Northern Ireland. As he toured Northern Ireland and we celebrated the peace that then existed, construction of the bomb that exploded on 9 February in Canary wharf had already started, and the organisation had committed itself to the resumption of violence.

Nor, in retrospect, should we have been surprised by that decision. Let us cast our minds back to September 1995, when the British Government were endeavouring to persuade the Irish Government to support the creation of what became known as the Mitchell commission, the international body on the decommissioning of weapons, and the notorious meeting in west Belfast attended by Martin McGuiness and Gerry Adams and two senior Irish civil servants—the Secretary to the Cabinet, Paddy Teahon, and a senior civil servant in the Department of Foreign Affairs, Sean o'hUiginn—when the Irish civil servants were told that, if the Irish Government endorsed and participated in the British Government's proposals to establish a commission on the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons, the ceasefire would be over and there would be bodies in the street.

I should say in fairness that the threat was not uttered by Gerry Adams, but by a fifth person present at the meeting. However, I see no reason to doubt that the words accurately represented the views expressed by Adams and McGuiness, although in a somewhat stark form.

Towards the end of November, as it became clear that the decommissioning commission was about to get under way, the decision was taken to end the ceasefire in circumstances that resulted in bodies in the streets. We should not be surprised by that, because the establishment of the international commission on decommissioning, with all its imperfections, was a clear signal to Sinn Fein-IRA that decommissioning was being treated seriously and would not be brushed aside.

A year ago, it was clear that the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons, with all the difficulties involved, was being taken seriously, and that the Government would not consent to some arrangement whereby the issue was kicked into the long grass and forgotten. I trust that that continues to be the position of the Government and any future Government.

Decommissioning must be treated seriously, as it affects issues of confidence. If it is not treated seriously, the communities in Northern Ireland will not have confidence in the peace process. Therefore, it affects the validity of the process itself.

Some have asked us why we worry so much about it, as weapons—even those decommissioned as part of the beginning of a process—can always be replaced, and parties can make a commitment to peaceful means and then abandon it and return to violence as Sinn Fein-IRA did last year. However, we treat the issue of decommissioning as a litmus test of their intentions. Of course we want those intentions to be stated in clear words, but in view of the organisations involved, words alone are not sufficient, but must be reinforced by action. Although a variety of actions may be relevant, decommissioning would be an extremely good litmus test of their good intentions.

The United Kingdom, for all its imperfections, is a democracy that substantially extends to Northern Ireland. As a democracy, we cannot give legitimacy to terrorism or the use of violence, so, in the words of the Downing street declaration, we have to insist that organisations that have been involved in violence commit themselves to peaceful means, and show a willingness to abide by the democratic process. The hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) quoted the relevant paragraph of the Downing street declaration, which is still valid and which must remain the foundation of policy and of the approach to the problem.

As hon. Members have pointed out, the report of Mitchell commission, which came in January 1995, has to some extent been undermined by events. The report was based on an assessment of the intentions of paramilitary organisations which has since turned out to be optimistic.

The assessment reflected Mitchell's belief that there was a willingness on the part of paramilitary organisations to work towards the decommissioning of their weapons. As a result, when considering the ideas and proposals that Mitchell put forward, we must do so against the background that his assessment of paramilitary organisations' intentions was optimistic. We must not reproduce that optimistic assessment. In view of all that has happened over the past year, a healthy dose of scepticism—if I can use that word without causing fear among Conservative Members—is necessary in our approach to this matter.

Indeed, in view of the events of the past year, I echo the comment made towards the end of his speech by the hon. Member for Basingstoke—one senses some unreality when considering the Bill, because one has difficulty believing that decommissioning along the lines it envisages will actually occur. To illustrate at least some hon. Members' sense of unreality about the process, one has only to call as witness the acres of empty Benches currently surrounding us. Other hon. Members evidently do not regard decommissioning as a serious prospect. None the less, it is important that the Bill be considered and enacted.

In the report of the international body called the Mitchell commission, it was proposed—rightly so—that there should be an international verification commission in respect of decommissioning. That central concept is important: if decommissioning is to occur, we have to ensure that it is carried out properly, and that it does indeed occur.

Most of the terrorist weapons and munitions held on behalf of Sinn Fein-IRA are not in the United Kingdom—there are some in Northern Ireland and some in England, and there might even be some on the continent, but most are in the Irish Republic. Indeed, it is no secret that most of those in the Irish Republic are in the south, in the area stretching between Limerick and Cork.

The stores in that area were constructed to hide the large quantities of munitions that Sinn Fein-IRA obtained from Gaddafi's Libya, and most of that consignment of weaponry is still there. If decommissioning is to take place in respect of republican organisations' weaponry, most of the decommissioning will therefore take place in the Republic of Ireland. Against that background, it is necessary that we have an international verification commission so that we can be certain that such decommissioning is taking place on a proper basis.

To make that point absolutely clear, let me state that we would not be satisfied with reliance on the words or statements of the Irish Government or its servants or agents in respect of decommissioning—we could not rely on assurances emanating from such sources. In order to be sure that decommissioning takes place within the Republic of Ireland, it is crucial that we have independent verification that it is taking place: an international commission would provide that verification, independent of terrorist organisations and independent of the Government of the state in which such decommissioning takes place. Of course, the relevant Government will have an input, and there will be a variety of people on the commission or serving it, but the commission must have the character of independence, so as to enable us to be sure.

There will be reservations about the fact that we do not have the detail in the legislation on that point to be sure that the commission will have the requisite quality of independence. Nor do we have sufficient detail in the legislation to be sure that the international verification commission will be able to conduct its work, because to do so it will require information. It will have to be able to acquire information, and it will have to be able to move on the premises under which it operates. It must be able to go where it wants and to see what it wants to see.

One of our concerns is whether, if the commission were entirely dependent on the grace and favour of the Government of the country in which it was operating, we could be sure that it could acquire the necessary information and have the necessary capacity to conduct its inquiries, or to go where it wants to go and to see what it needs to see. The legislation, because of its framework character, does not give us the information to be sure on those points. Perhaps the points will be contained in the decommissioning scheme. I would welcome whatever information the Government can give us on that point.

I am concerned especially because there is to be no statutory basis, as such, for the commission. It is clear from the legislation that the commission will be created as a result of an agreement with the Irish Republic under royal prerogative. I am concerned that the use of the royal prerogative to establish the commission may mean that the commission will not have the powers it needs. Perhaps it is intended to contain those powers within the decommissioning schemes, but we should be given some indication of that during the debate. I would welcome whatever the Minister has to say on that point.

I had not intended to cover the technicalities just yet, but there are other general observations to be made about the legislation. Mitchell reported in January; consequently, it was in January that Mitchell pointed out the need for an independent international verification commission, and also made the point that that commission would need to have a legal basis in both the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.

We accept that central point. The point was made in January, and we are now in December. We have had more than 10 months of delay. It was immediately clear, on the publication of the Mitchell report at the end of January, that it would be necessary to bring forward legislation, and I and my colleagues made that point in January and February. Indeed, when my right hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor) and I, together with the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis), spoke to the Irish Government on that point on 11 March, we reinforced the need to bring forward legislation on that point.

We were given to understand, on 11 March by the Irish Government, that steps would be taken on the necessary legislation in advance of the elections in Northern Ireland. Those elections took place on 30 May. The Irish Government did not give us an undertaking that the legislation would be on the statute book and fully operational by then, but they did say that, before 30 May, we would see that the matter was being dealt with. That date came and no action had been taken.

I note that the Secretary of State said today that the Irish Government intend to introduce the necessary legislation very soon. We had discussions with the Irish Government on that point in September—I have to acknowledge that they showed us a draft Bill, which was not that dissimilar from the Bill in front of us—and assured us that the legislation would be on the statute book before Christmas. I suppose that there is still a bit of time to go before Christmas, and that the Irish Government could rush the legislation through. I am not sure when the Irish Parliament rises for its Christmas recess, but I doubt whether the legislation will be on the statute book before Christmas.

I refer to those matters to make the point that, in March and in September, we received assurances from the Irish Government on the necessary legislation as evidence of their good faith. The assurances given in March were not honoured, and the assurances given in September have not been honoured.

Conclusions can be drawn from that about the seriousness with which the Irish Government are committed to decommissioning and to the talks. The failure of the Irish Government to honour their assurances on those matters raises serious questions in Northern Ireland about whether they are committed to the process or whether they are going through the motions. Those are serious issues, which the Irish Government have to address, and I am sorry to say that their conduct so far does not give us any reassurance.

The whole process of decommissioning depends on whether those involved in terrorist operations in Northern Ireland are willing to commit themselves to peaceful means and to proceed along the path indicated in the legislation. There are several terrorist organisations in Northern Ireland. Most of my comments so far have been directed towards Sinn Fein-IRA, but it is appropriate also to notice the existence of other terrorist organisations—the Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force. Unlike Sinn Fein-IRA, those organisations have sustained their ceasefire, and we should recognise that they have done so despite considerable provocation.

We expect, of course, that that ceasefire will be maintained. There is no justification for the resumption of violence, and we trust that that will not happen. We re-echo the many appeals that we have made to the leadership of those organisations to sustain their ceasefire. We note also that those organisations have indicated a willingness to decommission their weapons in parallel with Sinn Fein-IRA. That is consistent with the reference in the Mitchell report to mutual decommissioning.

We trust that the commitments that have been made by the political representatives of those paramilitary organisations to decommissioning alongside Sinn Fein-IRA, when the time comes, will be remembered and adhered to. In a sense, the political representatives of those organisations have delivered post-dated cheques to the rest of us, which will have to be called upon when the time comes. The time will come when a Sinn Fein ceasefire is also in place and what is now an academic issue will have to be put into practice.

I see no advantage in insisting that other paramilitary organisations should commence decommissioning in advance of Sinn Fein-IRA, generally desirable though that might be. I see no point in pressing the matter when that might bring about the end of the ceasefires that are now in existence. While those organisations—the UDA and the UVF—have to make a commitment to decommissioning, and have to be prepared to implement it when the time comes, we must be realistic about the present situation.

The time will come—if it does—when there is a ceasefire by Sinn Fein, and that will also raise the question of its entry into the talks. That matter has been the subject of some comment recently, and it is important that we should touch on it in our debate.

We have said that the previous ceasefire was not a genuine one; we know that to be so, and we endorse the Prime Minister's comments at the weekend. We know now that work on the Canary wharf bomb was in hand a year ago, at the time of the presidential visit. We also know that, within a matter of weeks of the declaration of the ceasefire at the end of August 1994, Sinn Fein-IRA was taking steps to acquire safe houses and safe stores, and to put in place the stockpile of munitions that the police found in London a few months ago. We know that to have been the case, and we therefore know that the last ceasefire was not genuine. If there is a fresh ceasefire which raises the issue of entry into talks, and consequently decommissioning as proposed by the Bill, we need to know that it is genuine.

Some three weeks ago, President Clinton stated at a press conference held shortly after his re-election that there needed to be a "genuine cessation" of violence, and those words carry with them the notion of permanence. He went on to say that the parties needed to know that the killing would not begin again, either in Great Britain or in Northern Island. That underlines the need for permanence and for any ceasefire to be effective throughout the United Kingdom.

We are concerned that a ceasefire applicable only to Northern Ireland may be announced, and that there is an intention to continue violence in the rest of the United Kingdom. That will not be sufficient. Hon. Members must appreciate that the rest of the United Kingdom is perhaps under more threat than Northern Ireland from a continuing campaign by Sinn Fein-IRA.

There is a strong belief within Sinn Fein-IRA that major terrorist incidents on the mainland—specifically in London—have driven the Government into making political concessions, and will do so in the future. That is its belief, and although hon. Members may consider it to be ill founded, it exists. Until Sinn Fein-IRA is disabused of that belief, there is no prospect of it making a genuine attempt to commit itself to peaceful means. However, a good first step would be for members of Sinn Fein-IRA to use terms that suggest permanence, and which show that they have turned away from violence and are committing themselves to exclusively peaceful means and to the democratic process.

It is for Sinn Fein-IRA to find the words that carry conviction. As a general rule, we are reluctant to suggest the words that should or could be used, because they would be taken as the maximum statement, which then would be whittled away. Obviously, we need an indication that it is repudiating violence, and we need a commitment to the democratic process, but we also need something that Sinn Fein has so far failed to provide—an indication of its willingness to accept the principle of consent. Although those would be positive indicators, words in themselves will not suffice, because of the deception during the previous ceasefire.

Words must be matched by actions, and a range of actions can be undertaken. Again, I am reluctant to suggest any particular actions, as they could be seen as the maximum and could be whittled away. There are actions that suggest a genuine commitment to peaceful means and that a ceasefire is genuine, but equally there are actions that show that a ceasefire is not genuine.

For an example of the latter, we have only to point to the horrific paramilitary beatings that occurred in Northern Ireland last weekend. We can also point to the continuing social and economic terrorism in parts of Northern Ireland, and to the attacks on the identity and culture of the British people in Northern Ireland that are continuing on a wide scale.

One deprecates the reactions to those attacks, particularly when they take the form of the blockade of the Catholic church in Harryiville, Ballymena, which has been referred to tonight. I must state how proud we in the Ulster Unionist party are of the action taken by the Ulster Unionist mayor of Ballymena and by his councillors who turned out to support him and demonstrated their solidarity. Would that more people did the same, and would that that were done with regard to other analogous events—some of which have occurred quite close to Ballymena.

Far too many incidents that show the absence of a commitment to peaceful means are going on in Northern Ireland. As the Prime Minister said the other day, we need to see words, actions and circumstances that are consistent with a commitment to peaceful means and to the democratic process. It is not particularly desirable to define those too closely, nor is it desirable to be drawn into discussions on time frames. If there is a genuine commitment to peaceful means and to the democratic process, it will be pretty obvious.

Similarly, if there is only an ambiguous commitment and an attempt to re-run the insincere ceasefire of August 1994, it will also be apparent, and we should act accordingly. If, as is likely, there is no commitment to peaceful means and to the democratic process, the detailed provisions of the legislation will become somewhat academic. None the less, it is desirable that this legislation be on the statute book, so that the opportunity is there for the process to move forward if such a commitment is made.

There are some minor comments on the legislation that I wish to make, some of which I have foreshadowed—particularly with regard to the constitution and powers of the verification commission. These are important matters, but perhaps it is more appropriate that they be teased out in Committee. However, it is important to put down a marker for that issue.

We have concerns about the decommissioning schemes, as the legislation provides for schemes to operate for up to five years from the date of the legislation. There is an inconsistency here with the legislation under which the talks are taking place which was passed in the spring of this year and led to the elections on 30 May. That legislation provided for a talks process which, beginning on 30 May, lasted for one year and was extendable to two years; so it is envisaged that the talks process is to last for two years, but that the decommissioning process is to last for five years.

However, we are told that we are dealing with the concept of "parallel decommissioning". Something is out of sync, and I should be grateful for an explanation of this apparent inconsistency. I appreciate that this matter too is best pursued in Committee.

The Bill contains provision for a very limited amnesty, and it is important that hon. Members appreciate how limited that amnesty will be. Use of the word "amnesty" in the context of the terrorism within the British Isles during the past 25 years quite understandably gives rise to sensitivities. None of us wants to see an amnesty for the crimes that have been committed, and I understand that that is neither the Government's intention nor what is provided for in the Bill.

It is important that the community realises that this Bill does not offer any amnesty for terrorist crimes, and that the amnesty is there to facilitate the destruction, decommissioning or surrender of illegally held weapons and other munitions. There have been several weapons amnesties within the United Kingdom following particular incidents, and they have generally depended simply on the discretion not to prosecute. I can understand the need to provide a statutory basis on this occasion, but the amnesty will relate to the possession of illegally held weapons that have been decommissioned, and not to any terrorist crimes that have been committed.

