HC Deb 22 February 1999 vol 326 cc131-52 10.26 pm
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Marjorie Mowlam)

I beg to move, That the draft Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997 (Amnesty Period) Order 1999, which was laid before this House on 1st February, be approved. The order is made under the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997—the purpose of which, as my predecessor Lord Mayhew said when introducing the Act, is to deal with "how" decommissioning is done. It provides for a limited amnesty that is necessary to enable paramilitary decommissioning to happen, in line with the 1996 report of George Mitchell's international decommissioning body.

The Act sets the amnesty period at just one year, but provides the power for it to be renewed by order, one year at a time, for up to five years. The order therefore extends the period to 24 February 2000.

The amnesty is limited in time and subject to annual renewal by the House precisely because it involves suspension of certain parts of normal criminal law. The amnesty provision ensures that anyone engaged in an act of decommissioning is not exposed to prosecution. It also places prohibitions on the evidential use and forensic testing of decommissioned items. However, it does not mean that either the Royal Ulster Constabulary or the Garda will diminish in any way their efforts to find and seize illegal weapons.

I am sure that all hon. Members will join me in congratulating the RUC and the Garda on their successes, including last week's finds of weapons and explosives in Belfast.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

Has there been any improvement in the relationship between the decommissioning commission and the RUC, so that the RUC knows when weapons might be moved for decommissioning? I am thinking of the issue that arose when members of the Loyalist Volunteer Force started to move weapons but the RUC arrested them—quite rightly, as they were armed with the weapons and firing them. However, the RUC did not know that the LVF was moving under licence from the decommissioning body.

May I also ask the Secretary of State now—to avoid having to intervene later in her speech—how far we are able to assess parliamentary bodies' willingness to decommission, especially when a story is going round that IRA weapons have been stolen and we remember that the IRA exercises strict discipline in dealing with those who have stolen its weapons?

Marjorie Mowlam

In answer to the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question, I believe that the relationships are more harmonious. Not only did all sides learn from the LVF decommissioning, but the decommissioning showed that the process works. It is important to note that the process that was established and that the decommissioning body was following worked in the case of LVF.

The hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) asked also about the weapons that recently were found and recorded by the police. The police recorded them as belonging to the Provisional IRA and did not know how long they had been there. It is important to take the issue step by step, as it comes. We must look at it in the round. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will focus on the details. I shall not take my eye off the ball. However, we do not have sufficient evidence on those finds to go any further.

The finds show the success that the Army and the police are having, together with the Gardai across the border. That is worth registering. The most recent development was not just the discovery of weapons last week, but the arrest of 11 people—six in Northern Ireland and five in the Republic—in relation to the Omagh bomb. They have not been charged yet, but the arrests have been made. That shows the effectiveness of the work of the police on either side of the border.

For the amnesty provisions to operate, decommissioning must be carried out in accordance with the scheme that the Government brought into force last June. Similar provisions are also in force in the Irish republic.

The Government's scheme—which is non-statutory—allows weapons to be decommissioned either through the provision of information to the decommissioning commission so it can collect and destroy the arms or by the destruction of the arms by those who possess them. Other options are also open, including handing weapons over to the commission for it to destroy. The essential feature of any method of decommissioning is that it must be properly verifiable.

In making this renewal order I am particularly conscious of the fact that this year we are in a better position than ever to see the verifiable decommissioning of paramilitary weapons. The reason is the Good Friday agreement. All parties to that agreement confirmed their intention to work constructively and in good faith with the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning, and to use any influence they may have to achieve the decommissioning of all paramilitary arms within two years of the Agreement being endorsed, that is by May 2000. In accordance with the agreement, the two Governments will take all necessary steps to facilitate the decommissioning process. The passing of this order is an essential part of that to continue fulfilling our commitment under the agreement.

I am also conscious that there continues to be a great deal of scepticism in the House and elsewhere about the prospects for decommissioning taking place. In response, I point to the fact that we have had a beginning—small but significant—to the process with the action taken by the Loyalist Volunteer Force last December. The Government welcomed the LVF action, which showed that decommissioning is politically possible for the groups concerned. It was not an act of surrender—no one was humiliated. It was an act of good faith.

The LVF's action also showed that the legislation works. We must thank General de Chastelain and his colleagues on the commission for all their important work to facilitate the decommissioning process.

