HC Deb 02 December 1998 vol 321 cc865-70
1. Mr. Shaun Woodward (Witney)

If she will make a statement on the decommissioning of weapons from terrorist organisations. [61198]

2. Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire)

What progress has been made on the decommissioning of illegally held arms; and if she will make a statement. [61199]

3. Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge)

What progress has been made on the decommissioning of illegally held arms and explosives. [61200]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Marjorie Mowlam)

The independent International Commission on Decommissioning has been holding discussions about the means of decommissioning with representatives from a number of parties associated with paramilitary organisations.

Although actual decommissioning has yet to start, the Government are determined to see the Good Friday agreement implemented in full. It is time for all paramilitary groups to play their part in the implementation of the agreement and start decommissioning now.

Mr. Woodward

Although nobody in the House would in any way wish to undermine the achievements of the peace process—and I am sure that everybody in the House would continue to support fully the Secretary of State in the work that she is doing—we must bear it in mind that a great deal of understanding is required by those who have seen more than 200 paramilitary prisoners released since 11 September without a single weapon having been decommissioned. The understanding that is required by the families of the victims of the most brutal killings by some of those who have now been released is perhaps being tested to breaking point. Does the Secretary of State believe that the process of releasing paramilitary prisoners should continue while not a single weapon is collected? When does she believe the first of those weapons should be handed in?

Marjorie Mowlam

I share the hon. Gentleman's concern at the pain felt by victims' families. I have talked to many of those families in the past weeks and months, and I understand that completely. However, even though their pain is difficult, many say that if it means that other families do not have to go through what they have gone through, the Good Friday agreement is worth having and worth trying to implement. It is difficult and it takes a great deal of understanding, but the people voted for the agreement. We are implementing it—that is our role. The agreement must be implemented in all its dimensions, and that is what we are working to achieve.

Mr. Luff

I certainly wish to associate myself with the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Woodward) about the Secretary of State's achievements. However, does she understand that there is a real risk of her losing the support of mainstream English opinion for the peace process unless decommissioning begins almost immediately? Had she come with me to my constituency at the weekend, she would have heard many people express to me their anger and puzzlement at the fact that terrorists can walk free from prison while the organisations that support them are not giving up a single ounce of Semtex or a single bullet. Does she understand the urgency of the feeling that decommissioning should begin immediately?

Marjorie Mowlam

The agreement was put in place for all the people of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, the Republic and elsewhere. It was put in place not by us, but by the party leaders. We will do all that we can following the votes of the people to make sure that the agreement is implemented. Of course understanding is needed, but moving from violence to peace is not easy. We are implementing the Good Friday agreement. Some dimensions are moving more quickly than others, but we must implement the agreement for it to work. The best way to get decommissioning and to find peace is to implement the agreement—as we are trying to do.

Mr. Hammond

In a letter to the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), the Prime Minister made a commitment which my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition quoted on 22 April. My right hon. Friend quoted that letter as follows: no Member of the new Assembly will be appointed a Minister until any paramilitary associates that he may have had have engaged in substantial decommissioning."—[Official Report, 22 April 1998; Vol. 310, c. 811.] Will the Secretary of State reaffirm that pledge in precisely those terms today?

Marjorie Mowlam

Those are roughly the words that the Prime Minister used on 10 April. We will make the decision when we have people in the Executive. We are a long way off that yet.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

Is there not a road to decommissioning? At least 14 bodies of the disappeared have not been returned; masses of mutilations still take place; and a host of people are in exile. I understand that 458 terrorist incidents this year have been attributed to paramilitary groups involved in the Assembly. If those groups could deliver progress on the bodies and on the mutilations, would not that open the road to full decommissioning?

Marjorie Mowlam

I thank my hon. Friend and agree whole-heartedly.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde)

When the odd job lot opposite were in power, many prisoners were released early. How many weapons were decommissioned then? Everyone knew that decommissioning would be the most difficult element in the agreement and, as my right hon. Friend says, we have to consider it as a whole.

Marjorie Mowlam

My hon. Friend will be well aware that the Good Friday agreement contains clear commitments on the decommissioning of all paramilitary weapons within two years. We want the process to start straight away. I agree that the previous Government did not achieve a single piece of decommissioning but released 240 prisoners as a result of the Northern Ireland (Remission of Sentences) Act 1995.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell)

That was to bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the country.

Marjorie Mowlam

I do not want to dwell on the past, because we are building for the future, but—[Interruption.] I do not want to get into a slanging match about the past. [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. I do not welcome comments from a sedentary position, and certainly not on such an important issue.

Marjorie Mowlam

It is sometimes a little difficult when hon. Members say that they support me in my position, but do not support the detail that comes out of my mouth. I wish that they would decide which way their support stands.

Ms Margaret Moran (Luton, South)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the preconditions that Conservative Members want to write into the agreement do not exist in it at the moment, and that it is incumbent on all of us who have the welfare of Northern Ireland at heart to ensure that our constituents understand the real terms of the agreement and not those that others would seek to insert? Is it not wrong to attempt to rewrite an agreement to which all parties signed up?

Marjorie Mowlam

I thank my hon. Friend. Let me make our position absolutely clear: decommissioning is an integral part of the agreement; it is not a precondition but an obligation. I would like it to happen as soon as possible, but I agree completely that it would be wrong to rewrite the agreement, as those who want movement on the accelerated release of prisoners, and not the other dimensions, are trying to do.

Mr. Jeffrey Donaldson (Lagan Valley)

The Secretary of State will be aware of the obligations placed on her by the House under section 3(9)(d) of the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 to review the conduct of terrorist organisations whose prisoners are being released. At the moment, many of those organisations continue to engage in violence and regularly breach their ceasefires; some of them have not even set up a liaison with the International Commission on Decommissioning. Does the Secretary of State believe that all the organisations benefiting from prisoner releases are committed to exclusively peaceful means, when violence continues daily?