Having accepted that a limited amnesty exists, I must express concern about the provisions on forensic testing. I very much agree with the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) on this matter. He queried the Secretary of State, whose answer was most unsatisfactory. He merely acknowledged that the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed was right; of course he was right, but what he was saying involved a significant criticism of the legislation, and that criticism was not answered.

I can understand the idea that some forensic material should not be admissible in court, but that should not prevent the carrying out of forensic tests to determine whether the weapon decommissioned has in fact been used in the course of terrorism. That is an even more significant point for any decommissioning scheme for Great Britain.

I understand the reluctance of some police forces in England and Wales to approve of decommissioning, because it could be used by criminals to get rid of hot weapons that have been used for what we in Northern Ireland call ordinary crime. That is undesirable, and a scheme should be applicable only to weapons held by or for the purposes of terrorist organisations. There should therefore be no objection to having a provision in the legislation for forensic tests. One could provide that such evidence would not be admissible in court, thus preserving the inducement to terrorist organisations to decommission, while still enabling us to verify that the right weapons are being decommissioned.

I welcome clause 8. It concerns a matter on which I have often pressed the Secretary of State and his colleagues, so I am glad that provision has been made. Were the clause not there, the legislation would send the wrong signals to the community in Northern Ireland, and could be interpreted by people on both sides of the fence as meaning that terrorist crimes there were not viewed as seriously as terrorist crimes in England and Wales.

However, I am disturbed by the way in which the Secretary of State introduced the provision. He said that the schemes would operate in England and Wales only if, in the light of progress with all-party talks, they proved to be desirable. Such schemes are desirable irrespective of whether there is progress, and I trust that such a scheme will go ahead in Northern Ireland regardless. I am concerned about the contingent nature of the reference to the schemes in England and Wales. I hope that the Minister of State will address that point when he winds up. We can deal with other points of detail in Committee.

The current inter-party talks have been dealing with these matters for some time, and at considerable length. As we said in our paper at the beginning of October, the issue of decommissioning should be dealt with satisfactorily. We see no reason for its having held up the talks for the past two or more months. We were not asking for everything to be concluded to our satisfaction, or for the legislation to be on the statute book and the commission in place, before moving on.

We regard it as important, however, for the legislation to be put on the statute book, and for the international verification commission to be set up as quickly as possible. In the interval before the commission's establishment, some of those who are likely to serve on it should commence work to deal with the issues.

We told the other parties in the talks at the beginning of October that, if we were given satisfactory assurances about the implementation of the legislation, the establishment of the commission and, crucially, the procedures that would apply if and when Sinn Fein entered the process, the talks could proceed to substantive issues. We regret the fact that our generous and reasonable position did not receive a sufficient response, especially from the Irish Government.

Mr. Mallon

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Trimble

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I have spoken for long enough, and other Northern Ireland Members are waiting to speak, so I will ask him to follow up the point when he makes his speech.

The Irish Government's delay in introducing legislation, and their failure to implement the assurances that they gave us in March and August leave a serious question in our minds about their commitment. We remember the comment made by the close adviser of the Irish Foreign Minister, that the talks were not worth a penny candle. I am sorry to say that the attitude adopted by the Irish Government in the talks in the past two months clearly shows that they have no commitment to the process. That is bad from the point of view of reinforcing the democratic process, which, at the end of the day, is what we are all supposed to be about.

5.4 pm

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North)

I agree with the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) that we are talking about something that may not happen, but if it does happen, it will be important for us to have considered it extremely carefully.

No one could reasonably quarrel with the details of the Bill, which arise from the Mitchell committee's report. I accept the absolute need for clause 6 if the paramilitaries on either side are to have any confidence about the forensic testing of any weapons or other materials that might be surrendered. It is of the utmost importance that they should feel confident that the surrendering of such material will not be followed through in any way whatever.

That does not mean that those who have been involved in evil and criminal offences will not be prosecuted, nor that the proper authorities should not pursue their researches to try to bring such people to court. Nothing should be done—especially not in the way suggested by the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter)—that would in any way act as an inhibition on the proper surrendering of weapons.

Earlier, I interrupted the Secretary of State to ask him about the role of the international commission: whether it was to be a technical body, supervising the military capacity, the giving up of arms and their destruction, or whether it was at any time to be given a political role that could take over the proper function of Governments or of parties to the talks. I did not get as clear-cut an answer as I had hoped for.

It is important, in view of discussions and conversations that have been conducted in the past and of suggestions that have been made by members of parties, that at no time should any power of a political nature be given to the international commission dealing with the verification of the surrendering of arms. In particular, the commission should not take the political decision as to when it is right and proper to embark on a course of action: that should be the role of Governments and parties.

It must be underlined that the surrender of arms will not necessarily be to either of the sovereign Governments. We seek only the verification of the armaments' destruction. The paramilitaries will look to the commission for protection of their position, for verification that they have surrendered what they claim to have surrendered, and for an assurance that no pressure will be exerted on them to surrender their arms to Government representatives.

I believe that the people responsible for the breakdown in the ceasefire were no other than the IRA. They had no justification for breaking it. But the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister have been very sensitive to the criticism that they were dilatory in their approach to bringing Sinn Fein into the talks after the ceasefire was declared. I happen to believe that it was a mistake to start ratcheting up the hurdles over which Sinn Fein had to jump before it could enter the talks. That was, I believe, based on a misunderstanding of how the paramilitaries, especially the republican paramilitaries, viewed the situation.

The republican paramilitaries regarded themselves as having instigated a ceasefire. Furthermore, they regarded themselves as a legitimate army—which no Member of this House would accept. They believed that they began the ceasefire to facilitate the commencement of talks. In no way did they regard themselves as committed to the surrender of their arms or ammunition. Indeed, they found the idea that they should give up some arms tantamount to admitting that they were in the wrong and that they were being asked to surrender to superior force.

The Government did not appreciate this attitude; instead, by imposing conditions on Sinn Fein's entry to the talks, the Government made Sinn Fein feel humiliated. As much as anything else, that led to a breakdown of confidence, just as there had been such a breakdown on the other side.

Mr. Hunter

Will the hon. Gentleman deal with the point that I made? In January 1994, less than a month after the Downing street declaration and some eight months or more before the IRA ceasefire, Mr. Adams was perfectly well aware of the fact that the British Government were thinking in terms of prior decommissioning—indeed, he said as much in a newspaper interview on 8 January.

Mr. McNamara

I am quite prepared to accept that Mr. Adams knew that; whether he accepted it is an entirely different matter. I believe we should recognise that the opportunity was lost.

Today we are again losing an opportunity. For the life of me I cannot see why, if a ceasefire is declared, we cannot stipulate a date by when talks would commence. The hon. Member for Basingstoke said that that would complicate and compound the difficulties; but if we want not just a declaration of a ceasefire but demonstrable action to show that it is in operation there can surely be no problem about declaring such a date. Without it, we will return to the problem of the past: the Government will keep extending the time limit, and there will be pressures to do so in this House from certain parties, sometimes on other issues, which will force an extension of the deadline. That has already happened before—

Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry)

I am curious as to whether the hon. Gentleman is prepared to detail to the House the measures that he believes the IRA and other terrorist organisations must take to convince him that they have given up on violence. Yesterday the Prime Minister made it perfectly plain that his attitude will be determined by the intelligence that he receives, not by the IRA's public pronouncements.

Mr. McNamara

If we are to depend on intelligence operations, the information from which is given to the Prime Minister so that he can make his decision, hon. Members will be unable to examine that information. We will be left with judging by what we learn from the media and by what we are told. As for the hon. Gentleman's request for a catalogue of items that would prove a cessation of violence, I do not think it would be right to go into that now—any more than the leader of the hon. Gentleman's party was prepared to do.

The Government must be prepared to recognise the extent of the shock created by what happened at Drumcree, and the effect that it had not just on the nationalist community in Northern Ireland but on the rest of the United Kingdom. It was seen that the rule of law was flouted; in the face of a threatened mass mobilisation the police changed their minds. There are some on the republican side who ask: what is the qualitative difference between Drumcree and other incidents when the rule of law has been broken or flouted? There are undoubtedly quantitative differences, but I am talking about the principle. There are people sitting in the talks today who took part in the disgraceful episodes at Drumcree—

Mr. Trimble

Would the hon. Gentleman care to be more specific?

Mr. McNamara

If the cap fits, the hon. Gentleman should wear it—

Mr. Trimble

But the hon. Gentleman has no specifics.

Mr. McNamara

It remains true that the organisation of the events at Drumcree amounted to a deliberate flouting of the law.

I shall support the passage of this legislation because I want it to come into operation. If it comes into operation, that will mean that the talks are under way, with Sinn Fein present at them. I believe that by setting a date the Government would be putting Sinn Fein-IRA on notice to prove its integrity, its honesty and its sincerity. For the Prime Minister and the British Government, that would be far more sensible than spinning out the process into never-never land beyond 1 May.

5.18 pm
Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh)

I wish to deal with two points that arose earlier in the debate. First, the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) said that the hon. Member for Foyle had been taken for a ride. I do not know—time will tell—who takes whom for a ride in the business of politics in the north of Ireland, but whoever takes the hon. Member for Foyle for a ride will have thought long and hard about it and will have done something that nobody within or outside his party has ever done during his political career. I leave it at that. I assume no false modesty when I make a factual observation about something that I know rather well.

The second point is the reference to the Irish Government made by the hon. Member for Foyle. It is not my business to look after any sovereign Government; I am usually at odds with them. I simply make the observation that the hon. Member for Foyle—

Mr. McNamara

For Upper Bann, not for Foyle.

Mr. Mallon

What a Freudian mistake! The hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) doubted the Irish Government's commitment to decommissioning and to the entire process. Like me, he will be in Castle buildings tomorrow and, like me, if he has doubts, he can put them to the test by moving directly and immediately into the substantive negotiations. If he is right, he will have called their bluff and established whether that commitment exists. If the hon. Gentleman has that type of reservation, the obvious thing to do is to call their bluff and find out. That is the only way in which many things, not least the position of Sinn Fein, will be established in this entire process, whenever it ends—or perhaps I should say whenever it starts.

Four matters are fundamental to this debate on decommissioning. The first is simple and prosaic. Illegal arms can be removed from any society in only two ways: they can be taken out, or talked out. I wait to hear another alternative. They can be taken out through the efforts of the security forces and of Governments, or they can be talked out in a political context that is geared towards talking them out.

Have the two sovereign Governments on the island of Ireland, despite their enormous panoply of power, security and extra-security measures, and legislative measures—the whole corpus of security that has existed in the past 25 years in Ireland, north and south—been able to decommission through security methods in the past 25 years? I wish that the answer were yes because things would then be much easier for people in the north of Ireland, much easier for everyone politically, and much more realistic in terms of the political process in which we are involved.

Mr. Robert McCartney


Mr. Mallon

If the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney) intends to say that decommissioning has taken place through the security process, I shall gladly give him the opportunity to confirm it.

Mr. McCartney

I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman about my powers as a clairvoyant. I can assure him, however, that the view of many people in Northern Ireland is that the two sovereign Governments have not really committed themselves to a process of taking arms out of circulation. Had they done so, we might not now be seeing a futile attempt to talk them out.

Mr. Mallon

I am glad that the hon. and learned Gentleman has clarified the matter. I understand that clairvoyance means looking into the future; I asked for a judgment on the past. The hon. and learned Gentleman has just questioned the motivation and integrity of successive Governments in this House for the past 25 years. Not to take seriously the decommissioning of weapons through security methods is to breach the most fundamental element of integrity that any Government must show. I often criticise this and other Governments but I do not question their integrity in terms of their intention and effort to take out those arms.

I am surprised that such a point should be made, given the evidence that exists throughout the north of Ireland—I say this not in a pejorative sense—of the inability to decommission through the security method. I do not call it a failure because it could not have been done successfully. Rather, it is an inability to decommission weapons through the normal security channels. Indeed, I have never heard anyone argue convincingly that decommissioning is a decisive security measure, however desirable it may be. Many senior security people have made it clear, publicly and privately, that it is essentially a political issue. It was never part of a realistic security strategy.

That is the first basic point. From that premise stems a number of other factors. The second basic point, which is palatable to none of us who live in the north of Ireland or elsewhere, is that if we accept that first premise we must view decommissioning and its successful conclusion as a voluntary exercise, which, logically and necessarily, requires the co-operation of those who hold the weapons. If we are serious about decommissioning or creating the context in which decommissioning can take place, we must—hon. Members will excuse the pun—all bite the bullet.

As I said initially, we can either take out or talk out illegal weapons. Taking out did not work; talking out might work but it must be tried, otherwise the criticism of the hon. Member for North Down could be legitimate.

The Governments, with their vast security operations, have been pursuing a decommissioning policy for years, rightly seeking out and confiscating illegal weapons wherever they can be found. They will continue to do that and I hope that they are successful. However, that should not be confused with the other element of the exercise. Some people want to treat decommissioning as a matter that can simply be pre-emptively imposed on the paramilitaries. They seem to think that simply by saying, "You must decommission", decommissioning will take place at some time in the future. That is a fallacy and nonsense, and it will not happen. Nor will it happen through a security operation or series of them, irrespective of their efficiency.

When will people—I mean mainly Members of the House and in the political parties in the north of Ireland, who have come face to face with the problem and who have an emotional and a symbolic difficulty with it, as I have—start to recognise and explain to their followers that what they profess to accept involves a process of negotiations and a commitment to engage and persuade those who hold weapons that the political path is the only way forward? If we accept that there are only two options—to take illegal weapons out or to talk them out—we must accept that talking them out involves a political process. That involves negotiations, and that means negotiations with the people who hold the weapons. That is the difficulty. Biting that bullet will be the most significant factor in solving this part of the process, if the process ever starts.

The third undeniable fact is that, according to the logic of the Mitchell report, which the Government have accepted and on which they have based the Bill, and which the hon. Member for Basingstoke has accepted, decommissioning will never happen unless it is a by-product of the political process. That is another difficult reality for all of us to accept. In terms of the Mitchell report implemented to the full, decommissioning will not happen unless it stems from a political process—in other words, derives from negotiations.

The Mitchell report is clear that political progress and confidence must come first. That is, in any case, common sense to anyone who considers the context in which the paramilitaries on both sides operate. After the events of the past summer, that should be starkly etched on all our minds. Paragraph 16 of the report makes that clear. Paragraph 35 makes it even more abundantly clear that if we cannot take illegal arms out, we must talk them out, and there is only one way in which that can be done.

The fourth factor identified by Mitchell is that decommissioning must take place on a mutual basis as between both sets of paramilitaries. In that case, decommissioning can come about only as a result of a fully inclusive negotiated process. To get IRA weapons on a mutual basis as defined by Mitchell and as accepted by the Secretary of State and by the hon. Member for Upper Bann in his speech, it must be mutual between two sets of paramilitaries: the IRA and the loyalist paramilitaries. For that to happen, the harsh reality—like it or not, and some people do not like it—is that the representatives of the IRA will be there to take part in the negotiations.

It is not enough to say that one accepts the Mitchell report if one does not accept its logic. If one accepts its logic, one must accept, reluctantly or otherwise, that the paragraph about mutuality means the involvement and presence of those who would speak for the IRA in the negotiations.

One of the inconsistencies in the debate—in the talks, in the House and in Northern Ireland—is the refusal to face up to the logic of the international commission report that we have accepted. We cannot move away from the realities of it. If we do move away, we must ask ourselves whether we should go on to something new, or back to the original thesis that the arms can be taken out of the equation in some other way.

Let us remind ourselves why the Mitchell report was written: because of the inability of the people of the north of Ireland and the two Governments on the island of Ireland to resolve the matter themselves: "mea culpa" on everyone's part. That is why Mitchell, de Chalestain and Holkeri came. That is why they met all the political parties and both Governments. They were invited by the Governments to come and try to solve a problem which could not be solved previously.

