HC Deb 18 June 1998 vol 314 cc541-59 5.34 pm
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Marjorie Mowlam)

I beg to move amendment No. 2, in page 2, line 40, at end insert 'in implementing the Decommissioning section of the agreement reached at multi-party talks on Northern Ireland set out in Command Paper 3883'.

Madam Speaker

With this, it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 1, in page 2, line 40, at end insert— `(e) has already decommissioned a substantial proportion of its illegally held firearms, ammunition and explosives in accordance with the provisions of the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997 and is fulfilling a decommissioning timetable which will ensure that it has completed decommissioning before 22nd May 2000.'.

Marjorie Mowlam

Amendment No. 2 touches on the factors that the Bill requires me to take into account in deciding whether an organisation should be designated under clause 3(8). The four factors in clause 3(9) translate into the Bill the four factors set out in the speech of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister at Balmoral in Belfast during the heart of the referendum campaign on 14 May. He promised that the Bill would contain them, and it does.

The amendment follows helpful discussions between the Government and the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) and his party. The right hon. Gentleman has put the point to the Government quite fairly that, while the four factors currently set out in clause 3(9) fully reflect the Prime Minister's speech, an addition to clause 3(9)(d) could helpfully put it beyond any doubt that the full co-operation referred to there was in implementing the Decommissioning section of the Good Friday agreement.

The Government have made it clear all along that we take a flexible approach to the Bill. We want to proceed, as far as possible, on the basis of consensus—as we always sought to do in supporting the previous Government. When there are amendments that are consistent with the agreement, we shall naturally want to consider them carefully. This was such a point, and I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Upper Bann for raising it in a helpful manner. We can respond to amendments in line with the agreement, but we cannot add to or take away from the agreement, or insert preconditions or tests that are not there.

Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke)

Will the Secretary of State give way?

Marjorie Mowlam

I shall finish this point; then I shall certainly give way.

That would be to do exactly what we had told others cannot be done: to pick and choose among those bits of the agreement we like and those that we do not like. The fact is that all sides have bits they like in the agreement and bits that they do not like.

Mr. Hunter

In light of her comments about amendments that are consistent with the agreement being essentially acceptable to the Government, I fail to understand why, last Monday, amendment No. 1—which quoted paragraph 3 of page 20 of the decommissioning section of the agreement more or less exactly—was found unacceptable. It was virtually a quotation from the agreement.

Marjorie Mowlam

The key word is "virtually". The hon. Gentleman knows as well as anyone that words make a difference in politics in Northern Ireland. When there has been consistency between amendments and the agreement, we have accepted them—in fact, we have accepted three or four amendments in the past week. When there is no such consistency, we have made that clear.

The whole agreement is what is important—cherry-picking is not a possibility. Therefore, I think that the only way forward is to see progress in implementing the agreement in toto. People can then see that, although they may find some parts of the agreement difficult—everyone faces some difficulties—progress is being made in implementing all elements of the agreement. It is very important that everyone knows that there must be progress in implementing all sections of the agreement. I hope that the amendment standing in my name makes that clear.

Mr. Jeffrey Donaldson (Lagan Valley)

I thank the Secretary of State for giving way. Amendment No. 21, which was tabled by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble)—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin):

Order. We are not considering amendment No. 21, because it has not been selected. Therefore, the hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) cannot mention it.

Marjorie Mowlam

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

It may be helpful if I say something about how I intend to approach the operation of clauses 3(8) and (9). The agreement requires: Prisoners affiliated to organisations which have not established or are not maintaining a complete and unequivocal ceasefire will not benefit from the arrangements. That test is reproduced in clause 3(8)(b).

Clause 3(9) requires me "in particular" to "take into account" four separate factors. That fully reflects what the Prime Minister promised in his Balmoral speech on 14 May, when he said: In clarifying whether the terms and spirit of the Agreement are being met and whether violence has genuinely been given up for good, there are a range of factors to take into account. He then set out the four factors now reproduced in legislative language.

Some hon. Members have expressed concern about the phrase, "take into account", albeit the very language used by the Prime Minister during the referendum campaign. In reaching the overall judgment required of me under the Bill on which terrorist organisations to designate, I shall treat the four factors in clause 3(9) extremely seriously. As the Prime Minister said in his Balmoral speech: These factors provide evidence upon which to base an overall judgement—a judgement which will necessarily become more rigorous over time.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

Can the Secretary of State help the House by saying what her approach will be as regards subsections (8) and (9)? She will know that the powers are permissive. Is she in a position to give the House an undertaking to the effect that, if the organisations are, in her judgment, terrorist organisations within the criteria set out in subsection (9), she will then specify them as terrorist organisations? As she will appreciate, the Bill does not impose an obligation on her to do so.

Marjorie Mowlam

I take the right hon. and learned Gentleman's point. What I am doing is specifying those organisations that are on ceasefire. By default, those that are not part of that are not on ceasefire, and their prisoners will not he considered for release.

Mr. Hogg

I think that the right hon. Lady is taking my point, but it would be enormously helpful if she could tell the House that, if she concludes that the organisation in question offends against the criteria set out in subsection (9), she will specify it as a terrorist organisation.

Marjorie Mowlam

Let me be straight with the right hon. and learned Gentleman: he is trying to return to the debate we had last week on proscription. That is not what the amendment is about. Proscription relates to the emergency provisions Act and the prevention of terrorism Act; the amendments relate specifically to the ceasefire.

