HC Deb 25 January 1996 vol 270 cc466-8
2. Dr. Spink

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what progress has been made in respect of the decommissioning of illegally held arms and explosives in Northern Ireland. [9627]

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

No illegal arms or explosives have yet been decommissioned by any paramilitary organisation. That is deplorable. The international body said that total and verifiable disarmament of all paramilitary organisations must continue to be a principal objective. It recommended the acceptance of that as a principle. We accepted it at once with all the other recommendations in the report. All others should now do the same.

Dr. Spink

Is it not a fact that decommissioning remains an option? If some arms were decommissioned even now, we could progress to all-party talks, which might still be the best way forward. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the Mitchell report showed that the only obstacle to decommissioning is the mind set of Sinn Fein and the IRA?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

It is, indeed, an option. It is more than an option—it is a duty. I believe that if that option were taken and that duty fulfilled we could proceed to all-party negotiations, which is the objective of everyone, in a very short time indeed. I hope very much, in the light of the report, that that course will now he taken.

Mr. Maginnis

As Sinn Fein-IRA appear unable to rehabilitate themselves to the normality of democratic politics and summarily reject accommodations offered by the Government, the Ulster Unionists and now the Mitchell Commission and, in defiance of 83 per cent. of society in Northern Ireland—which includes 75 per cent. of Social Democratic and Labour party supporters—refuse to decommission a single gun, is it not depressing to find Tanaiste Dick Spring and the leader of the SDLP whingeing and whining about the Government's latest offer to establish a mandated forum which might advance progress towards peace?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

It is important that Sinn Fein and other parties associated with the paramilitary organisations should be pressed to say whether they accept the principles recommended by the report—especially the second of those principles, which is total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations.. On the proposal for an election, it is worth reminding the House that in the communiqué at the end of November setting up the political and disarmament tracks the two Governments expressly envisaged that in preparatory and political talks the question of what part an elected body might play would be specifically mentioned. So it is not some new idea summoned out of the ether in the past minute or two. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said yesterday, it represents a way by which the necessary confidence can be achieved and I hope that it will receive careful consideration.

Rev. William McCrea

Does the Secretary of State agree with the principle that there can be no guns on the table, under the table or outside the door if lasting peace is to be established in Northern Ireland? Has he carefully studied the recent poll, which showed that 83 per cent. of people in Northern Ireland demand the removal of all terrorist weapons from the equation? What steps will he take to press the Dublin Government to act on the known arms dumps in the Irish Republic, which were created prior to the IRA ceasefire?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I am confident that the Irish Government are as anxious to discover illegal arms dumps as the British Government are—and that is very anxious indeed. I have studied the report and agree that it is extremely important that public opinion is shown to be in line with what the hon. Gentleman has just said, and in line with support for an elective process to play a part in our current problems. That should give reassurance.

Mr. Mallon

Will the Secretary of State confirm that both the Irish and British Governments jointly appointed the Mitchell Commission to give an objective assessment on how the decommissioning issue would be dealt with? His Government have now rejected the Mitchell report's central recommendation in paragraph 34 and have unilaterally and shamelessly moved away and reneged on the agreement with the Irish Government to pursue the matter through all-party talks in the twin-track approach. How will decommissioning be tackled now that the Secretary of State has sacrificed potential consensus for expediency within this House?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I am afraid that I am not with the hon. Gentleman on any of that. The Government have not rejected the Mitchell report but have welcomed it. We immediately adopted all the recommendations of principle that it put forward. We welcome especially the report's identification of confidence as the central requirement. All-party negotiations could begin in fulfilment of the Government's aim by the end of February, provided that a start is made on decommissioning. If that does not happen—and we are told that it will not—it is the duty of Governments to see whether confidence can be engendered in some other way. I want that issue urgently debated in the twin-track process. That is what is suggested.

Mr. Day

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that although everyone in the House hopes for the day when all parties in Northern Ireland will seek the path of peace and sign up to the six points of principle laid out in the recent report, such declarations count for nothing in practice until the people holding arms give them up? Will the Secretary of State take the opportunity to call for all parties to give up arms now—not just to make declarations, but actually to hand the arms over?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I very much agree with what my hon. Friend says. Putting it in a cliché, actions speak louder than words. That was put in slightly different language by the Mitchell report, when it said that if those principles, which include the total disarmament of all paramilitary arms, were adopted and honoured, there would be a tremendous accretion of confidence and progress. I very much agree with that.

Ms Mowlam

Continuing our bipartisan approach, may I joint the Secretary of State in welcoming the report of Senator Mitchell and his colleagues? Yesterday, discussing the report, Members on both sides of the House emphasised the need for trust and confidence. Today there is a worrying air of distrust and a lack of confidence among some Members of the House and among some communities in Northern Ireland. To help to allay some of those fears, can the Secretary of State confirm to the House today that he will consider all options proposed to take the process forward, including making a start on decommissioning, and that movement towards an elective process, in line with paragraph 56 of the Mitchell report, will go ahead only with the widespread agreement of the parties in Northern Ireland?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

We have always made it clear that there can be no imposition if any solution that is proposed is to stick. I make that clear again.

The hon. Lady is right that in that paragraph the report states: Elections held in accordance with democratic principles express and reflect the popular will. There are other signs of that in the poll that has been mentioned. The report continues: If it were broadly acceptable, with an appropriate mandate, and within the"— three-party— structure, an elective process could contribute to the building of confidence. We endorse that. I hope very much that that, on reflection, will be seen to be a way around the impasse represented by the refusal of paramilitaries even to start giving up their arms.