I do not hear anyone disputing that, so surely we must accept the logic of the case presented by those who drew up the report. Mitchell cannot be accepted a la carte. One cannot take the little bits that happen to fit and discard the rest. One cannot say that it was relevant to a certain time, and that after a certain date it is no longer relevant. One cannot take the parts that suit one's own political view and dispense with the others.

The real value of Mitchell's report is that he has taken away some of the more distracting elements and honed it down to the logic of the position in the north of Ireland and the possibility of achieving decommissioning, either through the security method or through the political process.

There are other means by which to measure people's reactions. The hon. Member for Upper Bann spoke of litmus tests. Let me present some litmus tests of the arguments that we have heard about decommissioning. I address these directly to the Government and to many hon. Members. Do we all accept that the way forward is to implement all aspects of the Mitchell report, or is there an à la carte approach to salvage the unreal preconditions that the report was designed to overcome? Can one have Washington 3 under any other name, while at the same time espousing the Mitchell report? Everyone should consider that as the first question. A remarkable stream of illogicality derives from that inconsistency. One cannot seek a precondition, as in Washington 3, while claiming to accept and support Mitchell.

Secondly, I should like to hear those who would argue against that stating that there is no decommissioning because it is not possible in security and military terms, and will eventually come about through the political process. That will be shock for the body politic in the north of Ireland—it was a shock for the body politic here, for me and for many others. However, if there is to be intellectual and political honesty, we must face that question and resolve it.

The third litmus test concerns those who argue for preconditions. Do they accept that decommissioning requires an all-inclusive process? If so, how will we advance the condition necessary for that all-inclusive process which alone can deliver decommissioning? To be more negative: can we ever have decommissioning if the process is not all inclusive? To put it still more crudely: can we negotiate decommissioning without those who are charged by the republican movement to negotiate it? It is that difficult but, in many ways, that simple. It is simple in all its complexities and harsh in all its implications.

We should consider what to do about the other Mitchell criteria. Is a meaningful and inclusive process of negotiations being genuinely offered? They are the words not only of Mitchell but of a joint communique from the two Governments on 28 February following the breakdown of the ceasefire and the resumption of violence. In that joint communique—I think it is paragraph 28—the two Governments saw fit to identify that criterion as being fundamental to the entire process. If that joint communique means anything—and many on the Unionist side have invoked aspects of it—a meaningful and inclusive process must be offered to those who represent republican violence if there is to be a scintilla of hope of achieving decommissioning through the negotiating process.

We must consider those points carefully. Of course, we can use forms of words to get around anything or to paper over the real problem. The Governments have primary responsibility for the security, protection and well-being of all those within their jurisdiction. On the island of Ireland, the two Governments are responsible for protecting the people: ensuring that there are no arms and, if there are, making sure that they are decommissioned. They are the custodians of the yearning of all the people of Ireland to see peace, stability and good order replace this conflict. They cannot share the blinkered view that the certainties of conflict are preferable to the risks of peace, or the delusion that political immobility will do anything except make us the victims rather than the masters of change.

That is a bounden and an awesome responsibility of Government, and I believe that the two Governments are trying hard to fulfil it. The two Prime Ministers are meeting today, and tomorrow the Secretary of State and the Minister of State will again grapple with the problem at Castle buildings in Belfast. That problem affects us all and it will not be resolved until we are honest with ourselves and with everyone else and seek out its core and identify its remedy.

I do not speak in the debate about the entry to negotiations on behalf of Sinn Fein—I know too much about violence in the north of Ireland and I know too much about that organisation. I know—with a certainty that I feel for little else—that I can be sure that Sinn Fein is sincere and genuine about its protestations of peace not when the Secretary of State makes a subjective judgment in a limbo situation that it may or may not enter negotiations, but when it sits with all the other political parties around the table, eyeball to eyeball. I will know that it is genuine when it begins to face the realities with which those parties must grapple every day. I will know when Sinn Fein tells its supporters of the realities that it faces within the walls of Castle buildings or wherever it may be. I will know that that time has come when Sinn Fein promises to honour Mitchell principle No. 5 and says: "We did not get what we wanted, but we gave a commitment that, if we oppose anything, we shall do so only by peaceful, democratic means."

That is how we will find out whether Sinn Fein is sincere. Why should we destroy the existing process by insisting on unreal preconditions, before or at the table, when we could enjoy the support and solidarity of all parties at the table to make decommissioning the precondition for rising from the table? That is the other harsh reality; that is when decommissioning will count. It should be the precondition for getting up from the table, not sitting down at it.

I have no love for Sinn Fein nor any regard for the IRA, but I want to see them there because I want to address decommissioning. I want to solve the decommissioning problem and I know that it will not be settled in any other way. I want to help to solve the political problem but I know that that will not be possible until people face the realities head on. I know that all the parties involved in the discussions share my aims. However, it will take realism and political and intellectual rigour to face the realities rather than the shadows. It will take honesty as well.

On that point, I must clarify some comments by the hon. Member for Upper Bann. He referred indirectly to bilateral discussions with my party. I am old-fashioned and I believe that bilateral discussions should be confidential, but I must set the record straight. He tried to blame us for the delay regarding the three points advanced by his party. First, he claimed that his party should sight the legislation. We agreed and suggested that he should go to the two Governments who held the legislation. He did so and his party sighted it. That was the first condition.

The second condition was that there would be a reasonable period within which the proposed legislation would be introduced. As a small political party, we could not give that assurance, so we said go to those who might. They went to the Government and got that assurance, and we are debating the Bill today.

The hon. Member for Upper Bann made as his third point conditions for entry into negotiations. It was never anything that we discussed, because during all bilaterals and every discussion we have made it clear that we are dealing with decommissioning; that entry to negotiation is a matter, first, for this Government, based on their own legislation; secondly, for both Governments, based on the rules of procedure adopted by the talks parties for themselves; and, thirdly, that decommissioning was not a matter for Mitchell, because it ran counter to paragraph 34, which stated clearly that decommissioning would take place, and that it would be required to take place—not before, not after—during negotiations.

For that reason, because it is so fundamental, I have to say that the hon. Member for Upper Bann's memory failed him when he made his three points.

5.50 pm
Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)

I apologise to my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for missing his remarks at the beginning of the debate. My colleague and I were delayed because of a flight delay, which was due to the weather, although the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) will probably blame it on Drumcree; he appears to blame everything that goes wrong on Drumcree. When he next considers that subject, he might like to bear in mind the fact that it was the threats of those on Garvaghy road that ensured that the police did not do their duty and make sure that people had free access to the highway—but I know that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, would not wish me to discuss Drumcree, as we are debating the issue of decommissioning. I am sure that we shall debate Drumcree on another occasion.

I usually enjoy the speeches of the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon). He has made many fine speeches, but his speech today was not one of them. I got the impression—I could be wrong—that his heart was not altogether in it, because at the centre of the argument with which he began was the necessity for him to believe that there was some prospect of the Provisional IRA genuinely ending its campaign of violence. I do not believe that any intelligent person can look at the behaviour of the Provisional IRA and Sinn Fein and feel that there is any genuineness or sincerity on their part about permanently bringing their campaign of violence to a conclusion.

The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh offers choices, although he limits them. He says that there are two ways in which decommissioning can take place, but he makes an assumption in offering that choice—that decommissioning might take place. I do not believe that it will. Indeed, I can only take the organisations that are holding on to arms at their word when they tell us that it will not take place. I shall develop that point further later in my speech.

The issue of decommissioning has become all the more important because of the method that the Government have used on this occasion to set up a talks process. Decommissioning would not have become an obstacle if it had not been the intention of Her Majesty's Government to concede to pressure from the Government of the Irish Republic to bring terrorists to the talks table. We have had many types of political negotiations in the past, but the marked contrast is that, on all previous occasions, the talks were between legitimate—some would call them constitutional—political parties; on that basis, they might have had some difficulty in agreeing an agenda, but at least they came to the table with the level playing field that one would expect those involved in negotiations to have.

The Government decided, however, that, because of the violence that was taking place, particularly the bombs in London and the mainland, they wanted—no doubt, from their point of view, for the best of motives—to draw the IRA into a situation where it would become politically more difficult for it to carry on its campaign, and dangled before it the prospect of being involved in negotiations. That caused a major difficulty, because it required the Government to sell the idea that other political parties in Northern Ireland should get down into the gutter with the IRA and talk on its terms.

The Government set down criteria that they knew—rightly at the time—would never be met. I can recall the Secretary of State, back in 1993, saying on Radio Telefis Eireann: The IRA will have to give up its guns and explosives to prove violence is over". When the process began of bringing terrorists into talks, absolute proof was required that we had a permanent and complete cessation of violence, that if there was to be a ceasefire, it was for real: if the IRA—and, for that matter, the Ulster Volunteer Force and Ulster Freedom Fighters—was to be involved in political negotiations, we had to be absolutely certain that it was totally committed to peaceful means, to use the jargon from the joint declaration. The Secretary of State outlined in that broadcast, and, indeed, in many others, that, as evidence that it was totally committed to democratic and peaceful means of resolving our problems in Northern Ireland, the IRA would have to give up its guns and explosives to prove that violence was over.

Just before the IRA ceasefire, the Secretary of State said: the idea that I will talk to them now, or those who represent them and argue for them, is one that would turn the stomach of decent people through the length and breadth of this Province. If you bring a bomb with you then don't expect the British Government to dignify you with the status of a constitutional politician. I suspect that many people in Northern Ireland were saying, "Hear, hear!" to the Secretary of State as he made a common-sense utterance—the distinction between those who are legitimate politicians and those who are the front men for terrorist organisations.

At that stage, it was clear that the Government's requirement was not that constitutional politicians should move to the position of terrorist leaders, but that terrorist leaders should move and prove themselves worthy to be involved in negotiations by being exclusively engaged in democratic politics, and doing so in a peaceful way.

It was not very long, however, before the Government started to lower their sights; the Secretary of State was requiring only "substantial progress on decommissioning", and the rot was beginning to set in. It was not long before the Prime Minister told the House: No one has asked for the total decommissioning of all weapons before talks begin … 'Show your determination to seek peace by beginning to decommission.'"—[Official Report, 24 January 1996: Vol. 270, c. 361.] We had moved from the situation in which guns had to be handed over to one in which the IRA had only to start the process. Then we moved to the famous Washington 3 proposal, which required paramilitary organisations to offer some arms as a tangible confidence building measure and to signal the start of a process. Gradually, the Government's requirements were watered down. I find it laughable when I hear some nationalist and republican leaders—even those in leadership in the Irish Republic—chiding the Government for not moving. It flies in the face of what has happened over the past three years: the vast movement of the Government towards a position, while the IRA has not moved a centimetre from its position in 1993.

The final move—sorry, I should not say "final", because it may not be the Government's final move. The Government's position was then to accept the findings of the report of the international body, one of which was that some weaponry could be decommissioned during the process—some and not all weaponry, and certainly not at the beginning of the process, with no indication that it must be other than at the very end of that process.

Like many people in Northern Ireland, I had thought that that was the Government's final climbdown. However, many of us are a little nervous when we hear the Prime Minister positioning himself to blame the intelligence services for a situation that may arise. He will allow Sinn Fein-IRA into the talks process on the word of the intelligence services that a ceasefire is genuine and for real.

Are those the same intelligence service experts who advised the Prime Minister several years ago when he made a working assumption that the ceasefire was permanent? If the Prime Minister was betrayed—those were his own words—on the basis of information that he received from the intelligence services, what confidence can the community have that he will not be similarly fooled on this occasion, and that the IRA will not have conned the Government once again?

No one is more easily conned than someone who wants to be. I do not doubt that the Government—indeed, everyone in the House—want a genuine cessation of violence by the Provisional IRA, but we would be foolish and lacking in judgment if we were to fall for the same trick twice by the Provisional IRA. I have no doubt that the Provisional IRA has no intention of committing itself to a complete and permanent cessation of violence. The evidence shows that the Provisional IRA has one objective, and it is prepared to use violence—or turn it off from time to time—if that helps it to achieve its objectives.

Decommissioning means much more than simply taking guns out of the Northern Ireland process. One could easily accept the argument often advanced by the Social Democratic and Labour party that, if the IRA were to hand over its weaponry tomorrow, within a short time it could substantially replenish it. I am advised by the security forces that the IRA has sophisticated manufacturing means at its disposal. Even if it could not bring in weapons from outside, it would be capable of producing high-class weaponry. It is not simply a matter of getting weaponry out of existence—good and right though that would be. To use language on which I am not keen, we need confidence-building measures.

We need tangible evidence that the Provisional IRA is serious. That tangible evidence does not come from the words that it uses in a statement. Whether or not it uses the P-word—permanently peaceful—we need actual evidence that it is not still targeting, training and recruiting people. We need to know whether it intends to continue its campaign. We know from sad experience that, while it was telling us that it was leading "the Irish peace process" and that everyone else was dragging behind, and how enthusiastic it was to have a peaceful and democratic resolution of our problems, it was stacking a garage in this city for another bombing campaign. It was buying vehicles that it could use to bomb Thiepval barracks in Lisburn. It is clear that there was no genuine intent on its part to have a permanent cessation of violence.

It is incumbent on the Government to ensure not only that the Provisional IRA includes the necessary wording in its statement, and that the intelligence services have confirmed that the Provisional IRA is taking no action on any front, but that intelligence sources are allowed a significant period to test that fully and decommissioning takes place. That is the importance of decommissioning to me. It is tangible evidence that the Provisional IRA is serious.

I say that as someone who has seen no evidence that the Provisional IRA has any intention of calling a permanent cessation of violence, and of committing and submitting itself to the democratic wishes of the people of Northern Ireland.

The debate has already been referred to as an academic exercise. Few hon. Members believe that the Provisional IRA is about to rush forward with its weaponry and offer it up for decommissioning. The leadership of the IRA-Sinn Fein organisation has said that it does not intend to hand over one bullet or one ounce of Semtex until the end of the process, provided that it has what it wants out of that process. It is a thoroughly conditional preparedness to decommission. It says, "If you give us what we want, we'll hand over our guns." It is in effect saying that we can buy its weapons by concessions. That is the IRA's position—even so, I suspect that a few of its members would not want to hand over the stockpile of arms that they undoubtedly have in Northern Ireland and in the Irish Republic.

The Bill is likely to be one of the least used pieces of legislation that the House has ever debated or passed. I suspect that it will have dust on it, and that it will not be used that much by civil servants to determine whether the right means and methods are used to decommission weaponry. It gives me little comfort to know that this legislation will be on the statute book, because it is not backed up by any reality that decommissioning will take place. That is not to say that the Government should not go through with the exercise: the paramilitaries should abide by it, because they have no excuses for not decommissioning.

The Mitchell report is clear. The international team said: the paramilitary organisations will not decommission any arms prior to all-party negotiations. That was the unanimous and emphatically expressed view of the representatives of the political parties close to paramilitary organisations". I part company with the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh, in that I have never given any commitment to the Mitchell report. I do not agree with it, and I never have. I support the six principles that are contained in it, but I do not believe that its proposals or recommendations are worthy of support. The proposals have no integrity.

Mr. Mallon

Given the fact that the legislation is modelled on the modalities in the Mitchell report, will the hon. Gentleman vote against the Bill on the ground that it has no integrity?

Mr. Robinson

I shall come to my attitude to the legislation. It does not follow from what I have said that I will vote against the principle of decommissioning in the legislation. Naturally, a series of amendments will be tabled in Committee, when attempts will be made to right the wrong of Mitchell and the Bill by seeking changes in the legislation and voting for such changes—if we are permitted to sit on the Committee; that is yet to be settled.

The principle—if it can be called that—contained in the international body's report is that, because the paramilitary organisations say that they will not hand over any weapons, the overall principle should be given up, whether it is right or wrong. The body takes a purely pragmatic approach to decommissioning, rather than a principled approach. Because some people say that decommissioning must happen before talks and others say that it will not, it adds those statements together and divides by two, ending up with the idea of some action during the talks. I see nothing very principled about that approach. I do not accept that politicians should reduce the level of the democratic process to suit those who have abused it and done everything possible to undermine it.