Nevertheless, the vast bulk of the weapons remains in the hands of the paramilitaries. That is unacceptable. The Government have made it clear to Sinn Fein and to the loyalist parties that decommissioning, though not a precondition, is an obligation under the agreement. It is what the people of Northern Ireland—including supporters of republican and loyalist parties—voted for, along with all the other parts of the agreement.

We are entering a crucial phase in the political process, leading to the point at which powers can be transferred to locally elected politicians and all the other institutional arrangements in the agreement can be brought into being early in March. It is essential that all parties move quickly to fulfil all the commitments that they have made. That means a start to decommissioning, the Executive being set up and early meetings of the north-south ministerial council and the British-Irish Council.

Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke)

Will the Secretary of State return to the recent findings of IRA weapons in west Belfast? How is the finding of primed weapons remotely consistent with the proposition that the political representatives of paramilitaries are committed exclusively to non-violence and democracy?

Marjorie Mowlam

The hon. Gentleman knows that the weapons were those of the IRA, but we need further forensic information before we know of their exact status. The possession of the weapons is a serious offence and anyone guilty will not be covered by the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998. If information emerges, action will be taken. At the moment, there is insufficient evidence. The commitment of the police to seek out all illegally held weapons has been shown, and we should acknowledge our gratitude to the police on both sides of the border for that.

Decommissioning must take place, the Executive must be put in place and there must be meetings of the north-south ministerial council and the British-Irish Council. No one can assume that that will be easy; it never was. Difficult decisions will have to be made, but I have no doubt—the evidence is clear—that the people want these matters tackled, and tackled now.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Is the Secretary of State morally committed to laying the order annually, irrespective of whether progress is achieved in decommissioning?

Marjorie Mowlam

I do not understand the inclusion of the word "morally" in the hon. Gentleman's question. The order was introduced in 1996 by my predecessor, and part of its nature is that it is laid every year. The order involves the suspension of parts of the criminal law, and therefore must be introduced every year. We are doing so today up to 24 February 2000, and that will continue for the five years for which the order was introduced. That is the nature of the order. The order deals with questions of the process of decommissioning—it is nothing more than that.

We will continue to do our part to make sure that all weapons are taken out of commission, whether by the actions of the RUC, the Gardai or the British and Irish Governments. The order is central to those arrangements, and I commend it to the House.

10.37 pm
Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire)

The Government have our wholehearted support for the order which, as the Secretary of State has pointed out, renews the amnesty period for a further 12 months under the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997—not least because, without the order, the decommissioning scheme would become completely moribund and we would be unable to decommission arms, even if we wanted to.

I join the Secretary of State in her praise for the diligent and impartial efforts of General de Chastelain, the chairman of the independent international commission set up under the decommissioning scheme and reinforced under the Belfast agreement. His is not an enviable position, but he is conducting his role with great skill and patience.

Decommissioning seems to be the critical issue in Northern Ireland politics at present. It features in debates about the pace and efficacy of prisoner release, and about who has the right to take up Executive posts in the new Northern Ireland Assembly. It is central to discussion and argument in this House, as well as in the Assembly.

There are only two questions that need answering. First, why is decommissioning so crucial? Secondly, if decommissioning is so important, why has none so far taken place? The answer to the first question—indeed, perhaps the answer to all the questions—lies in the Belfast agreement, paragraph 4 of which stated that parties to the agreement gave their total and absolute commitment to exclusively democratic and peaceful means of resolving differences on political issues and stated their opposition to any use or threat of force by others for any political purpose". The agreement is unequivocal on force, covering not only its use but the threat of its use. Threats do not emanate only from statements and posturing. The fact that some parties to the agreement are associated with paramilitary organisations with substantial stocks of arms and explosives—they have made ready use of them in the past—is, in itself, a real and tangible threat. In the absence of any statement from Sinn Fein-IRA or the Progressive Ulster Unionist Party-Ulster Volunteer Force that violence is over for good and that they will never again resort to a military campaign to further their ends, the perception of threat will not go away.

The agreement is no less explicit about the ways in which arms and explosives are to be taken out of the equation, and the time scale over which that is to be achieved. It says: Participants reiterated their agreement to a Procedural Motion adopted on 24 September 1997 'that the resolution of the decommissioning issue is an indispensable part of the process of negotiation'". It further says: All participants affirm their commitment to the total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations. They also confirm their intention to … use any influence they may have, to achieve the decommissioning of all paramilitary arms within two years". No doubt those words were extremely well crafted. There was a commitment to total—I emphasise total—disarmament. The reference is to "all paramilitary organisations", rather than military organisations, so demilitarisation of the British Army and its bases in Northern Ireland does not come into it.

