HC Deb 14 November 1996 vol 285 cc473-5
2. Mrs. Ann Winterton

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the decommissioning of terrorist weapons in Northern Ireland. [2510]

Sir Patrick Mayhew

The possession of terrorist weapons in Northern Ireland is wholly unacceptable. Accordingly, the Government will bring forward legislation of an enabling character to provide the statutory foundation for detailed decommissioning arrangements.

Mrs. Winterton

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that it is still vital that, before coming to the negotiating table, IRA-Sinn Fein must be required to decommission their illegally held weapons? Does he also agree that it is highly unlikely that they will consent to do so for the simple reason that their power base is maintained by the bullet and the bomb, not the ballot box?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I very much agree with the latter part of my hon. Friend's question. It is of course because of that that we are determined that there shall not be a threat hanging over those at the conference table and represented by one party with friends outside the door holding a pile of Semtex and other armaments, which they threaten to use unless a settlement that is satisfactory to them is reached. That would be an unacceptable threat in any democracy—I remind everyone that Northern Ireland is part of our democracy.

I do not, however, agree with my hon. Friend's remark that there must be a complete surrender or decommissioning of weapons by Sinn Fein before any admission to the negotiating table. Our position is based on what is described in the Mitchell report, at paragraphs 34 and 35, as a compromise: decommissioning should take place during the process of negotiations. In that way mutual confidence will be built up.

Mr. Maginnis

Does the Secretary of State agree that after six months of talks it is intolerable that those of us who sit around the table have merely been offered the gesture of enabling legislation, at some date yet to be determined, leading to the setting up of a disarmament and verification commission? What objection does the Secretary of State have to the Ulster Unionist proposal that those who will form that commission should be identified and brought together as a commission designate and enabled to conduct some of the preparatory work that will be necessary if the process of decommissioning is to begin within the lifetime of this Parliament?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is desirable that there should be legislation enabling such a scheme as quickly as possible, and that the scheme should be set up as quickly as possible. These are not easy matters, as the hon. Gentleman knows. He also knows that a scheme-enabling Bill is well advanced and that it is our intention to introduce it very quickly. He also knows that we are giving careful attention to the proposal that he and his party have made. His purpose in doing so is the same as ours—we want to get on as quickly as possible and to ensure that no time is unnecessarily lost before a commission can effectively be put in place once the legislation is passed.

Rev. William McCrea

Has the Secretary of State been made aware of talks between the Irish Foreign Minister, Dick Spring, and IRA-Sinn Fein in recent days? Does he agree that the real proof of any ceasefire will be the handing up of the illegal guns and Semtex that have brought so much terror and murder to our Province? Does he further agree that the policy of compromise of which he speaks has brought nothing to Northern Ireland but tears, sorrow and mayhem for 25 years?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I do not agree that it is a policy of compromise which has brought to Northern Ireland the misery which the hon. Gentleman describes so well and has experienced himself. What has brought that has been the evil and undemocratic processes and policies of the IRA and of its counterparts on the loyalist side—we must never forget that.

I believe that it is sensible to try to find an accommodation, which is what we shall continue to do. I am not aware of any conversations between the Tanaiste and people in Sinn Fein. What I do say is that I will continue to be prepared to take criticism for seeking an accommodation, provided I do so firmly within the parameters of the policy that Her Majesty's Government have publicly laid down.

Mr. Mallon

Does the Secretary of State agree that the political negotiations and the entire political process should not be made hostage to the decommissioning issue? Does he further agree that the Mitchell report should and can be the only basis on which that matter is resolved? And will he assure the House that the two Governments will do all in their power to ensure that we move into the three-strand negotiations without further delay, further prevarication or further attempts by anyone to rewrite the Mitchell report?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I do not know whether anybody has tried to rewrite the Mitchell report. It would be a difficult task and we certainly do not wish it to be done. We think that the Mitchell compromise approach is the right one. We do not want any obstacle placed in the way of entering the three-stranded discussions, save that there has to be a clear understanding as to how the question of illegally held arms shall be dealt with—illegally held arms held by those who will have issued an unequivocal ceasefire and then sought to be admitted to the talks. That cannot be brushed aside. There may be more than one way of coping with it. If we can find a way by which it can be coped with satisfactorily that will facilitate our entry into the three-stranded substantive process, we shall be very glad to achieve it.

Mr. Bill Walker

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that while one group believes that it can have its way by using firearms and bombs, others are inevitably led to believe that that is the only mechanism through which they can retaliate? The danger is, of course, that many of the illegal weapons are also used for what can be described only as gangster activity. Such a complex situation makes it right for the Government to insist that no political party should be allowed to address the issue of democracy unless it distances itself completely and irrevocably from weapons.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I agree completely with my hon. Friend.

Ms Mowlam

I welcome the Secretary of State's comments in answer to this question and assure him of the Opposition's support for the legislation that he has proposed. It is crucial and we shall give it fair passage. It would be helpful if he confirmed that his approach to decommissioning will be in line not only with the Mitchell principles but with the joint statement by the British and Irish Governments of 1 October. It would also clarify an answer he gave to an earlier question if he explained the role of the verification committee. That might help answer questions about the timing of multi-party talks moving towards a three-stranded approach. Further information on the verification committee might help the House.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I am grateful for the hon. Lady's expression of support for the legislation, the character of which she knows. The two Governments' draft conclusions were put forward exactly as they were expressed and they are intended not to be an end but to be a means to an end. Obviously, we are paying careful attention to the responses that the parties have given and are giving to those conclusions. What we want to do is what I just tried to describe to the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon). We want to find a means by which decommissioning can be disposed satisfactorily that will lead us as quickly as possible into discussion on the three strands—the substantive discussions. We will continue to try to offer ways forward and continue to listen to the responses that are made.

Sir Patrick Cormack

Have not all law-abiding citizens throughout the UK the right to expect that no party will be admitted to substantive talks without first repudiating unequivocally the use of force and the possession of weapons?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

Effectively, yes. All parties have to sign up, if they are to proceed with negotiations, to the Mitchell principles, which include precisely what my hon. Friend has said. That is axiomatic, really, in any democracy. The technical position is that Sinn Fein cannot come in until there has been an unequivocal restoration of the ceasefire of August 1994. As I and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister have made clear on many an occasion, in the light of events this year, there has to be more than words. There has to be, in the language used by the hon. Member for Redcar (Ms Mowlam), a commitment to the path of peace.