The Mitchell report states: We were told that the clearest demonstration of adherence to democratic principles, and of a permanent end to … violence, is the safe removal and disposal of paramilitary arms, and that at this time only a start to decommissioning will provide the confidence necessary for all-party negotiations to commence. I remind the House that everyone who has been present at the talks has signed up to the Mitchell principles, one of which is total decommissioning on the part of paramilitary organisations. Indeed, the Mitchell report goes further than simply agreeing that that should happen; according to the report, the principles should be not only laid down but honoured. That constitutes a requirement for something to be done.

What disappoints me—that is an understatement—is that the Government are quite happy to move on to other matters. Having talked about the issue of decommissioning, which they define as "addressing" it, they are content to move on without actually doing anything about it—without requiring paramilitary organisations to decommission.

The answer to the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh is simply this: the paramilitary organisations will not decommission unless they are required to do so. If they are left with the choice—if they are told that, unless they decommission, they cannot be part of the process—they will be far more likely to give in weapons than if they continue to be told, as the Government are now telling them, that perhaps at the end of the process they cart hand in a few guns. If the Government had said from the beginning, "These are the terms on which you can enter negotiations: it is a necessity for you to hand in weapons," it would have been clear to all that, if they wanted to be part of the talks, that was what they would have to do. Now they know that all they have to do is stand still, and the Government will move to their position.

The legislation has a time frame. It suggests a five-year period—a lifespan of half a decade. I find that strange, although I am sure that the Minister will explain when he winds up the debate. The Bill runs parallel to the talks process. The two go together; one is intended to aid the other. Yet, under the Northern Ireland (Entry to Negotiations, etc.) Act 1996, the talks process has at most only another 18 months to go. I wonder why the Government have given the Bill a lifespan that extends beyond the period of the talks.

It could be argued that the decommissioning schemes can run to up to 12 months, and that therefore a 12-month period should be provided for weapons that are surrendered on the last day of the talks, when agreement is finally reached; but even that does not stretch the period to five years. I wonder what the Government have in mind in keeping the legislation in being after the lifetime of the negotiations has ended. Are they considering another scheme? Have they other proposals on the shelf which they intend to bring out? Perhaps they will enlighten us before the evening is out.

I am a little worried about dealing with legislation that leaves it open to the Government to design decommissioning schemes with which we may be entirely unhappy. At this stage, we must take the Government very much on trust. I would not have thought it impossible for them to present us with a sample scheme, and I hope that they will do precisely that before the Committee stage is over. I should like to hear something about not just the Northern Ireland arrangements, but those in the rest of the United Kingdom.

In regard to the rest of the United Kingdom, if I said that I was uneasy it would minimise my concern far too much. I am deeply concerned that the Government are offering the House legislation to deal with Northern Ireland in this manner: they are saying that certain evidence can be destroyed when it relates to Northern Ireland but that, if the evidence relates to Great Britain, they will adopt a different course. I hope that the Minister will deal with that inconsistency; undoubtedly, either he or a colleague of his will have to do so in Committee.

I have attempted to make it clear that, while legislation has been presented to us today, I have no confidence that it will ever be used. I do not believe that the Provisional IRA is serious about decommissioning, or, indeed, about ending its campaign of violence. To that extent, we must be engaged in an academic exercise. I regret to have to say that, but it is so.

6.16 pm
Mr. Robert McCartney (North Down)

Many of the issues, both general and specific, about which I had intended to speak have already been dealt with. It would be easy to dispose of some of our problems if they could all be fitted into neat and pithy aphorisms such as, "You can take the gun out of politics or you can talk the gun out of politics," but, when some of those pithy statements are examined, they turn out to be rather more complex than they seem.

Let us examine the statement referred to by the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon). Talking the gun out of politics means bringing members of Sinn Fein-IRA into the talks. On the present terms, they will come into the talks without having decommissioned any weapons. That means talking to them about how they are going to make a democratic commitment when they still possess weapons.

That was recognised by both Governments from an early date. Paragraph 10 of the Downing street declaration implicitly stated that those who wished to be involved in democratic dialogue would have to give up violence permanently. The fact that everyone considered that it would have to be permanent is evidenced by a number of statements. On 16 December 1993, in the Dail Eireann, Dick Spring made it abundantly clear that Sinn Fein-IRA would not be allowed to comment on the democratic process, take a look around to see what it offered and, if it did not offer anything that it should have offered, resort to violence again. The commitment had to be permanent.

Our memories have been somewhat dimmed by the passage of time, but everyone will recollect that between 16 December 1993—the date of the joint declaration—and 31 August 1994, when the IRA declared its ceasefire, there was much talk about permanence. The IRA made many calls for clarification. All of us were told by the Irish Government and the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume) that "complete" meant "permanent", but people who considered the language knew that "complete" was simply a definition of the ceasefire and gave no hint whatever about its duration. The word "permanent" was a term of duration; the word "complete" was not.

Of course, the British Government were more sceptical about the nature of the declaration than the Irish Government and the hon. Member for Foyle. After three months, the British Government assumed that the ceasefire was permanent, and worked on that basis. The difficulties thereafter have been outlined by the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), who has recited accurately, as has the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter), Sinn Fein's progress and the relationship of Sinn Fein to the British Government.

As late as 28 August 1995, in response to a call from Mr. Albert Reynolds, Mr. Gerry Adams and the hon. Member for Foyle, at a peace conference at Killala, for Sinn Fein to be admitted without any decommissioning or pre-condition, the Northern Ireland Office stated that Sinn Fein's failure to decommission weapons of some sort before entry would be irreconcilable with the principles of constitutional democracy. In response to that impasse, the Mitchell commission was deputed to do what the Governments had been unable to do: to determine how one could compromise between Sinn Fein's demands and the requirement of democrats, principally the pro-Union parties, that they would not sit down and have discussions—nor could they—unless all the parties to those discussions submitted themselves to the principles of democratic procedure and permanently forsook violence as a means of attaining political objectives.

The Mitchell report of the international body was supposed to solve that dilemma. The solution did not find favour with the majority of the pro-Union parties. I share the views of the hon. Member for Belfast, East, in that I never at any time endorsed the whole of the Mitchell report, or agreed to support it. I unequivocally support the six Mitchell principles, but that is an entirely different matter.

The key paragraphs in the Mitchell report are paragraphs 34 and 35, which are repeated in all the Government documents, in the Command Paper of 16 April 1996 and in the Prime Minister's recent statement of policy. In particular, paragraphs 34 and 35 offer no foundation for an acceptable form of decommissioning. Paragraph 34 is nothing more than a suggested compromise between the pro-Union requirement that some decommissioning occur before the start of all-party negotiations, and Sinn Fein's declared position that there would be no decommissioning of any sort until an agreed settlement that it could endorse had been reached.

The pro-Union position before the Mitchell report was similar to the British Government's position on 28 August 1995: to admit Sinn Fein into all-party negotiations before it had commenced a process of negotiation was irreconcilable with constitutional and democratic principles. The Government, however, suffered a sea change after the report.

The suggested compromise in paragraph 34 of the report was that some decommissioning should take place during the process rather than before or after. The reasoning behind that suggested compromise is flawed entirely in its basic premise that both sides were starting off from positions that were equidistant from the middle: Senator Mitchell's compromise. That was not true.

The pro-Union parties were not involved in violence of any sort, did not support violence as a means of obtaining political objectives and were content to rely entirely on democratic procedures as a means of obtaining their goals, but Sinn Fein had a democratic mandate of some 15 to 16 per cent. and was a minority party. In the circumstances, Sinn Fein-IRA was dedicated not to democratic procedure—because a party with that proportion of support could never hope to achieve its objectives by democratic political means—but entirely to the gun and the bomb as the means for securing its political objectives.

In the circumstances, to suggest that Sinn Fein-IRA should be admitted to the talks and be part of a process, and that it would drip feed small amounts of guns or Semtex in return for political concessions, was absolutely and totally undemocratic and unacceptable. The decommissioning of weapons is to be viewed not as a surrender by anyone to anyone, but as a mere acceptance of democratic principles and procedures as the basis for the settlement of disputes and the attainment of political objectives.

The flaws in the reasoning in paragraph 34 are further illustrated by the next divine paragraph to which so much devotion is granted: paragraph 35. The suggestion in paragraph 34 is said to offer an opportunity to use the process of decommissioning to build confidence by offering progress on political issues as the price for modest mutual steps on decommissioning. Stripped of its political padding, paragraph 35 suggests decommissioning in return for political concessions.

The suggestion of the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh that, faced eyeball to eyeball with democratic procedures and the arguments of democrats, Sinn Fein-IRA would somehow crumble, and feel shamed and unable to sustain its arguments does not bear thinking about.

Mr. Mallon

We would find out.

Mr. McCartney

With respect, democrats do not need to find out what the objectives of Sinn Fein-IRA are. It has been amply demonstrated not only that Sinn Fein cannot be trusted, but that it does not intend ever to use any methodology other than violence to attain its objectives.

If paragraph 35 of Mitchell means—as I submit that it does—that there will be modest decommissioning in return for political concessions, it poses two questions. First, who will be the judge of whether sufficient political concessions have been made? Secondly, who will assess the worth of those concessions in terms of the guns and Semtex with which they are to be won? The answer is that the terrorists of both sides will determine whether the concessions they have obtained are sufficient to warrant some small or modest handing over of weaponry.

It is possible to have a permanent cessation if we accept the IRA's price for a permanent cessation of violence. The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh asked how we can talk guns out of the Northern Ireland context. Presumably, it will happen when those who employ bombs and weapons to secure their objectives decide that those objectives have been secured.

Peace can always be obtained at a price. Peace could have been obtained in 1939 or in 1940 by meeting Adolph Hitler's modest requirements. The principle is exactly the same in both cases, albeit Adolf Hitler was operating on a rather grander scale and had many more munitions than Sinn Fein-IRA. He had political demands in middle Europe, and he wanted them satisfied. When he failed to achieve them by negotiation, he went to war. But he did so only after negotiation failed. He got what he wanted through negotiation in Czechoslovakia, but he failed to do so in Poland. We are witnessing exactly the same type of anti-democratic and fascist activities by Sinn Fein-IRA.

We can examine the principles of decommissioning only by considering the terms upon which decommissioning may be achieved, and by considering the relationship between the terms of any new ceasefire and the issue of decommissioning. The permanence of a cessation of IRA violence has a direct bearing on the issue of decommissioning and the modalities for its implementation—which is the subject of this Bill. The language used to describe any new cessation of violence must deal not only with the ceasefire's nature but with its duration.

If a ceasefire is declared to be both complete and permanent, it would be difficult to discover any logical basis either for the retention of weapons or for objections to agreements providing for an immediate commencement of the decommissioning process. Conversely, a failure to declare that a ceasefire is permanent, coupled with a reluctance to decommission—either before, during or after negotiation—must be construed as a very strong indication of rejection of an absolute commitment to democratic procedure, and as a reservation that, if such procedure does not afford an acceptable outcome, there will be a return to violence.

Those concepts were precisely encapsulated by Mr. Dick Spring's statement to the Dail Eireann on the day after the joint declaration. He said precisely that one cannot walk in, have a look at what is on offer within the democratic process and then reject it and return to the bomb and the bullet if it fails to measure up to one's expectations. The Irish Government and the Social Democratic and Labour party would expect pro-Union people to accept exactly that position. I believe that such conditions are wholly and totally unacceptable, and I think that the overwhelming majority of pro-Union people in Ulster feel the same way.

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) made some very perceptive comments, and he has grasped the essence of the position held by Sinn Fein-IRA. He said that the IRA was humiliated by the British Government's attitude after the ceasefire, which caused it to feel that it was being required to surrender, whereas the IRA's position was that it was a combatant and, in one sense, of equal status with the British state. He said that the IRA's attitude was that it would not surrender to anyone, that it held its arms legitimately and that it was a lawful force. I accept entirely his analysis of the situation.

Those factors bear very heavily on the IRA's attitude to what is euphemistically called the peace process. If viewed from a pro-Union and democratic position, the peace process is about democrats negotiating together, on democratic principles and with democratic procedures, to discover a solution to a problem. That is how we on the pro-Union side regard the peace process. It is not regarded in that manner by Sinn Fein-IRA. Sinn Fein-IRA does not think of itself as an unlawful organisation. It thinks of itself as the true spiritual and democratic heir of the Sinn Fein of 1918.

In one sense, Sinn Fein-IRA does not even acknowledge as lawful the Government of the Republic of Ireland. It regards the course on which it is set as a national war, on behalf of the only people who really matter: those who truly know and hold the essential spirit of Irish nationalism. Therefore, in engaging the British Government, Sinn Fein-IRA does not wish to sit down and negotiate with lesser mortals and lesser parties—from the Ulster Democratic Unionist party and the Ulster Unionist party, right down to the humble United Kingdom Unionist party, not to mention the women's coalition and the Social Democratic and Labour party.

Those parties and individuals are irrelevant to Sinn Fein-IRA. At best, they form part of the democratic window-dressing or backdrop against which Sinn Fein-IRA, as a combatant, will conduct not political negotiations but conflict resolution, or a peace conference, between itself and the British state, in which the two sides hold their weapons lawfully and legitimately. If it starts from the basic premise that it holds its weapons lawfully and legitimately, not only will it not hand over a significant amount of weaponry or engage in a process in which weapons are taken out of the political context, it will not hand over a single rusty revolver or a pound of sweating Semtex. The reason it cannot do so is ideological—[Interruption.] Those who have a more profound knowledge of weaponry are perhaps signifying that Semtex does not sweat, unlike dynamite or gelignite. I bow to their superior knowledge. I was aware of that difference, but I did not think it one of great substance. I know that there are those who turn their microscopic diligence to particularities, but I think that we should concern ourselves with broader principles of rather more importance.

As I was saying, there is no way in which Sinn Fein-IRA will ever—before, during or after the negotiations—hand over any weaponry unless it is convinced of one of two things: first, that there is an immediate concession to its demands, which can be crystallised as "Brits out" and self-determination on an all-Ireland basis—that is unlikely to occur—or, secondly, that it is offered a political framework that might just, positively and without there being much doubt about it, offer to it within a span of perhaps less than 15 or 20 years the prospect that its objectives will be achieved. They are the only two possibilities, but there is no possibility whatever that it will throw away the only weapon—violence—which has ever succeeded in advancing its cause.

In what other political or democratic setting would a party that can conjure up what was for it a very good election result of only 15 per cent. of the vote—obtained, I believe, by conning the electorate, or a sizeable proportion of it, into voting for it on the basis that it might engage in peace talks—have the clout and political influence with two sovereign Governments that Sinn Fein has demonstrated? No one is going to convince me—or, I hope, any other hon. Member—that the influence that Sinn Fein has had on Governments has been a product of rational thought or of powerful argument or analysis; it has been founded on nothing other than the bomb and the bullet. When I hear it being suggested that such people might, when confronted with the views of democrats, be persuaded that they should give it all up, I almost abandon hope.

I shall now comment on matters raised by the hon. Member for Redcar (Ms Mowlam). She made a number of references to Drumcree, mark I, mark 2 and the possibility of turning our thoughts to mark 3. We should all understand that the events at Drumcree and Harryville are not conditions, but symptoms. They are symptoms of a majority who have lost confidence in the capacity of their Government to protect their citizenship and the value of that citizenship and to give them a sense that they are cared for and cherished equally with all other British citizens.

