HC Deb 13 June 1996 vol 279 cc407-9
3. Mrs. Bridget Prentice

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what progress is being made on the issue of decommissioning paramilitary arms. [30924]

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

Her Majesty's Government and the Irish Government are co-operating closely in drawing up legislation designed to underpin any decommissioning scheme emerging from the talks process.

Mrs. Prentice

Does the Minister agree that, given the appalling history of paramilitary violence in Northern Ireland, it is essential to address decommissioning? Given that the whole House wants a lasting peace in Northern Ireland, it is essential that we have all-party talks. Will he tell us the precise criteria by which he would be prepared to admit Sinn Fein to those talks?

Sir John Wheeler

The criteria for the admission of Sinn Fein to the talks process are well established. First, there must be an unequivocal ceasefire; then Sinn Fein will gain entry to the talks process. But it must agree to the Mitchell principles. All the parties attending the talks process so far have so agreed. There is no excuse for the continuing violence in Northern Ireland or in the Republic of Ireland. The sooner those who talk about a commitment to democracy choose to honour that commitment, the greater will be the progress towards peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland and in the island of Ireland as a whole.

Mr. Hume

Does the Minister agree that the real task facing us now is to take the gun for ever out of our politics? In my own opinion and judging by my own experience, we now have the best opportunity ever to do so. Will the Minister reaffirm the fact that the real challenge that now faces us is that, although the talks process threatens no section of our people, it in effect challenges all of us to come up with the new thinking that will accommodate both our traditions and give us the lasting stability that all sections of our people are now screaming for?

Sir John Wheeler

I agree with the sentiment expressed by the hon. Gentleman; he is quite right. If there is to be progress, all our voices must be used to stop, for example, the petrol bomb attacks which occur regularly. There have been 62 such attacks in Northern Ireland since 1 January. There must also be an end to the appalling cycle of violence through punishment attacks, of which there have been no fewer than 407 since August 1994. So long as those events are taking place, there will not be the confidence within the community and among the democratic parties which foregather for the talks process that the terrorist groups genuinely seek to take the gun and the Semtex out of politics.

Mr. Maginnis

Is the Minister encouraged, as we are, by the fact that the loyalist paramilitaries have now been in ceasefire mode for 20 months, which is longer than any other ceasefire during the past 25 or 26 years? Is he aware that the elected representatives associated with the loyalist paramilitaries have given their assent to the Mitchell principles? Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise the difficulty that those people will face when they agree in principle to abide in every way by the Mitchell principles, but feel unable to put that into tangible effect because there is no pro rata agreement or arrangement by the republican paramilitaries? Does he agree that we must all try to establish the confidence-building measures that will encourage progress in that respect?

Sir John Wheeler

The hon. Gentleman is right to emphasise confidence-building measures. Of course people can sign up to the six Mitchell principles, but that means that they must use their influence, they must condemn and, so far as they can, they must ensure that punishment attacks, petrol bombing and racketeering all end, so that, progressively, the people of Northern Ireland can enjoy a peaceful environment. It is extraordinary, for example, that Sinn Fein could not even condemn the murder of a detective constable in the Republic of Ireland last week.

Rev. William McCrea

Is it not true that, although there is much talk about the IRA-Sinn Fein wanting to come into the talks process at some time, at present, while the talks are going on, those people are actually regrouping, restocking and retraining with the weaponry of war? Is it not also true that a mere declaration for the Mitchell principles will not be acceptable, and that there must also be a surrender of weapons and of the teeth of war if we are to have peace?

Is it not strange that, as I read in the paper today, the Irish Republic has recruited 800 extra guards along the border to keep cattle from Northern Ireland out of the south—the most expensive security operation in 25 years, and indeed in the history of the island—yet it could not use those 800 troops to stop the terrorists coming from the Irish Republic into Northern Ireland?

Sir John Wheeler

The hon. Gentleman is quite right: the Provisional IRA has proved to be a formidably organised terrorist structure, and it is doing what he describes. If Sinn Fein is to be part of the talks process, an unequivocal ceasefire must be announced, followed by Sinn Fein signing up to the six Mitchell principles, which must then be honoured. During the weeks after that, a start to decommissioning will be made. Until those events occur, there will not be confidence among those seeking a democratic way forward for Northern Ireland.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

I endorse 100 per cent. the views expressed by my right hon. Friend. Does he accept that the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons is the only key to the door of a genuine ceasefire and lasting peace? Does he accept that the overwhelming majority in Northern Ireland—on both sides of the religious divide—believe that weapons should be handed in? Would it not be a betrayal of the trust of the ordinary men and women in Northern Ireland—whether nationalist or Unionist—if the Government allowed terrorists to retain their weapons?

Sir John Wheeler

My hon. Friend is right, but there are many keys on the key ring, including that of talks and negotiations. The most important key of all is the commitment to decommissioning that is part of the six Mitchell principles. Once made, it must be honoured. Once decommissioning starts, people will believe that the process will gain momentum. The horror of the murder of the Garda constable in the Republic of Ireland last week has struck home widely in the island of Ireland. My hon. Friend is right to say that, overwhelmingly, the people want to see the start of decommissioning and a total end to violence.

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