The words "use any influence" might sound weak at first, but as we have had an acceptance in the House on more than one occasion that Sinn Fein and IRA are one and the same, the use of that phrase becomes clear cut: the people involved in the political negotiations are the same people as those in the military organisation. The agreement set up a time scale: decommissioning was to take place within two years.

Decommissioning is crucial to the setting up of the Executive in the Northern Ireland Assembly. The agreement is clear on that point. It says: Those who hold office should use only democratic, non-violent means, and those who do not should be excluded or removed from office. Violence has been a common occurrence on the streets of Northern Ireland since the Good Friday agreement. Punishment beatings—we prefer to call them mutilations—have been widely used by the paramilitary groups associated with the political process to control and intimidate whole communities. The Chief Constable has confirmed that on more than one occasion.

Where is the commitment to non-violence? Only last week, the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) focused on that point in a question. Only last week, the RUC found an arms cache. It was confirmed not only that the arms were PIRA weapons but that they were hidden recently, despite the so-called ceasefire that we are supposed to be enjoying.

Marjorie Mowlam

For the record, the Chief Constable said that the arms were PIRA-related, but there was no ability to put a time scale on them.

Mr. Moss

I am grateful for that clarification.

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Adam Ingram)

Do you accept it?

Mr. Moss

Yes, of course I accept that important clarification.

Rev. Martin Smyth

I understood that a time was established, because the police marked the detonators and they could be seen to be from 1998.

Mr. Moss

We have two conflicting opinions and I am inclined to believe the Secretary of State, who has the latest intelligence reports.

Mr. Hunter

I encourage my hon. Friend not to give credence to the Secretary of State on that point. Primed weapons were moved into west Belfast, and the Secretary of State will know from her intelligence sources that the Provisional IRA do not move weapons into west Belfast unless they are intended for operational purposes. My hon. Friend should stand fast on that point and not accept the Secretary of State's comments. It is clear that those weapons and ammunition were intended for operational use immediately.

Mr. Moss

My hon. Friend has made his point. I do not have accurate intelligence reports from the highest source in Northern Ireland. The Secretary of State has made a statement in the House and I have to believe her. She will have to stand by the comments that she has made to the House. It is as simple as that.

At another level, how can Sinn Fein-IRA and the PUP-UVF equate non-violence with the holding of weapons and explosives? I am delighted to say that that is now the view of the Irish Taoiseach as well as the Leader of the Opposition in the Dail, Mr. Bruton, who was quoted on 15 January in The Daily Telegraph as saying that the IRA had to disarm if Sinn Fein were to be allowed to take its seats in government. He put it correctly when he said: How long could a coalition in the Dail work if one of the parties in the cabinet had a private army? We hardly expect different standards to apply in Belfast. As far as the Taoiseach is concerned, despite the "now he said it, now he didn't" claim and counter-claim, one thing is certain: Bertie Ahern's assertion that there can be no Executive without a start to decommissioning dramatically increased the pressure on the republican movement. His statement that the republican position on decommissioning was "illogical, unfair and unreasonable" produced gloom, concern and puzzlement in the republican camp"— to quote one report. From his subsequent clarification, he did that deliberately and consciously. Why should he do that? Various newspaper headlines suggested that he had blown it or lost the plot, or had been too open and helpful in handling the journalist. However, could it be that Mr. Ahern had come to the end of his patience with Sinn Fein-IRA? When he came under pressure from the republican movement, he did not retract. He was courageous in punching home his key message: Decommissioning in one form or another has to happen … it is not compatible with being part of a government—I mean part of an executive—if there is not at least a commencement of decommissioning, and that would apply in the North, it would apply in the South.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne)

My hon. Friend has just said what the Secretary of State said—that there needs to be decommissioning and a start to the Executive. The Secretary of State would not give way to me and therefore did not answer the question about the order of events. Does decommissioning come before the start of the Executive? Does my hon. Friend agree that it is crucial that decommissioning starts before there is any question of Sinn Fein-IRA involvement in an Executive?

Mr. Moss

I am happy to agree with my hon. Friend and I shall come to that point in a moment. There is no doubt that the Taoiseach sees no disparity or discrepancy between Sinn Fein's public and private position on decommissioning—it will not do it and it has said that it will not do it. Why else should he confront the issue in that way?