There is a growing feeling, which is not lessened by terminology such as that used in the joint declaration, that the United Kingdom has no selfish, economic or strategic interest in remaining in Northern Ireland. When I recently had discussions with the Prime Minister and pointed out just how powerful that statement had been in knocking the confidence of the pro-Union people and of raising their anxiety about their constitutional position almost to the level of paranoia, he remarked that it was not a new statement; that it had been said before. Lest he was under any illusion that I was not aware that it had been said before, I told him that yes, it had been used before—by the right hon. Member for City of London and Westminster, South (Mr. Brooke) in a speech at Coleraine in, I believe, 1991—but I was able to enlighten the Prime Minister that that was not the real fons et origo: it was first used by Mr. John Hume on 19 September 1988 in The Irish Times when he was reporting the conclusions of his first series of meetings with Gerry Adams. That is the source of the statement.

What we see manifested at Drumcree, and to some extent at Harryville, is a situation that has enabled the head of the community relations agency to state recently that there has never, since the agency was formed, been a worse, or more divided, or more bitter, difference between the two communities in Northern Ireland. It is something of a paradox that the two Governments should be striving for peace and telling the world that they are involved in a peace process when the main outcome of that process is the utter destruction of community relations in Northern Ireland. That tells us something.

The hon. Members for Kingston upon Hull, North and for Redcar and others made powerful comments on how the rule of law had been flouted and breached at Drumcree. It was taken to be a dreadful thing. The people who assembled at Drumcree—I speak for perhaps 97 or 98 per cent. of those who were there—were not National Front louts or agents provocateurs out to stir up those called from every airt and part. They were solid.

I went as an observer. I am not an Orangeman; I am not in the Black or in any of the Orange institutions, and I do not march on any occasion, so I went as an observer. I can tell hon. Members that 99 per cent. of the people assembled there were in employment. They were farmers, artisans, labourers and small shopkeepers—people who pay their rates and have no criminal record. They were the same sort of people as those who numbered nearly 250,000 and who, on 15 or 16 November 1985, protested on the streets of Belfast about the Anglo-Irish agreement.

The lesson to be taken from the presence of people in such huge numbers is that there is something wrong with the laws being imposed on them. It is easy to say—as some of those who have spoken today have done—that the law is being flouted. The law was flouted by John Hampden over ship-money—there is a statue of him in the Lobby—and by John Wilkes when he objected to general warrants. The law on what was once the poll tax was flouted by a large number of people and with a degree of violence. In all three instances, the law was changed because it was believed that the demonstrations showed that there was something wrong, not with the people who flouted the law, but with the administration or the imposition of the laws that the people were flouting.

Governments should take note when a substantial number of people protest. The reasons for the protests should be considered, not simply swept aside.

Mr. Winnick

Is it not essential for the majority and minority communities in Northern Ireland to respect each other? We know of the disgraceful situation in which people who want to go and pray are being intimidated. Why does the hon. and learned Gentleman believe that the majority community has lost confidence in the United Kingdom when, for 26 years, successive Governments—this will continue if terrorism continues—have made it clear that, no matter what the cost in blood and money, we shall not give in to terrorism? The wishes of the majority community in Northern Ireland, whatever they may be at any given moment—we know what they are now—will be respected. There is no question of Northern Ireland being forced into a unitary state against its will. That is my view as well. Obviously, I take a different view from the hon. and learned Gentleman.

Mr. McCartney

I wish that what the hon. Gentleman has just said were true and that the perception of the majority—they are not all fools—was that successive United Kingdom Governments have given the people of Northern Ireland that assurance. With respect, that is not the case. I draw a clear distinction between democracy—the right of a majority to determine the constitutional identity of the state to which they wish to belong—and the ugly face of majoritarianism, when a majority think that they can do whatever they like because they are a majority. I am a pluralist. I believe that everyone in Northern Ireland, regardless of religion, political aspiration or background, should have equal opportunities and an equal place before the law. We should be equal in all things and other cultures should be respected.

I deplore the behaviour of those who are obstructing churchgoers at Harryville. I made it clear at the Northern Ireland forum on Friday that I thought that the behaviour of those attacking or intimidating churchgoers at Harryville was despicable and beneath contempt. I believe that those were the words that I used. Similar words were used by representatives of the Ulster Unionist party and the Democratic Unionist party. I do not want it suggested, even indirectly, that, because one is a Unionist, one is some sort of sectarian bigot. Unfortunately, that idea has been put about and has seeped by osmosis into the minds and attitudes of many hon. Members, who unthinkingly suppose that a staunch Unionist is automatically an intellectual backwoodsman or religious sectarian bigot, properly belonging in the mid-16th century. That is far from the truth.

The Bill is welcome. It is a nice cart in which the carcase of decommissioning will ultimately be moved if we ever get the horse and some of the wheels back on. It is appropriate for doing a job, but that job has not yet been designated. I suspect, as does the hon. Member for Belfast, East that the dust will settle on the cart before it is ever put in motion to transport any weapons or Semtex to a place where they can be disposed of.

I welcome the Bill. I share the reservations of the hon. Member for Belfast, East, which I hope will be dealt with later. Like him, I view with some suspicion the five-year time span for the decommissioning process, when the negotiations and the forum have a much more limited time span. I am sure that most of those anomalies will be explained.

All hon. Members should realise that we are dealing with people committed to an idea that it is difficult for those who have not lived cheek by jowl with them all their lives to comprehend. The members of Sinn Fein-IRA are dedicated to their objectives. They have not moved an inch, nor will they. They have conned not only successive British Governments, but Senator Mitchell and his two colleagues.

The infrastructure of the Mitchell report has been destroyed. I do not want to recite the details, but we all know that, when Senator Mitchell concluded in January this year that the intentions of those in Sinn Fein-IRA were good, they had been working away through November and December preparing for Canary wharf. They were even at it during the much-heralded visit to Belfast of President Clinton. It had all been organised. Further depredations were in preparation for Hammersmith bridge and Hammersmith itself, as recent finds showed, as well as Osnabruck, Manchester and Thiepval.

Let us forget for a moment about the grand constitutional issue. If we were asked to enter into a business commitment in our everyday lives with business associates or people in whom we were required to put trust who had been behaving as Sinn Fein-IRA has behaved, with a similar track record for lies, deceit, perfidy and violence, we would say that we would rather not do business with them at all, but that if we had to it would be only with clear guarantees and absolute sureties that they would deliver on their bargain.

First, we need the terms of the contract. The declaration of a cessation of violence must be complete and permanent. Secondly, they must give a physical earnest of their good intentions and back up their words by delivering a down payment of arms and bombs to show that they mean what they say. Thirdly, if they are committed to the democratic process, they will agree that negotiations on the political strand must go on without any connection with or interdependence on the decommissioning process. There can be no question of guns and bomb-making material being handed over in return for political concessions.

With those safeguards, I would still have reservations, but I might be persuaded to forgive my brother 70 times seven times. My goodness, unless we are absolute fools, we need some form of guarantee. I do not see any forthcoming.

6.59 pm
Mr. Ken Maginnis (Fermanagh and South Tyrone)

First, I apologise for having arrived late as my flight was delayed by bad weather.

I welcome the Bill and I shall explain why it is essential. I believe that it was devised not in expectation but in hope, although that hope is fairly uncertain. In order to understand the Bill, it is necessary to examine the nature of terrorism in Northern Ireland in the past 25 or 26 years.

In Northern Ireland, terrorism is not the spontaneous action of a group of people who feel aggrieved; it derives from a carefully conceived strategy that was created not by the IRA but by Mao Tse Tung in his formula for insurrection. That formula has been used by many in the past, including Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. It has been used by Sinn Fein-IRA for the past 25 years. It involves the structure of terrorism being carefully established, its final objective having been decided in advance.

I shall not explain the strategy in detail, but say only that it involves setting up structures within every stratum of society—in educational establishments, community and housing groups, trade unions and the civil service. It seeks to permeate every level of society. It then involves various degrees of violence in an attempt to destroy the infrastructure by attacking and murdering members of the security services, the police and the Army, getting rid of political opponents and dominating certain parts of the region in order to affect every aspect of life there every day of the week and every week of the year. It involves continuing such action for as long as necessary.

It is then possible to increase or reduce terrorist activity. In August 1994, when the level of attrition against the terrorist campaign in Northern Ireland was at its highest, a saviour appeared for the IRA who suggested that its members might be interested in becoming bona fide democrats and entering the political arena on an equal basis with other politicians.

Those of us who understood the strategy employed by the IRA knew that it was a falsehood. We knew that the IRA recognised the old adage that time equals space equals will and that from time to time terrorists can concede space. That is exactly what the IRA did. In August 1994, it conceded space for 17 months. That space gave it time to change the will of society not only in Northern Ireland, but throughout the United Kingdom and further afield. That was a clever ploy that created a certain degree of complacency at the highest levels of society and at the heart of the British Government and other Governments who were interested in Northern Ireland affairs.

Everyone is wise with hindsight and it is now obvious what the IRA was up to at the time. It had time to reorganise itself and move its personnel around in order to prevent the leaks that permitted the amount of attrition that the security services had achieved until then. However, those of us who recognised what was happening were concerned about another aspect of terrorism that permeates every level of society on a daily basis. I refer to the media. I do not suggest that all those in the media are fools, but many are impressed and motivated by what Sinn Fein-IRA hopes to achieve, and press activity often affects other parts of society and the attitude of other Governments such as that of the United States.

At the time, many of us felt that we should find a means whereby international opinion could become better versed in the reality of terrorism. On that basis, the Mitchell commission was established and asked to examine from an international point of view the problems created by terrorism in Northern Ireland and whether they could be dealt with effectively.

I do not find much fault with the conclusions of the Mitchell commission. Its three members displayed a great deal of sincerity and in section III of the report set out valid principles. However, they might well have reached those conclusions without ever setting foot in Northern Ireland. The principles defined in section III are internationally accepted. Section VI of the report sets out guidelines on the modalities for decommissioning and contains a great deal of useful material. However, having accepted that, I cannot agree with the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) that every aspect of the Mitchell report should be treated as if it were the gospel truth.

My justification for that attitude is contained in paragraph 25 of the report, which states: We"— that is, the commission— have concluded that there is a clear commitment on the part of those in possession of such arms to work constructively to achieve full and verifiable decommissioning as part of the process of all-party negotiations". Because that premise, or element of the commission's reasoning, was wrong, the logic—irrespective of how perfect it is—that ensues is flawed. In respect of the legislation, it is important that we should take the one thing that is necessary in order to progress the principles contained in the Mitchell report, without paying too much attention—I say this with the greatest respect for the three members of the commission—to the flawed reasoning that occurs in part of the report.

I should first make my position clear by saying that my understanding of terrorism as perpetrated over the past 25 or 26 years by provisional Sinn Fein-IRA is that it intends never to abandon the strategy to which it is attached. It does not matter what we do—on that point I agree with the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) and the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney). My colleagues in the Ulster Unionist party and I are not moving forward in the present process in the belief that the members of IRA-Sinn Fein are redeemable or that they want to be redeemed. They are committed to a strategy that is based on violence and that is intended to take them forward into the next millennium.

It is a strategy not only of military terrorism, but of social and economic terrorism as well. We have seen social terrorism over the past two years, when Sinn Fein-IRA orchestrated activity on the Ormeau road and on the Garvaghy road that was in direct contradiction of the very principles for which the civil rights movement had marched 27 years earlier—the freedom to go anywhere on the public highway and the freedom to be treated equally with every other citizen in Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein has told us, however, that that is not to be the case and that the Protestant community are not to be allowed to march or to engage in activities that they themselves are not prepared to sanction in certain parts of Northern Ireland.

Much as I deplore the events in Harryville in recent weeks—here I add my voice to the condemnation already expressed by the hon. and learned Member for North Down—that violence, albeit inexcusable, is reciprocal and is designed to drive people in Northern Ireland into ghettos. Why should the IRA want' to drive people into ghettos? One of the fundamentals of Mao's philosophy of terrorism is that the terrorists must totally dominate certain elements of the territory being contested so as to eventually provoke a civil war—a Bosnia-type situation. That is Sinn Fein-IRA's present objective.

That is such a horrible thought that people will want to discard my words, saying, "He's off on a flight of fancy." I remind hon. Members that, in June 1995, when I explained that the Sinn Fein-IRA decision to call an end to the ceasefire had already been taken, people called it a flight of fancy. They did not want to believe that it could happen or that it would happen, so they turned their backs on the very thought. As legislators, we in this House have a greater responsibility—we have to face reality and understand our terrorists' overall strategy towards their ultimate goal if we are to take effective steps to counter that strategy.

Although I spell out in some detail the direction in which IRA-Sinn Fein travels, that does not mean that I believe that it is inevitable that it will reach its goal—I do not. If, however, we honestly believe that we can somehow incorporate those people into the very heart of democracy, we are riding for a fall—and a mighty fall at that. We have to look at providing, sincerely and honestly, the opportunity for Sinn Fein to move into the democratic process. I cannot say that I do not want Sinn Fein to become part of the democratic process. I want to believe that that could happen, but I am convinced that it will not. If it does not happen, we have to marginalise it and every other terrorist organisation that might decide to test the will of Government, to test the democratic process and to test the will of society as a whole.

We begin to do that by establishing an international commission for disarmament and verification of the process, so that we have a focus of attention, not only for the people of Northern Ireland or the people of the United Kingdom, but for the world as whole. The world has to understand that it is intolerable and impossible for a democracy—even one with all the flaws that our democracy has and that we in this place strive daily and weekly to put right—to accommodate 100 tonnes of modern, sophisticated weapons in the hands of terrorists.

The very existence of this legislation and the establishment of a disarmament and verification committee challenges every terrorist who walks our streets. It challenges him physically, in terms of his right to have guns, bombs, mortars and all the various terrorist equipment that he may possess. It also challenges our society in terms of the psychological warfare that has been waged against us day by day and which we sometimes forget. It is so easy to forget the psychological warfare—the economic and the social warfare—when there is blood on the streets and people are shot to death or blown up. We tend to think of the physical pain and tragedy alone.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

Does my hon. Friend agree that, after 28 years, the pro-Union community in Northern Ireland has largely come together to say clearly to Government and to terrorists that enough is enough and we will have no more?

Mr. Maginnis

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and he is absolutely right, but I think I begin to see—and, God knows, we have waited long enough for it—in the Government, and indeed in the main Opposition party, a realisation that they too cannot for ever fall for the ploys and the propaganda of the people who have never stood by a single, solitary promise that they have made. One has only to consider the reports in the Sunday papers in the past couple of months to see how IRA-Sinn Fein dangles our democracy on a string. One minute it says that there will be a permanent ceasefire. Then it says that there will not be permanent ceasefire. Then it says that there will be a temporary ceasefire which could be extended. Or it says that there will not be a Christmas ceasefire this year for the first time in many years. There is no sincerity in any of those leaks. They are merely stories leaked to try to impress on the Prime Minister that he should take a course of action ultimately designed to further the interests of the IRA.

The Prime Minister is in a position—like everyone in the House and in this country—to look coolly at the record of IRA-Sinn Fein over the past 26 years and ask, first, whether there has ever been any sincerity. Secondly, we should ask whether there has ever been any justification whatever for the death and destruction that has been visited on this nation—for Canary wharf, for Manchester, for Warrington, for Enniskillen, for the Droppin' Well inn, for Thiepval, for Osnabruck or for all the other acts of violence. There is no justification unless one believes the IRA's assertion that if a majority of people vote against its declared political aspiration, it has a right by force of arms to make people pay for using the democratic process.

I say, on behalf of my party, and—I believe—on behalf of many people in Northern Ireland from both traditions and throughout the rest of the United Kingdom that we want peace. We want to be left at peace and we want to provide the opportunity for every individual, good, bad and indifferent at this time, to move into the democratic process, as is his right. But we cannot go on making excuses to incorporate in the system those who would turn democracy on its head. Those people have a choice. They must accept the system or they must be marginalised.