The fact that the four factors are set out clearly in the Bill means that I cannot and shall not ignore them. I shall treat them with the seriousness and weight demanded in reaching a decision on whether a particular organisation has or has not established a complete and unequivocal ceasefire. I shall do so not just because the factors are in the Bill, and not just because the Prime Minister expects it, but above all because the people of Northern Ireland rightly expect the most careful examination based on those factors, to establish whether violence has indeed been given up for good.

Several hon. Members


Marjorie Mowlam

I have already taken a fair number of interventions.

The decision will be for me, and me alone. However, it will clearly be appropriate for me, bearing in mind the four factors set out in the Bill, to listen to the advice of the Chief Constable, the General Office Commanding and my other security advisers. I shall also take into account any relevant reports from the International Commission on Decommissioning. It may be helpful if I make it clear that the Bill does not give the International Commission on Decommissioning any new function or deciding role in relation to the release of prisoners. It is for me to make judgments in those areas, taking into account the available information on a range of factors.

As the Good Friday agreement states, the International Commission on Decommissioning already has the task of monitoring, reviewing and verifying progress on the decommissioning of illegal arms, and reporting to both Governments at regular intervals. My judgment will be informed by those reports as well as by a wide range of other information, but the decision on which organisations to designate as terrorist organisations for the purposes of the Bill is mine alone. It cannot be shared with another body.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

The Secretary of State has stated that the IRA and Sinn Fein are inextricably linked. As she would know, an organisation called Direct Action Against Drugs is very much involved in violence in west Belfast. Has she been advised by the RUC that Direct Action Against Drugs is a front for, or in any other way involved with, the IRA? If she has, will she take that into account?

Marjorie Mowlam

We have made it clear a number of times in the House that discussing specific security information is not helpful. As I have stated on numerous occasions, if I have information from my advisers—security, GOC, or Army, I will act in line with the factors in the agreement. I have just stated forcefully that that is what I intend to do. I will not shirk from that responsibility. I have taken those decisions in working up to the Good Friday agreement.

We have said that, if organisations breached the ceasefire, we would throw them out of the talks. Two of them did so, and I did. Thus, those actions have been taken, and we shall take them again. The hon. Gentleman's example of a terrorist organisation using proxy organisations is stated as one of the four factors, and it is on the face of the Bill.

Mr. Robert McCartney (North Down)

Will the Secretary of State give way?

Marjorie Mowlam

If the hon. and learned Gentleman will forgive me, I should like to make a little more progress. I have taken a lot of interventions and we have a three-hour debate before us when hon. Members will have time to speak.

The tough decisions that I have just stated will be taken. I shall be prepared to take them in line with the factors that I have outlined in the Bill.

I shall resume my seat so that others can participate in the debate. I commend the amendment to the House.

5.45 pm
Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

I welcome the advance that the Government have made, which has been brought about because of the pressure maintained in the House and elsewhere. It would be wrong of me not to welcome it. We understand the points that the Secretary of State has made. However, I believe that we have not gone far enough.

During our debate on Monday, we were told that we should take the Bill as an act of faith—I thought that we were debating an Act of Parliament. In an Act of Parliament, the regulations and demands should be clear so that there are no misunderstandings. Therefore clarity, as well as flexibility, is extremely important in dealing with an agreement. At times, I felt that the Government had adopted as their motto that old adage that it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive. We must clarify some of our thinking.

My hon. Friends and other hon. Members have tabled an amendment that strengthens the Government's hand, and makes it abundantly clear what is required of people. I have been disappointed with some of the ministerial replies, particularly during yesterday's debate, when there was a tendency to use an argument ad hominem, dealing with the person who was speaking rather than the issues. That is always a sign of a weak argument.

As a result, we have come full circle: this evening, issues about security have been raised—they were not specific, but asked for direct understanding—and we have been told that the Government are not in a position to discuss the advice that security chiefs give. We were dealing with our understanding of what was happening in the community, which is widely known. Books have been written about it.

The Minister of State appears to disagree with me. Perhaps he is unaware that two members of public in Northern Ireland are engaged in a lawsuit in the United States over libel appearing in a book from Sinn Fein sources.

To suggest that people do not know what is happening implies that the Minister is living on a different plane from the rest of us. We have lived with it for 30 years, and we know what is happening. We are aware of the tragedy. We have only to look around the House to see a coat of arms to remind us of what has happened over the 30 years. We will not take that kind of lecturing.

I do not know whether I am misreading the situation, but it seems that we have a Government who wallow in leaks as the spin doctors go to town to try to mislead and confuse the electorate, and that, when we raise issues in the House, we are simply discounted. I should therefore like to underline why we believe it is necessary to strengthen the legislation.

Some hon. Members will know the acronym TUAS—tactical use of the armed struggle. Some years back, the official IRA realised that it was going nowhere with the armed struggle, and decided that it would specialise again in the political arena. It did not say, however, that it was doing away with its weapons; it said that they were not useful at that moment, and that the political arena was where it could advance most.

Significantly, the weapons have been used over the years for intimidation, violence and fund raising for the official IRA. It moved its political front from republican clubs to the Workers party, and then had to change again to the Democratic Left when it was revealed that the Workers party was being funded by some of the night work of the official IRA, using intimidation and weaponry. It is because of our experience that we believe it is important that the legislation should be strengthened.

I pay tribute, and have paid tribute, to members of the Workers party who have paid a tremendous price for their attempt to move into the political arena. I welcome any movement in that direction, but we have to have evidence that it is more than a glib assurance that they are moving into the political arena.