On the other side of the argument is the First Minister designate, the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) and his party. He has stated time and again that there is no place for Sinn Fein-IRA representatives on the Executive of the new Assembly without substantial decommissioning. His position is as entrenched as that of Sinn Fein. The only room for manoeuvre, it would seem, lies with the two Governments. Perhaps a third ingredient would be President Clinton's involvement. The party invitations to the St. Patrick's day celebrations in Washington become more significant by the day.

The Taoiseach, it seems, has made his move. When can we expect the Government's response? The Opposition's line on this issue has been consistent from the start. We want the Belfast agreement to be implemented in full. In case there is any doubt, that means that each and every section must be implemented, without cherry picking. The consensus—except among those who retain their arms—is that, in terms of practical politics, decommissioning is an integral part of that implementation.

After last week's critical vote in the Assembly, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) restated our position. He said: Sinn Fein-IRA cannot become Ministers until they have fulfilled their obligations under the agreement to start proper decommissioning of illegally held weapons and end violence in all its forms.

Mr. William Cash (Stone)

I hear what my hon. Friend said in respect of a start to decommissioning taking place, and he rightly mentioned that the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) had called for substantial decommissioning. We know that, from time to time, the Government have a way of talking in terms that appear to be de minimis. Will my hon. Friend be good enough to clarify at what stage decommissioning becomes significant? Even if some decommissioning—or even substantial decommissioning—were to take place, is not the real problem that the threat and the danger to the public would continue to exist if any arms at all are left?

Mr. Moss

My hon. Friend makes an extremely valid point, but we are talking about building confidence and about continuing the process begun with the Belfast agreement. We on the Opposition Front Bench have always said that substantial decommissioning should take place but, at the end of the process, we probably would not know whether all the arms had been decommissioned. The fact is that any organisation—in Northern Ireland, in the island of Ireland as a whole or even in this country—that is serious about terrorism can obtain arms tomorrow, if it wants to. What we are talking about is a full and total commitment to peaceful and democratic means.

Since last May, the Government have achieved much, and deserve credit for that. They have honoured—some would say more than honoured—their side of the bargain. The Assembly has been established; the Northern Ireland Act 1998 has gained Royal Assent; the commissions on human rights and equality have been set up; the reviews of policing and criminal justice have begun; there has been an accelerated release of paramilitary prisoners, which is now more than half way through; and the prudent normalisation of security measures has proceeded.

Have the Government been criticised for a lack of willpower and resolve to implement their responsibilities? I have heard no such criticism.

The Irish Government, too, have faithfully implemented their commitments—so much so that the Taoiseach was moved to say, in his recent interview, that you can't prioritise and bring forward and incrementally do everything and then say we won't even start on the first 0.001 per cent. of this issue". By the phrase "this issue", he meant decommissioning.

Perhaps I should apologise to the House, and to the Taoiseach himself, for quoting him so frequently in this debate, but we all know and believe that what he said is true. He has given courageous leadership on this critical matter: would that we had had similar quotable words of wisdom from our own Government. They have the opportunity this evening, in winding up the debate, to tell us unequivocally that they agree with the Taoiseach that there should be no progress towards setting up the Executive of the Assembly until and unless there is a committed start to meaningful decommissioning.

Nothing could be simpler or more helpful in the overall context. The agreement is 80 per cent. in the process of implementation. I do not believe that there can be any going back. There is no alternative around the corner. The Government should be bold and courageous. They should stand firm on the basic principles of the agreement, and they should stand shoulder to shoulder with the Irish Prime Minister and the Irish Parliament in spelling out reality to Sinn Fein-IRA.

10.55 pm
Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde)

I shall respond to a couple of points made by the hon. Members for North—East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) and for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter). The hon. Member for Basingstoke referred to the discovery of an arms cache, saying that the arms were intended for operational purposes. I would have preferred him to have said that they would have been used for terrorist purposes. The people concerned are terrorists. They are not engaged in military operations. Purely and simply, they are brutal terrorists. I was surprised at the language used by the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Hunter

Quite frankly, that is pathetic. In the context in which I used the word operational, it means the most vile, horrific, murderous terrorist operational activities. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman did not appreciate that that was the point I was making.

Dr. Godman

That intervention was pathetic. Most people who will read the record of the debate will not define "operational" in those terms. The hon. Gentleman is being characteristically pathetic.