I was interested in the words of the Prime Minister in his weekend interview when he said that if there was a ceasefire, he would not wait too long until he made a decision about whether it was genuine and people could move into the democratic process. That has been interpreted in some quarters as the Prime Minister saying that he will not wait too long before admitting people to the democratic process, but the Prime Minister knows that that is an impossibility. I shall give the House my interpretation of what the Prime Minister meant. He meant that we know beyond doubt the intention of IRA-Sinn Fein and, unless it stands that intention on its head immediately it announces a ceasefire, we do not have to wait too long before we can say that it is yet another tactical ploy and those people must be marginalised.

The disarmament and verification commission, which I hope will be set up quickly under the terms of this enabling legislation, will—I hope—be a focus that will overcome the naive and sometimes malicious support that IRA-Sinn Fein finds in the most peculiar places—aye, even among those who sit on the Benches in this House. That support is sometimes naive, sometimes malicious and even treacherous and we have seen it all over the past few months and years. If we establish the commission, as I hope we will, it must be done the moment the legislation goes through the House. There must be no delay, but difficulties could arise. Knowing the mechanics of setting up a disarmament and verification committee, my party suggested to the two Governments a way to speed that up. One could appoint a commission-designate. It would have no power to act as a disarmament and verification commission until the legislation, here and in the Irish Republic, was properly enacted, but it could do preparatory work that did not require the legislation. It could begin to consider the logistics, the technical and communications equipment that would be required and the personnel who would be needed. Of course, it could also begin—since it would itself be a user—to assist the preparation of the schemes, for the Irish Republic's jurisdiction, and the regulations, for this jurisdiction, that will be required to move the process forward. We found no great opposition from the Government to that suggestion, which could have been the beginning of the process and would have opened up progress along one track. Progress on one track would inevitably have opened up progress along the other, political track.

We have heard fine words and avowals from the Irish Government about decommissioning and the beginning of the peace process. However, we have no peace process now. We have a political process, but there is nothing peaceful about the situation in which we live. Despite all their avowals, the Irish Government have refused steadfastly to progress one iota and have walked away from our suggestions. These are the people who tell us that they want to embrace Ulster Unionists and that they have a regard for us. They say that if only we would embrace them, their fondness would have no bounds. But the one thing that they cannot do is to meet their responsibilities—side by side with our Government—for the arms and explosives stored in their jurisdiction and within the British Government's jurisdiction.

When President Clinton came to Ireland last year, he told us: You must stand firm against terror. You must say to those who still would use violence for political objectives—you are the past; your day is over. Violence has no place at the table of democracy; and no role in the future of this land.' Those words were applauded by everyone, yet they have easily been forgotten by the Irish Government. We all know that the Irish Government are beset by all sorts of internal problems, but it does not take a great deal—irrespective of one's personal problems—to display decency and honour when dealing with other people. That has not been evident.

In the Bill, we see a manifestation of the resolve not just of the Government but of this House and this land to deal with the problem created by a minority who would use violence for political ends. Whether IRA-Sinn Fein co-operates or not, the Bill will provide a springboard to enable us to launch our counter-propaganda and public relations throughout the entire world. One does not create legislation or set up an international commission on disarmament and verification unless there is a real and tangible problem. For that reason, I welcome the Bill.

I conclude with the words of someone who may not be known to everyone in the House, but who is known to most people in Northern Ireland—a gentleman called Father Denis Faul. In summing up what we are facing from IRA-Sinn Fein, he said, Whatever happens ․ the militant side of Nationalism never intends to compromise on its demand for a United Ireland. He went on to warn that these Nationalists are convinced that their aspiration will never be realised through the democratic process— and it cannot be— but only through violence. Finally, he warned that the Provisional IRA is determined that this outcome will, and can only, be achieved through them. I leave the House with the words of that good public figure, who has stood firm against terrorism within both traditions. These words should be remembered, and they will convince everyone who is genuinely involved in the search for peace that we in this House must put in place every possible device to frustrate the intentions of these evil men.

7.35 pm
Rev. William McCrea (Mid-Ulster)

In this important debate, I once again express my appreciation, and that of my colleagues in the Democratic Unionist party, to the members of the security forces who have stood resolutely against terrorism over the many years that terrorists have imposed their onslaught of violence, terror, murder and destruction on our beloved Province and here on the mainland. I believe that they deserve our support.

I trust that the Government will always realise that they owe it to the people of Ulster to bring peace and stability to our Province and to see that terrorism is destroyed. I must confess that, at times, many people—including many members of the security forces—are dismayed because often, and especially since the so-called peace process commenced, there has been a softly-softly approach against the terrorists. Instead of terrorists being hunted down and brought to justice, no one now seems to be permitted to rock the boat.

It is interesting that in today's Daily Telegraph, Sean O'Callaghan—in admitting his part in IRA activities—said: I wanted to bring some of the godfathers down with me. I wasn't to know about the embryo peace process. The report added: because behind-the-scenes talks were going on with IRA leaders, whom he was implicating, the evidence against them that he gave to the RUC was not even forwarded to the Director of Public Prosecutions. That statement is worthy of serious consideration, and we need a reply from the Government.

There have been constant threats from those in the Sinn Fein movement who are supposed to be the political face of the IRA, although we know that they are one and the same. Mitchell McLaughlin said that, if the Prime Minister did not do or say certain things, there would be "lethal consequences". I have referred previously to a recent television programme on Martin McGuinness, one of the leading members of IRA-Sinn Fein. He is one of the leading members of the IRA, never mind Sinn Fein. The evidence produced by that programme, and the serious evidence given by those who lived under the terror of Martin McGuinness, must be tested in the courts, and I believe that the Government must not close their mind to that.

Sad to say, we are living in a time of constant violence. A newsletter this morning reported: A 16-year-old boy was strung upside down on railings and beaten by a gang of men until both his legs were broken. The barbaric attack began with the youth being seized in an alleyway in the nationalist New Barnsley area of west Belfast late on Saturday night. His legs were tied with tape and he was hung upside down from railings and both legs battered with clubs. That violence against a 16-year-old boy was the responsibility of IRA-Sinn Fein, for which some people would try to apologise, and members of which hon. Members have even sought to bring into the Palace of Westminster to give them an acceptable face. The violence continues, and let no one suggest that the leopard has changed its spots, because IRA-Sinn Fein is the same corrupt organisation, the same bunch of murdering thugs, as it has always been.

The same article also says: In Londonderry, another 16-year-old was in hospital with head and arm injuries after being attacked and beaten … A 22-year-old man was attacked in the Monagh Road area of west Belfast, by a gang of five men brandishing iron bars and claiming to be from the IRA. He was taken to hospital suffering from cuts to the head and upper body and bruises to the body and the arms … A 20-year-old woman was punched in the face, dragged from her bed and thrown into another bedroom where her two-year-old daughter was sleeping. The men then beat her 27-year-old partner about the head and body with a hammer. That was the report this morning; that is the up-to-date news on those so-called converted terrorists. That is the bunch of thugs that we as parliamentarians are asked to sit down with and to accept as part of a democratic process.

The reality is that violence in Ulster continues unabated. We talk about decommissioning, but there is no decommissioning of the mind-set of those thugs and murderers. Let us not talk about mindless violence, because there was a purpose behind every act of those who perpetrated that barbarity. They want to hold our community under the heel of terror.

When we talk about the need for another ceasefire, we should realise that a ceasefire means only a cessation of firing. People say that, after the members of the IRA or any other paramilitary organisation have stopped firing their guns, they are to be accepted as democrats. Democracy does not permit people to hold an arsenal of weaponry that can bring destruction upon a civilised community. The process of destroying illegal weapons in Northern Ireland is based on the recognition that groups that claim to be committed to peace and democracy do not need weapons of murder and destruction.

It is easy for people to put their tongue in their cheek, smile from the side of their mouth and say that they have renounced violence. The only proof of the pie will be in the eating, and the only way in which those people, or any organisation, can prove that they have renounced violence—that there is a permanent end, not only a cessation—is by surrendering their weapons of war, terror and destruction. No democrat needs an illegal arsenal at his disposal.

No group that calls itself democratic has a right to the name if it makes threats, as Mitchell McLaughlin did, of lethal consequences if the Prime Minister does not say the right thing. That is a threat of further violence, and Mitchell McLaughlin is not the only one to have made such a suggestion. Sinn Fein-IRA has constantly held the threat of violence over the heads of the people and the Government of the United Kingdom.

When there was an IRA ceasefire in 1994, the Prime Minister said that he had to be sure that it was permanent before civil servants could begin exploratory talks with Sinn Fein, and he rightly requested that those involved in terrorist activity would openly state the permanency of the end of violence. Of course, we know that IRA-Sinn Fein was unwilling to make such a statement.

The Prime Minister then weakened his demand, and said that the IRA need not use the word "permanent", but could use any group of words that meant that violence was over for all time and under all circumstances. As we all know, Sinn Fein-IRA remained tight-lipped, and waited for Dublin and America to act dutifully and pressurise the Government into capitulation once again, so the demand was even further weakened.

The Prime Minister then came over to Northern Ireland and suggested that he had a working assumption that violence had ended. On the basis of that working assumption, what happened? The protection of the people of Northern Ireland was relaxed and put off guard, and a tranche of 100 concessions was offered. The Government printed all the concessions in a book, so that the whole world would know about them.

It is amazing that, on the basis of a working assumption, with all the cuts that were going on, no expense was spared in printing the book and telling the world about the 100 concessions. The IRA pocketed every concession and reached out its begging bowl, knowing from what had happened throughout the process that, having got some, it could get more.

The ceasefire was not a permanent end to, or a renunciation of, violence. I am glad that the Prime Minister admitted that fact in an interview this weekend. Talking about the pressure for a new ceasefire, he said: What I do not wish to see would be a phoney ceasefire, a ceasefire simply to score public relations victories and to try and have Sinn Fein parachuted into the talks without actually giving up the violence that has sustained the IRA for so long. I'm not interested in a phoney ceasefire. In retrospect we had a phoney ceasefire; we thought we had a real one, and what did we subsequently find out? We subsequently found out that within days of declaring the ceasefire Sinn Fein/IRA were filling garages in London with semtex and explosives. That's not a genuine ceasefire. The Prime Minister said that this time we must ensure that they're not targeting people, they're not buying arms; they're not preparing to go back to violence. And when Fm satisfied there is such a ceasefire, a genuine ceasefire, and it looks as though it is going to be sustainable, and I will not wait for too long to see if it is to be sustainable. The Prime Minister acknowledges that those of us who live in the Province and live day by day with the reality of the threat of terrorism know exactly what it is to have our families and friends constantly under threat from the murder gangs of the IRA. We know what it is to be continually targeted by the terrorists; we know what it is to realise that there are people out to destroy our families; in short, we know that the IRA has not changed. It has not been deflected from its path of war, nor have its members changed their hearts and moved to the pathway of peace.

This is why we believe that all illegally held terrorist weapons must be handed in and destroyed. What is more, the terrorists' organisational machine must be completely dismantled. The killing machine is still intact; none of the sinews of war has been disabled. The fact is that punishment beatings, intimidation, racketeering, targeting and recruiting continue. What is needed is the defeat of armed terrorists, not an accommodation with them.

I remember when the Prime Minister and Albert Reynolds jointly issued the Downing street declaration, laying down their conditions for all-party talks. The Prime Minister elaborated on the meaning of the declaration's reference to parties committed to "exclusively peaceful means": The IRA would have to hand in its huge arsenal of weapons, he said. At the time, that was the British Government's standard. Four months later, the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume) reinforced that idea, when he said that no guns could be on the table, under the table or outside the door.

It would seem that the people who made those commitments have very short memories. Only shortly afterwards, the British Government were willing to accept the token destruction of some weapons. Indeed, Albert Reynolds, the then Prime Minister of the Irish Republic, claimed that weapons were never even mentioned in the discussions, and formed no part of the Downing street declaration.

Make no mistake: the issue will have to be dealt with. If Sinn Fein negotiators were allowed into the talks backed by IRA guns, they would resort to the threat of violence if those talks did not go their way. They would have no qualms about leaving bodies scattered across the countryside—just as they have done through all these years.

The article by Sean O'Callaghan to which I referred said that what stirred him up more than anything else was when a woman was blown up by a bomb that he had set, and his IRA quartermaster asked him whether the woman had been pregnant. That, he said, would mean that two Prods had been killed for the price of one bomb. That was what really made him wonder what kind of an organisation he was working for.

As long as the IRA remains in existence and retains one bullet or one ounce of Semtex, I do not think Unionists can ever trust their commitment to the democratic process. Let us therefore not look for a gesture or a fudge on this issue. We require the absolute and total surrender of illegal weapons. If the British Government were to stand by their original commitment, they would require the very same.

My party will not oppose the Bill, but we do believe that there will be peace only when the weapons of war are finally removed from the hands of the murderers on the streets of Ulster. There is no place in a democracy for people with illegal weapons at their disposal with which they can threaten democrats who do not agree with them.

The Government owe it to the people of the United Kingdom to rid our country of the scourge of terrorists, wherever they come from. That will leave the security forces as the only people with the right to protect the population of the United Kingdom. I salute the bravery of our security forces, and I ask the Government to untie their hands and permit them to go after the terrorists and bring them to justice.

7.54 pm
Mr. Dennis Canavan (Falkirk, West)

I apologise for missing the opening speeches. I was at a meeting of the Scottish Grand Committee in Hamilton, after which there were delays at Glasgow airport.

I trust that both sides of the House are in agreement on the need to bring about an unequivocal ceasefire that will lead to all-party talks and decommissioning—and, I hope, the development of a permanent and peaceful settlement. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume) for all the hard work he has done in that respect, and I again urge Sinn Fein to try to persuade the IRA to bring about the unequivocal ceasefire that will allow Sinn Fein to enter the all-party talks.

I believe that the British Government should face up to their responsibilities. They could and should do much more to encourage the restoration of a ceasefire. The Government must learn from their past mistakes. The last ceasefire was a missed opportunity because of a series of protracted delays, first over clarification, then over permanence and then over decommissioning. There were great hopes that the Mitchell commission would break the deadlock on decommissioning, but when the commission came out with its report, the British Government put up another hurdle by insisting on further elections as a precondition for talks.

It was unjustifiable and deplorable on the part of the IRA to resume hostilities which led to the deaths and injuries of innocent people. I pay tribute to the former paramilitaries on the loyalist side who have managed to maintain their ceasefire; I hope that it continues. I note, however, that at least one person who was closely associated with one of the minor loyalist parties to the talks was involved in a trial at the High Court in Scotland and found guilty of an arms-related offence. But that did not disqualify his party from participation in the talks. I am not arguing that it should have done; I think that the talks should be all-inclusive, and that the British Government should be even-handed and consistent.

The delivery of an unequivocal ceasefire, and signing up to the Mitchell principles, should be the only preconditions for admission to the talks. No more hurdles must be put in the way of Sinn Fein or any other party. Mitchell proposed that the parties consider a compromise under which some decommissioning would take place during the process of all-party negotiations, instead of before or after. That seems a sensible compromise, which should allow Sinn Fein to enter all-party talks soon, after an unequivocal ceasefire is declared.

The Government could and should encourage such a ceasefire by announcing a timetable for entering the talks, instead of putting up more hurdles as outlined in the Prime Minister's statement of 28 November.

Another lesson that can be learned from the previous ceasefire is that the peace process has a better chance of developing when the British and Irish Governments work in harmony and speak with one voice.

I sense that, in recent weeks, the British Government have been listening more to the voice of the Ulster Unionists than to the voice of the Irish Government. I do not criticise them for listening to Ulster Unionists, who must be brought into the whole process, but the fact that the Government have apparently given more credence to them than to the Irish Government in recent weeks may have more to do with the arithmetical composition of the House than a genuine desire to develop the peace process.

I therefore appeal to the Prime Minister and the Minister of State: the Government's days are clearly numbered; this may be the Government's last chance; why not take a risk for the sake of peace? It would be a tragedy if another opportunity were lost, simply because the Government wanted to buy a few more votes and a few more months in power. The cause of peace is much more important than that.