That is why, in September 1993, when Sinn Fein-IRA were telling the Government of the time that they were standing in the way of peace, I challenged Sinn Fein-IRA, if they really wished to take the path of peace, to take the first steps, because the Government were not waging war on the people of Ireland, any more than the Government are waging war now. We have always talked about criminal terrorism, but those involved said it was a war. I challenged Sinn Fein-IRA: if their members wished to become bona fide politicians, they had to turn away from the use of weapons and become like the rest of us, using the tongue and our other facilities to advance our case.

Four and three quarter years later, not one weapon has been handed in, because, we are told, it looks like surrendering. Those involved need not hand one weapon to the British Army or the Royal Ulster Constabulary. They can hand weapons back where most of them already are, in the Republic of Ireland. They can hand them back to the Garda Siochana or to the pan-nationalist front which co-operated in bringing them into the political field, or to those who, through TACA, at an early stage helped to raise funds for and arm the Provisional IRA. There is no need to surrender; they can hand the weapons back. However, no one can tell me that ground-to-air missiles and Semtex are defensive weapons; they are weapons of offence.

If Sinn Fein-IRA were going down the road of peace, this resolution would help them to move forward. I should have liked the Government to go further than the rather wide terms of the amendment, as we were told at an earlier stage that the resolution was already in the Bill. They have now tabled the amendment, perhaps as a varnish to please certain people, so that, as the leader of my party, my right hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) says, they believe that they have gained a concession as a result of the pressure applied within and outside the House.

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim)

I shall speak to amendment No. 1 which stands in the name of the Unionists and some of their colleagues in the Conservative party. It makes the position absolutely clear. It deals with the issue up front, so that ordinary people can understand what we are about. It states that the Secretary of State shall take into account whether an organisation has already decommissioned a substantial proportion of its illegally held firearms, ammunition and explosives in accordance with the provisions of the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997 and is fulfilling a decommissioning timetable which will ensure that it has completed decommissioning before 22nd May 2000.

The spokesman for the official Opposition asked the Minister twice yesterday whether he could say that, under the terms of the Act, as of 22 May 2000 it could be the case that not one weapon had been handed back. We go to all this trouble in the House to put the legislation together and enact it as an Act of Parliament of the United Kingdom, Great Britain and Northern Ireland, yet the Minister was not prepared to say what is a fact—that, as at the year 2000, all the prisoners will be out but not one gun need have been surrendered. There has been much argument in the House about what the Prime Minister did or did not say, but what is important is the question he was asked. The Leader of the Opposition asked him: I also welcome the assurances that he has given in the past about the conditions to be attached to the early release of prisoners. Does he agree that prisoners should not be released early until the organisations to which they belong have substantially decommissioned their weapons? According to Hansard, the Prime Minister said: It is essential that any agreement is signed up to in full. The only organisations that can qualify to take seats in the government of Northern Ireland and can expect the early release of prisoners are those that have given up violence for good."—[Official Report, 6 May 1998; Vol. 311, c. 711.]

I went to the archives of the House today and listened to what the Prime Minister did say. What did he say? In answer to the question, he said: The answer to your question is, yes". What was that question? The question referred to substantial decommissioning of weapons. The Prime Minister added: of course it is the case that both in respect of taking seats in the government of Northern Ireland and the early release of prisoners". He said that organisations could not take seats until there was substantial decommissioning, and that prisoners could not be released until there was substantial decommissioning.

Why has that disappeared? Why do the Government not stand by what the Prime Minister said? They went to Northern Ireland to campaign, and wrote on the walls what would happen. We all know that no such thing could happen. We had an agreement, which cannot be altered. It is a multi-party agreement. It cannot be altered by the Prime Minister or by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble). It stands, and it has to stand. I do not often agree with the hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara), but what he has said in the House on this issue is right. The agreement cannot be changed.

In the referendum, people were asked to vote on the strength of promises made by the Prime Minister. We now find that the Prime Minister could not meet those promises, and they disappeared from Hansard.

6 pm

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman knows that Madam Speaker is looking into that matter. We shall not come to any conclusions until Madam Speaker reports back to the House.

Rev. Ian Paisley

With respect, I have a right in the House to say what I know. If people say that what I have said is not right, they can look at the video and hear the words. As a Member of Parliament, I have a right to go to the archives, listen to the tapes and say what I saw. I am glad that—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I know what the hon. Gentleman is saying, and I do not want to take any rights away from him, but I appeal to him. The hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) raised a point of order with Madam Speaker. Madam Speaker is going to look into the matter. Why do we not leave it until a conclusion is arrived at? That is all that I am saying.

Rev. Ian Paisley

I am happy to accept what you are saying, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was going to refer to the right hon. Member for Upper Bann, who is telling the people of Northern Ireland that he has secured concessions. He and his hon. Friend the Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis) put out a statement—

Mr. Peter Robinson

Does my hon. Friend agree that the significance of the subject matter about which he was speaking is that the words in the amendment are the same as those uttered by the Prime Minister? We could have the absurd situation of the Government voting against the words that the Prime Minister used in his undertaking.

Rev. Ian Paisley

My hon. Friend has put it concisely, and has struck the nail on the head. Statements were put out last night in Northern Ireland by Members of Parliament who are not here, just as they were not here on Monday or yesterday. If they want to make a case, this is the place to argue it. This is the debating chamber of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. They cannot come to defend what they are telling the people of my Province. My people are entitled to know the truth. Where does the truth lie? The people of Northern Ireland know that many of them were conned at the referendum, because they voted for things that were promised but could not be delivered.

Mr. Robert McCartney

Does the hon. Gentleman recollect the question that I asked the Prime Minister? As the hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) has said, we are dealing with a multi-party agreement that cannot be altered, varied or amended without the consent of all the parties. The Prime Minister's answer was a complete fudge. There was a suggestion that the Government could do that which they are now saying they cannot do.