Marjorie Mowlam

I take constant cognisance of the piece of the Act to which the hon. Gentleman refers—section 3—and, as I have said in the House before, I review on a continuous basis the question whether the groups that are part of the accelerated scheme for releases are maintaining an unequivocal ceasefire. I have to say that they are, on the firm evidence with which I am provided. I make the commitment again to the House that if that changes, I will of course make a judgment and act, but up to now that firm evidence is not there.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Should we not put it on record that no Member of Parliament does not want to see decommissioning happen as quickly as possible, and that that is not the monopoly of some Conservative Members? Is it not a fact that what has happened since the Good Friday agreement has been what was agreed at the time, and that no action has been taken by the British Government that was not in the agreement, which was endorsed by a huge majority in this House? Some people did not want the agreement and are doing their best to destabilise it.

Marjorie Mowlam

No Government want to see decommissioning of all paramilitary weapons more than this Government. We have worked hard to do everything that we can to get paramilitary weapons decommissioned. It is an essential part of the agreement. Progress with the Good Friday agreement is crucial to making progress on all the dimensions necessary. It is about confidence, and the bipartisanship in the House has been crucial in helping that confidence along. I hope that that is reinforced today.

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)

The Secretary of State will no doubt agree that decommissioning must extend to the weapons used in the mutilation incidents that take place. Does she agree that the official statistics hide higher levels of intimidation occurring at the moment in Northern Ireland? What words of encouragement can she give to those involved in the organisations Families Against Intimidation and Terror and Families Acting for Innocent Relatives, who courageously work hard to reduce the levels of violence with which many people in Northern Ireland sadly still have to live?

Marjorie Mowlam

I share the hon. Gentleman's hatred of those events and I use this opportunity to call again on the individuals who commit those barbaric acts to stop. Groups and individuals who campaign on the matter should rightly be commended. They work very hard to bring it into the public domain, sometimes at great personal risk to themselves. I say to the hon. Gentleman and others that I cannot act on the basis of speculation and allegations: I have to act on firm evidence. A number of allegations have appeared in the press recently, including one a couple of days ago that claimed that ex-prisoners were involved. I saw the Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary yesterday and asked whether any firm evidence existed on which I should act. I was reassured that it did not. If there is firm evidence, I will act, as the agreement requires me to do.

Mr. Phil Hope (Corby)

I congratulate my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister on their personal commitment and the work that they are doing to ensure that all the provisions of the Good Friday agreement are implemented. Like every other right hon. and hon. Member, I condemn gang sterism on the streets of Belfast, or anywhere else in the United Kingdom. What effect does my right hon. Friend think the apparent breakdown in the bipartisan approach is having on the confidence that people in Northern Ireland have in the Good Friday agreement, because it is that confidence that will secure longer lasting peace in the future?

Marjorie Mowlam

I thank my hon. Friend. I hope that the breakdown is apparent and not real, and I look for reassurance from my opposite number, the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay). The bipartisan approach has been a plus. I have been assured that the support we gave the previous Government was a help and I hope that the understanding continues. It helps confidence in Northern Ireland and worldwide, which feeds back into Northern Ireland.

Progress is being made on many other dimensions, despite many of the questions that pick on the negative parts. It is slow, but we have only been at it for six months. The momentum is still there on the Human Rights Commission, the Equality Commission, the Assembly and the cross-border bodies. My deputy, my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), sends his apologies to the House, because he is at present in talks with parties on aspects of the agreement. That momentum must not be forgotten.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell)

In attempting to support a bipartisan approach to Northern Ireland, may I strongly endorse what the Secretary of State said at the Dispatch Box at her last Question Time, which was that decommissioning and the early release of terrorist prisoners must go in parallel as part of the agreement that we both support? Does she agree that any reasonable person would say that the early release of many more than 200 terrorist prisoners, without a single ounce of Semtex or one gun having been handed in by the paramilitaries, does not in any shape or form match up to the agreement or the promises that have been made?

Marjorie Mowlam

If the right hon. Gentleman is attempting to support us, he ought to read the agreement, which is clear on the point that he has just made. Yes, there must be parallel movement, and on all dimensions. That is how the difficult issue of decommissioning will be addressed. If the agreement is implemented, decommissioning will happen as part of the process. lf, as I said earlier, I receive evidence that one or more groups are not maintaining a completely unequivocal ceasefire, I shall use my powers, under the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998, to prevent further releases.

The right hon. Gentleman asked why I am allowing releases to go ahead without decommissioning. If he reads the agreement, he will find that it states that if there is a breakdown of the ceasefire, and if I have evidence to that effect, I may—as I have said to the House on numerous occasions—act accordingly. There is no such evidence. If the right hon. Gentleman is asking me to do something else, that is not implementing the agreement.

Mr. MacKay

May I tell the Secretary of State that the text that I have taken is that given by the Prime Minister, both at the Dispatch Box in reply to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition during several exchanges in May, and in his clear pledges to the people of Northern Ireland during the referendum campaign. The Secretary of State and I know that those pledges have not been kept. We are told that the Prime Minister will join the Taoiseach, Mr. Ahern, in Belfast later today. Can the right hon. Lady assure us that he will say to all the paramilitaries, "I am drawing a line in the sand. Not a single extra terrorist prisoner will be released until there is substantial and verifiable decommissioning. I am thus keeping my promise to the people of Northern Ireland."?

Marjorie Mowlam

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has kept his pledges. If the right hon. Gentleman reads the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 and the Northern Ireland Act 1998, he will find that his points are in them.