8 pm

Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry)

I have been present, on and off, for most of the debate and have listened carefully to what has been said, not only by the Secretary of State and the Opposition spokesman but by several late arrivals. I assure the hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan) that he was not the only hon. Member to have been delayed by the weather. Some of my colleagues were similarly held back. Indeed, we have all had some form of travel difficulty today.

I listened with interest to the hon. Member for Redcar (Ms Mowlam), who talked of nationalist concerns over Drumcree. I find it amazing that all that I ever hear about Drumcree is that nationalist fears have resulted from it. No one seems prepared to consider that the Unionists might also have fears over Drumcree, Bellaghye and the boycotts that people have suffered. That seems to have been quietly swept under the carpet.

While the hon. Lady and other hon. Members are not unwilling to accept that the IRA has been the most active ingredient in promoting those confrontations on the streets, they seem to accept that those groups who call themselves "concerned residents" really represent the community and they would amount to nothing, were they not backed up by thugs with iron bars and balaclavas.

There is also a great willingness on behalf of the RUC to deal with the obstruction of legal processions. I remind Front-Bench Members on both sides of the House that the legislation under which we now operate was originally introduced to restrict traditional processions in Northern Ireland. At the same time, however, it re-enacted legislation relating to the obstruction of legal processions. If the police paid more attention to that and less attention to the obstructionists' howls, many of the problems that have been encountered might have been avoided.

I have difficulty with the fact that Unionists and members of the Loyalist institutions are asked to negotiate with those people. The perception of the Unionist population is fairly clear and accurate; it is being asked to negotiate with those opposed to the Union—those whom they perceive, to put it mildly, to support violence and terror—and ask them for permission to walk down the road. Once the people of Great Britain understand that that is what is happening, much of the violence in Northern Ireland over the past couple of years and the reasons for it become clear.

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) and the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney), who have both left the Chamber, talked about the psyche of the IRA. The IRA and its fellow travellers object to the police because they try to ensure that the Queen's writ runs. They object to the present situation in the prisons because they call those thugs and murderers who are properly given long sentences "prisoners of war".

Both the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North and the hon. and learned Member for North Down are as well aware as I am that if the IRA, Sinn Fein and violent republicans in general ever admitted to themselves that they were guilty of murder, rather than of killing someone in armed combat in legitimate battle; if they ever admitted to themselves that they were thugs rather than people imposing their authority on the population like some sort of thuggish police force; and if they admitted that their acts were illegal, their whole world would collapse. They could no longer rationalise the murders, the violence, the bombing and the intimidation of which they are guilty. It is to protect themselves that they claim that they are POWs. It is to protect their own mental stability—some of them have it—that they maintain that they are the legal descendants of old Sinn Fein and, even before that, of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. None of that has any legitimacy. They have been nothing but thugs and murderers from day one.

The hon. Members for Redcar and for Falkirk, West said that the two Governments working together had made progress. The hon. Lady cited the Anglo-Irish agreement and the framework document. My view is simple. I must ask: progress to what and to where? Progress implies that one has moved from one position to another. We all know perfectly well that the IRA is interested not so much in political power as constitutional change, which diminishes the United Kingdom and takes us ever closer to a united Ireland. If the hon. Lady and those who think like her call that political progress, they are failing in their duty as spokesmen for any major or even minor party in this House. The duty of all hon. Members is to maintain the United Kingdom and those who fail to do that add to rather than diminish the violence and horrors of Northern Ireland.

I was puzzled by the sheer blatant stupidity of what took place in Harryville in Ballymena. Over the weekend I began to wonder what was really going on and whether, rather than being stupid, there might be a deeper and more sinister motive behind that whole affair; a motive that may not have been there from the start but may have developed over recent weeks.

I commend the hon. Member for Redcar for taking up and supporting the Prime Minister's statement yesterday that the IRA will have to show by actions, not words, that violence has finished.

The Secretary of State said that this is an enabling Bill. Thankfully, he translated the word, "modalities" for us. I was glad of that but sorry that he did not translate exactly what "decommissioning" meant. That, however, has become clear as the debate has developed. I was interested that individuals will not be exposed to prosecution over the surrender of weapons. I looked with a rather jaundiced eye at that part of the Bill—clause 6—and I was surprised that it will take up to five years to convince those people that they must give up their weaponry.

Like one or two others, I must voice my abiding concerns about clause 6, which prohibits testing. It prohibits ballistic tests or any tests that might identify a weapon that was used in terrorist crime. Let us be clear about the sort of crimes in question. We are not speaking about someone who went out and shot his neighbour's pet rabbit or pigeon. We are speaking about guns that were used to murder people, to try to murder people, to rob banks or to intimidate. We are told that they will not be examined, and that evidence that might be gleaned from them will not be used to secure the conviction of a murderer.

Is that acceptable to the House? Is it acceptable to the chief constables in Great Britain, or are they not prepared to accept that aspect of the Bill, because they want to solve the murders and put the murderers away? That is exactly what the people in Northern Ireland want. I hope that the Government of the Irish Republic want it too. Some of the weapons were used to murder members of the Civic Guard and to commit other murders in the Irish Republic. I hope that the Government have the desire and the will to ensure that those who committed murders in that jurisdiction pay the price for their crimes.

We know that the legislation passed in this House must be the same as the legislation passed in the Dail, so the Bill cannot be changed. It will be pushed through. If the legislation is not the same, there is no way that a cross-border body can deal with the surrender of weapons. That is what decommissioning means, although it is not popular to state it as baldly as that—it might annoy members of the IRA, I suppose, but I am not concerned whether they are annoyed or not, because I do not believe that they will give up any of their weapons anyway. If the legislation is to be enforced, it must be the same on both sides of the border. We may object, but not a jot or tittle, other than little problems of punctuation that may turn up, will be corrected. If the Irish Republic is not prepared to make the same corrections in its legislation, presumably they will not be made in ours either.

I hope that as the passage of the legislation proceeds, the Government and those in the Dail who may want to question their legislation, will consider why we will refuse to use information that might put another murderer in prison, where he properly belongs.

Let us be honest. If the Bill is not passed, there is no framework. It is therefore vital for the Bill to be passed, to create the framework, although as the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) said, it is likely to remain unused. Nevertheless, we want it, so that there is a framework to enable weapons to be cleared if, by some unbelievable sequence of events, we ever get to that stage.

Whenever the weapons are cleared, decommissioned or surrendered, and members of the IRA come to talks, they will be faced with a question that they have yet to answer positively: do they accept the principle of consent? Do they accept the right of the people of Northern Ireland to say "No, we are not going to have a united Ireland. No, we don't want the cross-border institutions so beloved of Members on both Front Benches. No, we will not be ruled in a way that takes us out of the United Kingdom, in the short or the long term"? Will the IRA sign up to that? What is the evidence that it ever will?

Surely that evidence was set out elsewhere. It was made clear earlier this year, when the IRA refused to sign up to the reports of the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation in Dublin, on that very issue. Every other nationalist party, every other republican party and other odds and sods from elsewhere in the island of Ireland signed up to it. If members of the IRA could not sign up in those circumstances, they will not sign up to anything that would be acceptable to anyone but themselves. The plain truth is that the IRA has no intention of signing up to the principle of consent, now or ever. That would be such a psychological blow to the IRA that it could not come to terms with it.

Similar problems apply to the time scale. We are told that there must be a time scale, but that must be related to the actions of Sinn Fein and whether or not the conditions that allow talks to start are met. Because of the problems of the IRA ever meeting those conditions, no time scale is possible. The time scale is a red herring put out by the IRA to get itself into the talks on its terms, not on the terms set down by Mitchell, the Governments or anyone else.

The record shows that where there is no disarmament when dealing with an organisation such as the IRA, civil war will resume at some point. It may resume, as it did in Angola and Cambodia after the elections, or in Northern Ireland's case it may resume when the talks are completed, before we reach the elections, but resume it certainly will, if the IRA does not get its way. The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) told us that decommissioning should be addressed before anyone left the table. I fear that that is pie in the sky. We must ask ourselves what will happen when the IRA refuses to accept the result of talks, if by some strange chance we ever got that far.

The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh expressed his regrets that the IRA had not been defeated by the security forces. At some point we will return to that issue. It will come down to the IRA having to be defeated by the security forces. I am sorry to have to say that to the House, but it has been my view throughout my life.

I have grown up among those people and known many of them as a boy, a youth and a man. As the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, the right hon. Member for Westminster, North (Sir J. Wheeler) knows, there were two incidents in my village fairly recently. I do not think that I misjudge or misread members of the IRA. I know how their thought processes work and I know the conclusions that they have reached. I know what I am up against. I wish that others, not only in this House but throughout the world, would accept the reality of the situation, rather than the airy fairy nonsense that so many of them accept as reality.

8.18 pm
Mr. Tony Worthington (Clydebank and Milngavie)

As the House will have gathered, the Opposition support the approach to decommissioning that was embodied in the Mitchell report. Therefore, as the Bill stems from the report and its recommendations, we support the Bill.

The compromise envisages some decommissioning taking place during the process of the talks. We believe—as do the Government—that decommissioning will help to build the trust and confidence necessary for a better future in Northern Ireland. Decommissioning is enormously important in upholding the rule of law and underpinning the peace process by providing an assurance that any future problems will be solved by democratic means.

As the Secretary of State said at the beginning of the debate, decommissioning must suggest neither victory nor defeat: it must be accomplished to the satisfaction of an independent commission and it must result in the complete destruction of armaments. It must be fully verifiable; it must not expose individuals to prosecution and it must be mutual. We embrace those principles and we also seek those goals. We believe that this measure contributes to fulfilling Mitchell's intentions.

I have several questions regarding the detail of the Bill which the Minister may deal with in his winding-up speech, through correspondence or in Committee. Hon. Members have referred to those issues during the debate, but they are important and it would assist us if the information could be provided before the Bill goes to Committee. The first point was raised by the hon. Members for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) and for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross). I ask the Minister to clarify the Republic of Ireland's position vis-a-vis decommissioning.

We do not associate ourselves with the negative remarks on that subject as we believe that the Republic has been very steadfast and remains deeply committed to the process. However, it is known that a large quantity of the munitions involved is held in the Republic—that fact is not disputed. When talking about decommissioning, it would be fanciful to imagine that the former terrorists would bring their armaments across the border into Northern Ireland. Therefore, the Republic's actions are very important.

On 29 October, the Minister of Justice for Ireland referred to a commitment by both Governments to publish draft enabling legislation and to introduce that legislation in respective Parliaments in the current Session so that the legislative framework would be enacted by Christmas. In the same speech, the Minister of Justice said that there had been considerable discussion with the Northern Ireland Office as there is a recognised need for a co-ordinated response and the implementation of complementary arrangements in relation to the stock of illegally held weapons. The Northern Ireland justice Minister went on to say that the Bills differed in some respects. Perhaps the Minister will explain in what respect they are different and how that affects the Bill. Although they may be only technical divergences, it may assist the Committee to know how the Bills differ.

Secondly, will the Minister explain the thinking behind section 8? How does he expect it to operate? The section refers to the Act's implications in England, Wales and Scotland. Some hon. Members have referred to that issue during the debate and we need some details about how the relevant jurisdictions will implement the legislation. It would be helpful if the Minister could respond tonight or have those details ready for Committee.

The third issue was referred to by many hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) and the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith). It is probably unfortunate that we are in the habit of using the word "amnesty" in relation to the legislation. To my mind, "amnesty" implies that people have been forgiven or let off in some way for crimes that they have committed. However, as I read it, the Bill provides an amnesty not for the person but for the weapon. Evidence regarding the weapon can never be used, but if other evidence is produced to implicate someone in a crime—if, for example, two people come forward and say "We saw this person commit the crime"—that person is just as likely to be prosecuted in future. I listened to the speech by the hon. Member for Basingstoke and I do not think that he fully appreciates that point.

Mr. Hunter

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is a distinction between not using the forensic evidence and not obtaining it? If forensic evidence is obtained, it may eliminate many hours of police work.

Mr. Worthington

I appreciate the difference. However, the hon. Gentleman must recognise that we have an amnesty for weapons in order to assure people that the evidence collected from the weapons will not be used against them in the future. If there is decommissioning and if there is the slightest suspicion that evidence from a weapon may be used against a person in the future, we can forget about that scheme.

Mr. McNamara

Does my hon. Friend agree that the statement by the hon. Member for Basingstoke is based upon a misapprehension? He assumes that the international commission will surrender arms or that arms surrendered will go to either the Garda Siochana or the Royal Ulster Constabulary. We are concerned about the destruction of arms and explosives and the verification of that, not about the people who will destroy them.

Mr. Worthington

I accept my hon. Friend's comments. I do not think that any hon. Member has referred to my fourth issue. Will the Minister explain what is meant in section 7(2)(c) of the Bill which refers to conferring: on members and servants of the Commission and members of their families who form part of their households, in such cases, to such extent and with such modifications as the order may specify any of the privileges and immunities set down in Parts II, III and V of that Schedule". What does that mean? What safeguards are provided? Does the section refer to some kind of diplomatic immunity? I would be grateful for the Minister's clarification of that.

My fifth point regarding the Bill was also raised by the hon. Members for Upper Bann and for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis). What action will immediately follow the enactment of the Bill? In his statement on 30 October, the Secretary of State said it would be desirable to set up a committee of the plenary session talks to work out the precise role of the international commission proposed in the report by the international body. He spoke of the need to equip such a committee with a body of experts to work up the alternative approaches to decommissioning referred to by the international body. When the Bill passes through the House and the other place there will be no hiatus but will there be immediate action in that respect?

We want to assure the people of Northern Ireland that decommissioning means the end of violence without simultaneously insisting on total prior decommissioning which may erect a barrier to substantive talks that could bring about the desired decommissioning. It is ironic that the more barriers to talks one erects through insisting on total decommissioning, the less likely it is that decommissioning will occur at some future stage. The Mitchell report was commissioned to assist us in that regard and it produced a recommendation, which we have embraced.

The IRA and Sinn Fein are being incredibly disingenuous if they do not see that it becomes impossible for their opponents to accept the genuineness of talks if, simultaneously, activities take place that undermine the talks for which Sinn Fein has clamoured. Sinn Fein must know that there is a strong suspicion—it was more than a suspicion, according to the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson)—that the tactic of Sinn Fein-IRA is consecutively to use talks and violence. Confidence was very much destroyed by Canary wharf, Manchester, Thiepval and Osnabruck. IRA-Sinn Fein must realise that such is the atmosphere of mistrust that it will have no one to talk to unless there is evidence of its bona fides, and unless there is, as my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Ms Mowlam) said, action as well as words.

If at the same time as talks, people and places are targeted, that would be inimical to the talks process. If at the same time as talks, or preparation for talks, there is paramilitary training, that would be inimical to the peace process. If at the same time as talks, or preparation for talks, there are punishment beatings and intimidation, that would be inimical to the talks process. If at the same time as talks there are boycotts of totally legitimate businesses that happen to be owned by the other side, that would also be inimical to the talks process.

All those activities raise question marks about the genuine intention of those seeking all-party talks. Such activities are utterly destructive to the chance of progress because they are destructive to the trust that is necessary. On the other side, if every tactic is used to prevent talks progressing to substantive issues, that is also destructive behaviour. All of us who advocate the democratic process have to prove that it works. We have to show that progress is possible. To sit at the talks table and put verbal obstacles to progress is to be destructive of a peaceful future. The issue of trust is key to this.

There are many confidence-building measures that can and must be used. There is a heavy responsibility on all of us. The Prime Minister made a key statement on 24 January this year, when he said: The Government believe that such an elective process offers a viable alternative direct route to the confidence necessary to bring about all-party negotiations. That statement was backed by many hon. Members. He continued: In that context, it is possible to imagine decommissioning and such negotiations being taken forward in parallel."—[Official Report, 24 January 1996; Vol. 270, c. 354.] There is a heavy responsibility on those who urged that the electoral process offered a way forward to all-party talks to demonstrate that it can work.