Rev. Ian Paisley

My hon. and learned Friend is correct. Surely the people of Northern Ireland are entitled to know the truth. We are told that what the Prime Minister said can be carried out under the agreement.

Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry)

The hon. Gentleman will recall that, during his look through the archives of the House, he also looked at Hansard of 15 June, when the Minister said: The important thing is that what we are proposing is wholly compatible with the discussions surrounding the agreement, with what was said by the participants to the agreement and with the undertakings given at that time."—[Official Report, 15 June 1998; Vol. 314, c. 45-46.] That must mean that the Government amendment is compatible with the undertakings given at that time—to whomsoever they may have been given—and that the clear statements in amendment No. 1 are not.

Rev. Ian Paisley

Yes, I take that argument. The Government say that they are doing nothing new, but they are adding an amendment to the Bill. The right hon. Member for Upper Bann and his friends are saying that they have won a tremendous concession which means that we can all lie happily in our beds, there will be decommissioning, it will be radical, and before one man leaves prison, all will be well.

It will not be so. We know the evidence that came before the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs yesterday. We know that the Maze prison is going to close. We know that prisoners are already being allocated a time to leave. Everybody knows that. The Secretary of State might say that that is not happening, but she has said before that things would not happen and they did. This will happen.

The agreement on decommissioning does not say anything about what the Government say it means. The participants at the talks do not claim to be members of illegal organisations. Of course we know that some of them front such organisations, and we do not believe what they say. All they are asked to do is to continue to work constructively". That means that they must have been working constructively in the past. They never got any guns, but they were working hard and breaking sweat constructively and in good faith with the Independent Commission". They are also asked to use any influence they may have". They are not asked to use the influence that they have, but any influence they may have". The agreement almost admits that they have no influence. Why do they not say, "We will use the influence we have"? It is all up in the air. The men will come out of the prisons, the arsenals will be there, and if they do not get their way, they will go to the arsenals. Some of us will then have the sad duty of attending the funerals.

The hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) said the reality about what we are going through in Northern Ireland. We are going through an agony. People are realising that the murderers of their kith and kin may be out in a few months. What comfort can we give those people? The only comfort we can give them is to keep those who murdered their kith and kin behind the walls.

Mr. Donaldson

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that families of the victims of violence in Northern Ireland are already receiving phone calls from republicans telling them that the murderers are coming out, and are coming for them next? That is a frightening, terrible situation that those families have to suffer. The Minister may not like the fact, but I have such families in my constituency.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I appeal to hon. Members. The hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) is an experienced Member of Parliament. We have two amendments before us about decommissioning, not about people staying in gaol or getting out of gaol. We should not go any wider than that. Third Reading is coming up, when hon. Members may want to go wider, but they should not do so when debating the amendments.

Rev. Ian Paisley

I shall satisfy you, Sir; I have finished what I have to say. I am sure that everybody will be happy. All I can say is that these things run into the very quick of people in Northern Ireland. Sometimes people in the House do not realise that. They would if they had experienced our circumstances over the past 20 years. I was in the House when Labour Members spoke with great passion about the tragedy in Birmingham. Why should we in Northern Ireland be judged for speaking passionately, as we must if we are to be faithful to the people who sent us here to represent them?

Mr. Hogg

As you have reminded us, Mr. Deputy Speaker, there are two amendments before the House, and I shall say something about them both.

It would be wrong to accept amendment No. 1, to which the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) spoke so passionately. If it is put to the vote, I shall oppose it. Although amendment No. 2 is of very little value, it is consistent with the language of the agreement and, on that basis, I shall not oppose it.

We are concerned with the relationship that should exist between the process of decommissioning and the release of prisoners. Several right hon. and hon. Members are seeking to create an explicit linkage between the process of decommissioning and the release of prisoners. I have a great deal of sympathy for the attitudes, thoughts and passions that underlie that argument. The release of prisoners, many of whom have committed the most odious of crimes, is very difficult to stomach. However, I take a somewhat different approach.

The House should first ask itself what is in the agreement—to identify the terms. Then, the House needs to ask itself whether the Bill is a fair reflection of the terms of the agreement. I commend that process to the House. It is all the more important that we should do just that and no more because the people of the Province were asked to vote in a referendum on the terms of the agreement.

It is true that the Prime Minister put a gloss on the terms of the agreement. I agree with the hon. Member for North Antrim that the gloss was implausible. I think that the Prime Minister was trying to persuade people to vote for the agreement by purporting to support an interpretation of the agreement that does not lie on the face of the agreement. I do not think that that was a respectable thing to do. That said, all of us who read the agreement knew full well that there was no linkage in it between decommissioning and the release of prisoners.

Mr. Robert McCartney

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman accept that a fundamental and persuasive element in achieving the yes vote for the agreement, which everyone is said to support, was the behaviour of the Prime Minister in suggesting and implying that he could do something which, consistent with the terms of that agreement, he could not do? That was a fraud.

Mr. Deputy Speaker


Mr. McCartney

I withdraw that remark.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Will the hon. and learned Gentleman please sit down? First, he has a habit of going on for far too long in an intervention. Secondly, he should not associate a right hon. Member of the House with the term "fraud". The Prime Minister is a Member of the House. The hon. and learned Gentleman knows the courtesies of the House. If he is going to attack anyone, he must use moderate language and should at least notify the hon. Member concerned.

Mr. McCartney


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. and learned Gentleman has finished his intervention.

Mr. Hogg

If I may, I should like to respond to the observations of the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney). It is right that the Prime Minister placed an interpretation on the language of the agreement that is not to be found in the agreement. It is also likely that a number of people—but not the majority—to whom he was speaking misunderstood the nature of the agreement as a consequence of what he said. Truth to tell, anybody who read the agreement knows full well that there is no linkage between decommissioning and the release of prisoners.

6.15 pm
Mr. Robathan

Does my right hon. and learned Friend, to whom I am listening very closely, agree that the agreement had to be all-embracing and a little vague so that everyone would come on board? The decommissioning part is very clear; I know that it is not specifically linked to prisoners. None the less, the document needs interpreting. I need it interpreting to a certain extent. Interpretation can surely come from no better person than the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Hogg

I do not agree with my hon. Friend. It is true that the agreement was couched in somewhat ambivalent language—and that was intentional. The only provision on prisoners is to be found in paragraph 2 on page 25 of the agreement. There, there is linkage between a ceasefire and the release of prisoners, but there is no linkage between the release of prisoners and decommissioning. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend is not right. He should look to the paragraph that deals with decommissioning, which is to be found on page 20. He will find in paragraph 3 that it was contemplated that the process of decommissioning would go on for an extended period. There can be no question in the agreement of decommissioning being a condition precedent to the release of prisoners. I for one—and I hope the House, too—will not try unilaterally to vary the agreement by importing new terms. If we do that, the House should be sure that others will, particularly the IRA and other terrorist organisations. I am against such a process, although I understand and respect the motives.

I say to Ulster Members, with whom I have the greatest sympathy and often associate myself, that the House should not create conditions precedent that are not verifiable. Amendment No. 1 refers to substantial decommissioning as a condition precedent. What is meant by that? More particularly, how does one verify it? It is true that there are intelligence reports on how many weapons or explosives that this or that group may have, but there is no way of determining as a fact whether decommissioning has happened at all or whether it is substantial or slight. It would be an absolute nonsense to put on the statute a condition precedent that is incapable of verification.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

The right hon. and learned Gentleman and I, and everyone else, agree that, so far as possible, decommissioning should take place, and we want it to take place. Even if, as we all hope, the IRA—we have every reason to question this—decides to decommission arms, would not the response, certainly of those who are opposed to the agreement, and perhaps ourselves, be to ask: how do we know what is left? If it decommissions 10 or 15 per cent., opponents—including ourselves for that matter—would obviously say that 85 per cent. was left. Verification is indeed very important.

Mr. Hogg

I agree with the hon. Gentleman; I do not think that there is any difference between us on that point. The issue is not capable of definition in any meaningful sense.

Rev. Ian Paisley

The right hon. and learned Gentleman's own leader used that, so he should have an argument with his leader. The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) said to the Prime Minister: until the organisations to which they belong have substantially decommissioned their weapons".—[Official Report, 6 May 1998; Vol. 311, c. 711.] What does that mean? The right hon. and learned Gentleman's own leader should tell him what "substantially" and "radically" mean.

Mr. Hogg

I owe it to the House to give my best interpretation of the law and of the facts as we have to face them. That is what I am doing. I am telling the House—the hon. Member for North Antrim in particular—that the phrase "substantial decommissioning" is incapable of verification and, for that reason, among others, should not be put on the face of the statute. My own belief is that, although decommissioning may follow a cessation of murder and violence, it cannot be a precondition; it may be a condition subsequent, but it will never be a precondition.

Amendment No. 2 is a pretty harmless amendment. For at least two reasons, I think that it achieves virtually nothing. It may not be meant to, and I am prepared not to oppose it on that basis, but let us be clear that it achieves nothing. We are determining here the designation of terrorist organisations. The provisions in subsections (8) and (9) are permissive, not mandatory: there is no requirement on the Secretary of State to designate as terrorist an organisation that falls foul of subsection (9). I asked the Secretary of State to give an undertaking to the House that she would designate an organisation as a terrorist organisation if it fell foul of subsection (9), but she pushed me aside and failed to give that undertaking.

In any event, the phrase "have regard to"—or "take account of'; they mean the same—means nothing in legal terms. It merely means that the Secretary of State must consider the point, not that she is bound by factual conclusions that flow from it. I concede that her amendment is consistent with the spirit of the agreement, but let us plainly state that it adds nothing whatsoever to the Bill. I shall not oppose the right hon. Lady's amendment, but I am bound to say that it is of little weight.

Mr. Robathan

I always listen to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) with great interest. He made an eloquent and logical speech, but it was overly legalistic, given that the issue is one of interpretation. We must look closely at the interpretation of the agreement. I suggest that, in the referendum, the voters of Northern Ireland were looking to the interpretation given to them by the Prime Minister. In my opinion—the Secretary of State might disagree—they believed that there must be a linkage between prisoner releases and decommissioning.

I have read the agreement closely and I should like to quote one line, from paragraph 1, on decommissioning: the resolution of the decommissioning issue is an indispensable part of the process of negotiation"— "the resolution", not the start of the process. Of course people can hide a pike in the thatch and of course there are illegal weapons—there are illegal weapons scattered across the United Kingdom and, regrettably, they are used in crime every day—but we can make a sensible stab at knowing how much decommissioning has taken place. So far, nothing has taken place.

On 1 September 1994, the IRA declared a ceasefire. We were all pleased, because it must be better that there is peace than that there is war; but, on 9 February 1996, it ended. Then, there was another ceasefire; but, come the end of last year, two people were killed and the ceasefire ended again. For the deaths of those two people, the IRA was given three weeks out of the talks. That was not a particularly fierce punishment. Sinn Fein is still part of the process and is likely to take part in elections and to have representatives elected to the assembly in the near future.