Decommissioning is a two-way street. It is likely to occur only if we can show that the democratic process on offer is genuine. Decommissioning is most likely to occur, therefore, if it looks as though the talks are working.

As we debate the Bill to provide the mechanism for decommissioning, we must continue to support the talks process. There is a heavy realisation that the talks may become comatose because of the approaching general election. That must not happen, because that lack of progress has its own big dangers.

For our part, we will, as we always have, continue to support the Government through the Bill while we believe that they are genuinely seeking to move forward to all-party talks and a peaceful resolution.

8.33 pm
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Sir John Wheeler)

I am particularly glad to follow the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington), and I welcome his concluding remarks. I shall return to some of his points.

I thank all hon. Members who took part in the debate for their wide-ranging support for the Government's proposals in the Bill. A number of points were raised, and I shall seek to deal with them during my remarks, but I hope that hon. Members will forgive me if I do not specifically refer to them on each occasion.

I welcome the support given to the Government's proposal by the hon. Member for Redcar (Ms Mowlam), speaking on behalf of Her Majesty's Opposition. I shall touch on some of the issues in the clauses that she raised.

The hon. Lady referred to the importance of the review carried out by Dr. Peter North. I particularly welcome her remarks on that matter. We shall look at what Dr. North recommends when his report is made available to the Government in a week or so. We shall look in particular at what recommendations are capable of negotiation and agreement between all concerned so that we can avoid a repeat of the Drumcree situation this year.

Mr. McNamara

I thought that Dr. North's report was due in January, not in a fortnight's time.

Sir John Wheeler

I said in a few weeks' time. The end of January is, alas, but a few weeks away.

Ms Mowlam

I apologise for pressing this point, but if the Minister is suggesting that the report will be ready any earlier than two weeks, it is very important to get it into the public domain and for the Northern Ireland parties to discuss it as soon as possible, because it is important to build a coalition of support around them.

Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam)

indicated dissent.

Ms Mowlam

The hon. Lady shakes her head, but to me "a few" means two or three weeks; the end of January is six weeks away.

I do not want to push the Minister unreasonably, but it is an important report.

Sir John Wheeler

I am grateful to the hon. Lady. I used the word "few". Others may have misheard and believed that I was referring to two. I understand that the report will be available at the end of January. I look forward to receiving it and to considering its recommendations at that time.

The hon. Member for Redcar also referred to the events at Ballymena and to the courage of the mayor, Councillor Curry, and others, who demonstrated beyond any doubt the determination of all men of good will to stand out against the evil that is occurring there at the present time. I, too, salute the work of the mayor and others who sustained him during the past weekend.

The hon. Lady raised a number of questions about clauses. On clause 1(b), we have no specific additional provisions in mind. The methods of decommissioning identified in clause 3, which reflects Mitchell's recommendations, seem to cover all the most likely and realistic options. Nevertheless, the Government will wish to preserve maximum flexibility in case other possible ways to decommission illegal arms are identified. Clause 1 preserves that flexibility, which I think the House will agree is entirely sensible.

The hon. Lady raised a point about clause 4(2). The schedule contains a comprehensive list of offences that may be committed during decommissioning and to which the Government consider the amnesty should apply. The Government will include the power to amend the schedule as a precaution, should the need arise at some future stage to amend the list to add or remove offences or descriptions of offences—for example, should future changes to the firearms or explosives law add or remove relevant offences.

On clauses 3, 4, 5 and 6, the Government have in mind the situation where, having been decommissioned, an article is misappropriated and used to commit a crime. The Irish Government make similar provision in their Bill. For example, where a gun is handed over to a commission or designated person, it is regarded as having been decommissioned. If, having been handed over, it is stolen from storage prior to destruction and used to commit a crime, it is right that it should be available in evidence and that it should be forensically tested in relation to the alleged offence.

The hon. Lady asked whether the England, Wales and Scottish schemes under clause 8 would be radically different. The answer is no. Decommissioning schemes made under clause 8 will automatically attract the Bill's provisions, including the core amnesty, evidential and forensic testing restrictions. The detailed modalities of a decommissioning scheme in Great Britain may differ from a Northern Ireland scheme, depending on whether different circumstances applied at the time the scheme was made.

The right hon. Member for Berwick—upon—Tweed (Mr. Beith) also asked a question on that theme. Any weapon decommissioned under the scheme will be permanently unavailable for testing, whereas the life of the Bill is only five years. Therefore, the Bill's benefits have a permanent effect.

My hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) also welcomed the Bill, and made a substantial speech in which he asked a number of questions.

Mr. William Ross

Before the right hon. Gentleman leaves the subject of decommissioning, may I say that I assume that the Government have thought of the possibility of stolen weapons turning up among those that are decommissioned? Will they be returned to their original owners?

Sir John Wheeler

The Government will want to contemplate that matter and make provision for that. No doubt the hon. Gentleman will pursue that issue in the Standing Committee, if he is privileged enough to be appointed to it; if not, I am sure that others will. I shall be pleased to consider what special arrangements can be made in those circumstances.

My hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke raised a number of points on clause 6. He and others talked about testing and the serious effect on the investigation of crime. I contend that the exemption for testing would not necessarily preclude investigations of crime. Prosecutions are often mounted in the absence of the weapon used: other evidence of involvement in the crime often plays a more central role.

If evidence against an individual that was unconnected with the decommissioning process supported a prosecution, that evidence would be used and the prosecution could take place. The important point to remember is that it is our aim in the Bill to persuade those in possession of unlawful armaments to decommission them. If they feel exposed, they will not participate, and the arms will not be handed over. The removal from society of illegal arms and Semtex is clearly in the public interest, but without clause 6 there would be no decommissioning.

I agree with the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie. The provisions of clause 6 apply to weapons: they do not apply to individuals. Individuals will continue to be pursued by the authorities to the utmost degree. It is the weapon or the Semtex that will be exempt under the provisions of the Bill.

Mr. Ross

I am sorry to keep interrupting the Minister, but he knows that all bullet-firing weapons in Northern Ireland that are held under firearms certificates are presently recorded—they are taken in, fired and a match is kept. The forensic laboratories of the security forces also have a record of all weapons that have been used in terrorist crime, because the bullets fired are recovered. If we do not examine the weapons that are handed in, we will never be sure that all those that have been used in terrorist crime have been handed in. It is a way of checking the honesty of the people with whom we are dealing.

Sir John Wheeler

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, which we should explore in Committee. If an amendment is tabled, the Committee will have to consider it; but we must not lose sight of the fact that the Bill's purpose is to set in train a decommissioning arrangement in the Republic of Ireland and in the United Kingdom so as to remove the stockpiles of illegally held weapons, Semtex, detonators and other munitions. If there comes a time when that is realistically expected, there must be the means to secure the delivery of those illegally held weapons. If we create a situation in which those who already hold illegal stocks of weapons will not play the game, we will lose out completely.

A judgment must be made. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the House finds it a distasteful judgment, as I do, but that is the reality of the problem with which the kernel of the Bill is trying to deal.

The hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) made a number of key points in his speech, which I was glad to consider. He referred to the late arrival of sonic hon. Members. As someone who has travelled to and from Northern Ireland more than 300 times, I, too, am a victim of aircraft delays. The House will readily understand why some hon. Members were unable to be present.

The hon. Gentleman welcomed the Bill. He referred in particular to the commission's powers. My right hon. and learned Friend made it clear that the Her Majesty's Government and the Irish Government have accepted the international body's recommendation that decommissioning should be overseen by an independent commission. Such a commission should be established by international agreement, and could have conferred on it appropriate legal status, immunities and privileges under the Bill. I shall return in a moment to immunities.

The commission would be capable of operating independently in the United Kingdom and the Republic, and would enjoy appropriate legal status conferred by order. The eventual composition and size of the commission will depend on its role in the decommissioning scheme. What the Government expect it to do will, to a large extent, determine its membership and how it is staffed and otherwise resourced. The parties in the talks process are considering the commission's composition, role and terms of reference. The Bill intends to keep all options open. I hope that that will help and reassure the hon. Member for Upper Bann.

The Government have no fixed timetable for the establishment of a commission. We do not rule out its establishment prior to the start of decommissioning, so that it can act in an advisory capacity to the two Governments, as the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis) said. The Government are committed to providing the necessary information and assistance to the commission to enable it to carry out its duties. We do not consider that the powers to search, to enter premises or to require the production of information are necessary or desirable, as we believe that decommissioning, once it occurs will—indeed, must—be voluntary and cannot be imposed.

The hon. Member for Upper Bann and others asked about the five-year limit. The overall time limit of five years has no particular significance. It does not mean that we expect the decommissioning process to last five years, although the possibility that it will cannot be discounted. We recognise that the decommissioning process may extend beyond the two-year period set aside for talks. We are, for example, looking for the decommissioning of all illegal arms, including those in the possession of groups that are not party to the talks process. I am thinking of organisations such as the Irish National Liberation Army and Republican Sinn Fein and, perhaps, others. If, as we all hope, decommissioning has been completed before the end of the five-year period, no subsequent order extending the maximum duration of the amnesty will be necessary.

The hon. Gentleman also raised points about entry conditions. If there were to be a new ceasefire, we should need to take great care in assessing whether it was indeed unequivocal. In the making of that assessment, account would have to be taken of all the circumstances, including events on the ground. Reference has been made in the debate to some of those. For example, is targeting still going on? Are the terrorist gangs still fully equipped and preparing to mount operations? Are punishment beatings going on, and who is responsible for them? All the events that have been mentioned in today's debate would form part of the judgment that Her Majesty's Government would have to make.

Mr. McNamara

If that is the case—no one would disagree with what the Minister said about all the issues that he has mentioned—why can he not say, "If you declare a ceasefire at such a time, provided that those matters are dealt with, we will then allow you to enter the talks"?

Sir John Wheeler

If the Provisional IRA-Sinn Fein were to make an announcement in clear, unequivocal terms, and follow up its statement and its language with clear action on the ground—by, for example, giving an instruction to stand down the so-called active service units—and if the evidence were so plain that no Member of Parliament, including those present this evening, doubted the reality of the position, it would be comparatively easy for Sinn Fein to enter the talks process. If that were not the case, however, Her Majesty's Government would be obliged to take into account those circumstances, to look at events on the ground and to make a judgment. That is an inescapable burden that falls on the Government—a burden that the Government will not shirk.

In saying that, I make it clear to the House that the Government are not attempting to erect barriers to Sinn Fein's entry into the talks process. We want an inclusive process. But if that process is to succeed, and if other parties to the talks are to remain in the same room, what Sinn Fein says must be absolutely true and beyond any question of doubt. I hope that I have made our position clear.

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) also raised the question—as he just did in his intervention—of Sinn Fein's entry into the talks. As I have made clear, and as the Government have made clear on many occasions, the exclusion from the present talks process is a self-exclusion. It could end today. It is in the hands of the Provisional IRA-Sinn Fein to take the action that would command confidence and permit it to enter the process: that is entirely a matter for it.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

The Minister used the word "action". He will recognise that there was a time when members of the IRA would never deny their membership. They changed that, and were prepared to challenge it at the time Daithi O'Connell was brought before the courts in Dublin. Does the Minister accept that words are not enough to convince the people of Northern Ireland that they are genuine? References to a "resumed ceasefire" or to the "restoration of a ceasefire" are not enough either. That is not the ceasefire that the people of Northern Ireland want, because it was never real or genuine.

Sir John Wheeler

The hon. Gentleman is right. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said that the previous ceasefire, which we all welcomed, was nevertheless fraudulent: it did not deliver the integrity that the House, the public and parties in Northern Ireland sought. We cannot make that mistake again. If there is to be another ceasefire, it must be genuine, and perceived to be genuine by all who have an interest in the process; otherwise it will not work.

The hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) also raised points about the scheme. The Government intend the scheme, or schemes, to be appropriate to Great Britain, taking into account the different circumstances that may apply in the two separate jurisdictions—England and Wales, and Scotland.

The hon. Gentleman asked about details of the scheme. Work on ways in which decommissioning take place in practice is certainly in hand, but it is not possible at this stage to finalise the detailed arrangements. Those are also matters in which the parties to the talks will have an interest. I can say, however, that the ways will encompass one or more of the decommissioning methods set out in paragraph 44 of the report of the international body.

I very much hope and expect that all parties in Northern Ireland will have the opportunity to examine any decommissioning schemes in draft. The House will also have the opportunity to scrutinise both the content and the length of such schemes at regular intervals. That is the purpose of clause 2, and the intention behind it.

The hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney) asked about the relevance of the Mitchell report following the events of 9 February. The Government's view is that the only basis on which the process can move forward to a position in which decommissioning is actually likely to occur is the compromise favoured by the international body, providing for some decommissioning during the negotiations. I recognise the sincerely and strongly held reservations of principle expressed by many hon. Members about aspects of this, but unless we can move the process forward under the Mitchell proposals, no progress will be made.

The hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Rev. William McCrea) referred to the 100 concessions, to use his words. They were not concessions. They were moves, during the ceasefire period, towards normality. The Government made them in response to the decreased security threat, as was then the case. No one in Northern Ireland wants to live with all the security arrangements that then existed, but, in the wake of the resumption of violence, and under the advice of the Chief Constable, the Government have reversed some of those relaxations. We will take no risks with the security of people in Northern Ireland.

The hon. Gentleman also raised "The Cook Report" television programme and the involvement of Mr. Martin McGuinness. Any evidence that comes to the notice of the authorities will be properly examined, but it is for the independent Director of Public Prosecutions to decide whether there is a case to take before the courts. There is no lack of willingness, however, to investigate such cases, if the evidence is there.

In Committee, we will consider in more detail the points raised by the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie. I think that I have answered some of them already, but the timing of the introduction of the Irish Bill is a matter for the Irish Government. I have no reason to believe, however, that their earlier intention to introduce their Bill shortly does not still stand. Both Governments have worked closely together to prepare legislation that is entirely complementary.

In the past few weeks, that detailed work has continued. The need for the two Bills to match each other closely has required the Irish side to take account of certain late changes to our Bill. They refer in particular to including Great Britain within the Bill's scope. The scheme in the Republic of Ireland requires a form of regulation that we do not need to have in our Bill, so there are those minor differences in the arrangements.

Ms Mowlam

I appreciate the Minister giving way. In terms of timing, would the Minister help to clarify an earlier intervention? Would it be possible for him to give a commitment that the publication of the North committee report will be timed with a statement in the House, so that the House can respond to the report immediately?

Sir John Wheeler

I cannot predict what the business managers may be willing to agree to at the end of January. I will, of course, take note of the hon. Lady's suggestion about a statement. She would agree, however, that it is important that, once it is available, the report should be carefully considered. If there is a need for any legislative changes, the House would want to consider those at the earliest practicable opportunity. To that extent, I acknowledge the hon. Lady's concern.

Mr. Trimble

I appreciate the Minister's caution about promising statements to the House, because I am sure that the business managers of the House would have an interest in that. I notice, however, that the Northern Ireland Office rarely makes statements to the House and that there are oodles of matters on which it should, including its statement tomorrow morning in Stormont—a place where we will not be.

Be that as it may, will the Minister give an undertaking that, as soon as he receives the North committee report, it will be published so that all parties in the House and the whole community in Northern Ireland can react to it and so that we have proper consultation before the legislation?

Sir John Wheeler

I will of course take into account the hon. Gentleman's advice and find out what can be done to meet his objectives.

I hope that I have dealt with some of the points of hon. Members. I look forward to pursuing those points in further detail in Standing Committee next week, when I hope we shall be able to make speedy progress with the Bill, which has received widespread support from the House as a whole.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee, pursuant to Standing Order No. 61 (Committal of Bills).