During the whole process, there has been no end to the punishment beatings, nor an end to the use of weapons in those punishment beatings and in other violent incidents. It is not only the IRA—we know that some loyalist organisations are involved. In response to an intervention from me, the Secretary of State said that she had expelled Sinn Fein and the UDP—I think it was the UDP—from the talks, but that was not sufficient and they have continued their violence. It had no impact on the violence committed by paramilitaries.

I put it to the Secretary of State that peace requires firm foundations and that there is a fudge on the issue before us. In her heart, she knows—I am sure that she has been told—that Direct Action Against Drugs is a proxy organisation in west Belfast for the IRA. Everybody else thinks so and, if the right hon. Lady does not believe me, she should go and ask people on the streets of west Belfast, because they will tell her the same thing. I do not merely call the Secretary of State a right hon. Lady, for I believe that she is an honourable, well-meaning and well-intentioned person, but if she does not accept that I am speaking the truth, she is deluding herself.

There has been no decommissioning. How can we pretend that the IRA has given up violence when it has kept up its violence and kept its weapons? The Secretary of State has said that the IRA and Sinn Fein are inextricably linked. The IRA has said throughout that it will use the ballot box and the Armalite, but it cannot use both in a democratic society; it must give up the Armalite and that is what the clause is all about. We should be saying, "Give up the Armalite and then your prisoners can be released—at the same time, if necessary."

The allegation made by the hon. Gentleman from the DUP is so serious that it strikes at the heart of this institution. If it is true, I am ashamed of the Government of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. To which allegation is the hon. Gentleman referring?

Mr. Robathan

You may not have been in the Chamber, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but there has been an allegation that Hansard has been tampered with.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I was here and Madam Speaker stated that she would look into the matter. The hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) asked if Madam Speaker would look into it, it is being looked into and Madam Speaker will report back to the House. Let us leave it there. It has nothing to do with the amendment that we are debating—the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) was in the Chamber when I spoke to the hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson).

Mr. Robathan

Is it your ruling that we may not refer to points of order on that issue?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

It is my ruling that the matter is being looked into by Madam Speaker. Let us leave it at that. The hon. Gentleman should not mention an allegation that has been put before Madam Speaker and that she has promised to look into.

Mr. Robathan

So is it your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that one may not refer to something that is being looked into by Madam Speaker?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

My ruling is that the hon. Gentleman should be quiet on that matter and get on with discussing the amendment. I cannot make it any simpler than that.

Mr. Robathan

The Prime Minister has stated—

Mr. Winnick

Grow up.

Mr. Robathan

The hon. Gentleman, who shouts from a sedentary position, should examine his conscience carefully on the issue. If the allegation is true, he should hang his head in shame.

The Prime Minister stated, in the past and again yesterday, that decommissioning is a vital part of the process and we all know that that is true. Everybody in the House believes that peace should come to Northern Ireland, but the Bill is currently a fudge—a con is being played. Yes, decommissioning is a vital part of the process, but it is not in the Bill. I hope that decommissioning will take place and that weapons will be handed in. If that does not happen, there will be no peace in Northern Ireland and we shall have to revisit the issue time and again. Peace cannot be built on a fudge or a con, but, without decommissioning appearing on the face of the Bill, I fear that that is what we are trying to do.

Mr. Robert McCartney

I shall deal first with the legal propositions advanced by the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), which appear to be excessively dependent on legal interpretations of the agreement. Most hon. Members would accept that the agreement is not only a document whose meaning can be interpreted legally, but a highly political document. It is the political aspects of the document on the issue of decommissioning that form the subject matter of amendment No. 2.

I agree with the hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) and it is my submission that whatever the agreement means—it is open to interpretation—cannot be altered, varied or amended by any single party, because it is a multi-party agreement. Of course, that does not deal with what the agreement actually means. I take issue with claim of the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham that the people of Northern Ireland, who are the subject of this agreement, knew what it was all about. Frankly, very few people in Northern Ireland know exactly what it is all about and I suggest that it was never intended that they should know. Perhaps there was a golden age of the English language, when its purpose was to convey nuances and meanings in the clearest possible terms, but the agreement is an example of how language can be used to obscure and obfuscate meaning.

The question as regards amendment No. 2 is whether there is any linkage between decommissioning and the release of prisoners. The Bill provides for the release of prisoners on certain terms. The object of the amendment is to introduce a new term or condition—that they may be released only if the organisation that they represent has already decommissioned a substantial proportion of its illegally held firearms". It is my belief and legal interpretation—I am at one with the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham and the hon. Member for Hull, North on this—that decommissioning cannot be made a precondition or linkage for the release of prisoners.

6.30 pm

However, the real issue is whether the people of Northern Ireland were persuaded by the pledges of the Prime Minister that that was exactly what the agreement meant. Indeed, it can be suggested that, in the last two days before 22 May when the referendum vote was held, enormous pressure was put on the electorate in Northern Ireland to accept and believe, first, that decommissioning would take place in its entirety within two years and, secondly, that it would have to commence before members of Sinn Fein could take their places in executive posts in government and terrorist prisoners could be released. That is what they believed and that is what substantially swung the vote.

What is the Government's present position? What are they going to do? Are they going to observe the strict terms of the agreement and refuse to alter it—to say that we cannot cherry-pick and must accept it as a whole and that decommissioning cannot be linked to the release of prisoners, which is one side of the coin—or, will they honour the Prime Minister's pledges, which effectively secured a large yes vote on the basis that he and his Government could deliver what they are now suggesting that they cannot? That is the real issue and it is a moral as well as a legal issue for the House.

A point of order has been raised, which Madam Speaker has accepted and will rule upon. She will rule upon the propriety of the conduct that gave rise to it. I submit, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that that does not prevent hon. Members from referring to the factual circumstance. The propriety or otherwise is a matter for Madam Speaker and she has properly reserved that decision to herself. It is not for us to comment or even speculate on what she may or may not do, but it is open to hon. Members to speak factually of what is known and it is known that, on the face of the Hansard record for the appropriate date–6 May—the Leader of the Opposition asked certain questions and the Prime Minister gave certain answers. On the basis of what the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) stated, it is open to the House to know that, having gone to the archives of the House, listened to the tape and seen the video, he made a factual statement that the Prime Minister then said that decommissioning—and substantial decommissioning—would be necessary prerequisites to either Sinn Fein members taking their place in executive posts in government or prisoners being released.

The propriety of the conflict is indeed a matter entirely for Madam Speaker. However, those are the facts and they illustrate vividly and dramatically the essential issue—is the agreement a multi-party agreement that cannot be altered? I believed that to be the case and that is the basis on which I put question after question to the Prime Minister at the time. I believe that that is the true basis of this agreement.

The Prime Minister entered into a truly Faustian bargain when, in the two days before the referendum vote in desperate circumstances, he gave pledges that he is now called upon, like Dr. Faust with Mephistopheles, to deliver upon. The Government, the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State and concerned Ministers must now address themselves to that.

Marjorie Mowlam

At the beginning of the debate, the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) talked about information and the question of security in an answer that I gave earlier. I listened to what he said, but I do not change my view. Security is very important in Northern Ireland and, if there is any question of the first job that I have, which is to give people security, I am afraid that I shall stick to that position. He also asked for clarity and I support what he said. There is not a fudge between democracy and terror. The Prime Minister's words and what we have put on the face of the Bill make it very clear.

The hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) also raised that point. If we are talking of fudges, he said that we ought to be clearer in our position on Sinn Fein-IRA and then talked about the previous Government. In 1995, that Government continued to release prisoners when the ceasefire stopped. Did they change their position when they were not even on ceasefire? No, so if we are talking about consistency, let us consider it across the board.

The hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) asked whether all the prisoners would be out in two years without any decommissioning. As has been said a number of times in the House this week, not all the prisoners will be let out, only those associated with an organisation on ceasefire. A number of stringent safeguards are attached. In addition, I have powers to vary the two-year cut-off depending on the circumstances. As we have said on numerous occasions, we shall make a judgment. I cannot prejudge it, but it will be made.

Therefore, I must make it clear that we cannot accept amendment No. 1, which is not consistent with the terms of the agreement. I am sorry, I forgot to mention the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg). Even though I do not agree with the thrust of his remarks, he made some important statements.

We cannot accept amendment No. 1 and, in commending amendment No. 2 to the House, I would say to the official Opposition that I well understand the anxieties that they have expressed in Committee and why, as a result—despite wishing the Good Friday agreement well—some Conservative Members may find it impossible to support the legislation. However, we should never forget that the real authors of the agreement are not us—not the Government—but the parties and people of Northern Ireland. They negotiated the Good Friday agreement, for which the arrangements were a key element, and they endorsed it in a referendum. In so doing, they knew the difficulties ahead. It is not for us to turn round to them and say, "You got it wrong—go back and think again."

Now that the parties and people of Northern Ireland have decided to grasp their future and to mould it themselves, difficult as that task is, they are looking to hon. Members on both sides of the House to support them where we can, not to exploit for political advantage their chance for a peaceful future.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendment proposed: No. 1, in page 2, line 40, at end insert— '(e) has already decommissioned a substantial proportion of its illegally held firearms, ammunition and explosives in accordance with the provisions of the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997 and is fulfilling a decommissioning timetable which will ensure that it has completed decommissioning before 22nd May 2000.'.— [Rev. Ian Paisley.]

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The House divided: Ayes 12, Noes 260.

Division No. 309] [6.40 pm
Beggs, Roy Robinson, Peter (Belfast E)
Brady, Graham Ross, William (E Lond'y)
Donaldson, Jeffrey Smyth, Rev Martin (Belfast S)
Forsythe, Clifford Swayne, Desmond
Hunter, Andrew
McCartney, Robert (N Down) Tellers for the Ayes:
Robathan, Andrew Rev. Ian Paisley and
Robertson, Laurence (Tewk'b'ry) Mr. William Thompson.
Adams, Mrs Irene (Paisley N) Bayley, Hugh
Ainger, Nick Beard, Nigel
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE) Beckett, Rt Hon Mrs Margaret
Alexander, Douglas Begg, Miss Anne
Allan, Richard Beith, Rt Hon A J
Allen, Graham Bell, Martin (Tatton)
Anderson, Janet (Rossendale) Bell, Stuart (Middlesbrough)
Ashton, Joe Benn, Rt Hon Tony
Atherton, Ms Candy Bennett, Andrew F
Banks, Tony Best, Harold
Barron, Kevin Betts, Clive
Blackman, Liz Gorrie, Donald
Blears, Ms Hazel Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)
Boateng, Paul Grocott, Bruce
Borrow, David Grogan, John
Brake, Tom Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale)
Brinton, Mrs Helen Hall, Patrick (Bedford)
Brown, Rt Hon Gordon Hancock, Mike
(Dunfermline E) Hanson, David
Brown, Rt Hon Nick (Newcastle E) Harman, Rt Hon Ms Harriet
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon) Harris, Dr Evan
Burden, Richard Harvey, Nick
Burgon, Colin Heal, Mrs Sylvia
Burnett, John Healey, John
Butler, Mrs Christine Heppell, John
Byers, Stephen Hesford, Stephen
Cable, Dr Vincent Hewitt, Ms Patricia
Campbell, Alan (Tynemouth) Hoey, Kate
Campbell, Menzies (NE Fife) Hogg, Rt Hon Douglas
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V) Hoon, Geoffrey
Campbell-Savours, Dale Hopkins, Kelvin
Caplin, Ivor Howarth, George (Knowsley N)
Casale, Roger Hoyle, Lindsay
Caton, Martin Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Chapman, Ben (Wirral S) Humble, Mrs Joan
Chaytor, David Hurst, Alan
Chidgey, David Hutton, John
Chisholm, Malcolm Ingram, Adam
Clark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields) Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough)
Clarke, Tony (Northampton S) Jamieson, David
Clelland, David Jenkins, Brian
Coffey, Ms Ann Johnson, Miss Melanie
Coleman, Iain (Welwyn Hatfield)
Colman, Tony Jones, Helen (Warrington N)
Cooper, Yvette Jones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak)
Corbett, Robin Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S)
Corbyn, Jeremy Jowell, Ms Tessa
Cotter, Brian Keeble, Ms Sally
Cousins, Jim Kemp, Fraser
Cox, Tom Kennedy, Jane (Wavertree)
Cranston, Ross Khabra, Piara S
Cryer, Mrs Ann (Keighley) Kilfoyle, Peter
Cryer, John (Homchurch) King, Andy (Rugby & Kenilworth)
Cummings, John King, Ms Oona (Bethnal Green)
Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S) Kingham, Ms Tess
Dalyell, Tam Ladyman, Dr Stephen
Darvill, Keith Lawrence, Ms Jackie
Davey, Edward (Kingston) Laxton, Bob
Davidson, Ian Leslie, Christopher
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli) Levitt, Tom
Denham, John Liddell, Mrs Helen
Dismore, Andrew Linton, Martin
Donohoe, Brian H Livingstone, Ken
Doran, Frank Lock, David
Dowd, Jim Love, Andrew
Drew, David McAvoy, Thomas
Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth McCabe, Steve
Eagle, Angela (Wallasey) McCafferty, Ms Chris
Edwards, Huw McCartney, Ian (Makerfield)
Ellman, Mrs Louise McDonnell, John
Fisher, Mark McGuire, Mrs Anne
Fitzpatrick, Jim McIsaac, Shona
Fitzsimons, Lorna Mackinlay, Andrew
Flynn, Paul McNamara, Kevin
Follett, Barbara McNulty, Tony
Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings) Mactaggart, Fiona
Foster, Michael J (Worcester) McWalter, Tony
Fyfe, Maria McWilliam, John
Galloway, George Mallaber, Judy
Gapes, Mike Mandelson, Peter
Gardiner, Barry Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S)
George, Bruce (Walsall S) Marshall, David (Shettleston)
Gerrard, Neil Marshall-Andrews, Robert
Gibson, Dr Ian Martlew, Eric
Godsiff, Roger Meacher, Rt Hon Michael
Goggins, Paul Meale, Alan
Gordon, Mrs Eileen Merron, Gillian
Michael, Alun Sheerman, Barry
Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll & Bute) Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert
Milburn, Alan Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S)
Mitchell, Austin Skinner, Dennis
Moffatt, Laura Smith, Miss Geraldine
Moonie, Dr Lewis (Morecambe & Lunesdale)
Moran, Ms Margaret Smith, John (Glamorgan)
Morgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N) Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)
Mowlam, Rt Hon Marjorie Smith, Sir Robert (W Ab'd'ns)
Mudie, George Soley, Clive
Mullin, Chris Southworth, Ms Helen
Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck) Spellar, John
Murphy, Jim (Eastwood) Squire, Ms Rachel
Murphy, Paul (Torfaen) Starkey, Dr Phyllis
Naysmith, Dr Doug Steinberg, Gerry
Norris, Dan Stewart, David (Inverness E)
O'Brien, Bill (Normanton) Stuart, Ms Gisela
Olner, Bill Stunell, Andrew
O'Neill, Martin Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann
Organ, Mrs Diana (Dewsbury)
Osborne, Ms Sandra Taylor, Ms Dari (Stockton S)
Pearson, Ian Taylor, David (NW Leics)
Pendry, Tom Thomas, Gareth (Clwyd W)
Perham, Ms Linda Timms, Stephen
Pickthall, Colin Tipping, Paddy
Pike, Peter L Todd, Mark
Plaskitt, James Touhig, Don
Pollard, Kerry Truswell, Paul
Prentice, Gordon (Pendle) Twigg, Stephen (Enfield)
Primarolo, Dawn Vaz, Keith
Purchase, Ken Ward, Ms Claire
Radice, Giles Wareing, Robert N
Raynsford, Nick Watts, David
Rendel, David White, Brian
Robinson, Geoffrey (Cov'try NW) Whitehead, Dr Alan
Roche, Mrs Barbara Wicks, Malcolm
Rogers, Allan Williams, Alan W (E Carmarthen)
Rooker, Jeff Willis, Phil
Rooney, Terry Wills, Michael
Roy, Frank Winnick, David
Ruddock, Ms Joan Winterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)
Russell, Bob (Colchester) Woolas, Phil
Salter, Martin Wright, Dr Tony (Cannock)
Sanders, Adrian
Savidge, Malcolm Tellers for the Noes:
Sawford, Phil Mr. Greg Pope and
Sedgemore, Brian Ms Bridget Prentice.

Question accordingly negatived.

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