The hon. Member for North—East Cambridgeshire spoke about the Taoiseach's interview in The Sunday Times. Since the interview, there has been some to-ing and fro-ing over the semantics of what the Taoiseach said. The hon. Gentleman wondered why the Taoiseach said what he did at that time. A number of factors influenced him, one of which was the outrage felt by the people of the Irish Republic about the verdict in the trial of those who murdered Garda McCabe, but who were convicted only of manslaughter. Irish people were especially shocked by the interventions of Mr. McGuinness and Mr. Adams shortly afterwards on the sentences that the killers received, and on their so-called early release. The overwhelming majority of Irish people would wish those men to serve condign sentences for a horrific murder in the beautiful little village of Adare.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

I agree with what my hon. Friend says about the terrible murder of an Irish police officer. Does he agree that both Governments are equally committed to decommissioning and that the British Government have made their position perfectly clear? However, is it not part of the political scenery that a statement from the Irish Government, particularly given the main governing party in the Republic, may be more important to the IRA than a statement from the British Government would be?

Dr. Godman

As always, my hon. Friend makes good sense. That party can be enormously influential on the thinking of members of Sinn Fein, both north and south of the border.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead)

May I add to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick)? It is not merely the Taoiseach who has spoken. Did my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) notice that a week earlier, the Irish Deputy Prime Minister made almost the same statement in Australia?

Dr. Godman

I recall that that was so. I have enormous admiration for the Taoiseach; it is not as if he enjoys the majority that our Government do. We would all agree that he was not responsible for the headline on his interview in The Sunday Times, and that what he said was courageous. I do not think that in subsequent statements, he was trying to go back on what he said. He has behaved with considerable moral and political courage, just as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has done.

On Friday, accompanied by the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates) and the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke), I shall meet General de Chastelain in Belfast to discuss what he and his colleagues are doing. They face a formidable task, for they are at the heart of the critical issue of decommissioning, but I put my faith in the general, his colleagues in the two Governments and those others who want peace to be maintained in that dreadfully bedevilled province of Northern Ireland.

11.1 pm

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)

This tends to be a place for simple messages, and it is always a risk to try to move the debate forward. Still, it is a lot less risky than paragliding and these days, I have to get my kicks somehow, so I shall attempt to provide a few insights into what is going through the minds of those who are faced with the expectation of having to decommission.

It must be recognised that we have made a lot of progress. Sometimes, in our debates about impasses, we forget that we have made breakthroughs in matters on which, even two years ago, we thought it would be impossible to get a result.

Although today's debate is taking place within the positive context of that progress, we are faced once again with the issue of decommissioning. The whole House, including the Liberal Democrats, will support the renewal of the order, because it represents Parliament's side of the bargain to ensure that the door is always open to enable those who want to decommission to do so. In addition, it puts moral pressure on those individuals to take their side of the bargain seriously.

It is unfortunate that the Good Friday agreement only sets a date by which decommissioning must have been completed—the two-year deadline—and contains no staging posts within that process. The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) has pointed out that many of us believe that there is a moral obligation on the IRA and all paramilitaries to demonstrate that they are serious about meeting the two-year deadline by taking some steps towards decommissioning before that date, but technically, that obligation does not appear in the Good Friday agreement, so when one speaks to those people, they say that they are under no moral obligation whatever to decommission before that date.

Such assertions conjure up the interesting image of a whole bunch of heavy goods vehicles trundling up the day before the deadline containing all the arms belonging to the IRA and the loyalist paramilitaries, so enabling them to fulfil their obligations in a dramatic fashion. The difficulty for us is that such a scenario does not seem credible: to us, common sense dictates that there should be signs of the decommissioning process taking place over a period lasting many months.

I view the order to be renewed tonight as a way of keeping open the possibility of continuing the process that the LVF has demonstrated can be made to work.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield)

Is not the problem that, judging by what Sinn Fein and the IRA have said on the subject, it is not a question of their adhering to some legalistic nicety that gives them until some time next year to complete the decommissioning process, but that they have publicly said that they will never decommission?

Mr. Öpik

I might be an optimist, but I have to say that when I speak directly with those individuals who, I can be pretty sure, represent those organisations, my feeling is that they are saying that they will not decommission now. We could enter into a moot discussion on that point, but I think that we can all agree that, if no decommissioning has taken place in two years' time, that will be an objective outcome: whichever party has failed to decommission will have failed to fulfil its half of the Good Friday agreement, and we are all acutely aware of the consequences of that.

We are currently considering how we can move forward from an impasse. Basically, one side is unwilling to decommission or to provide any sign at all that the guns will be handed in, while the other side is applying pressure—its case is coherently argued—by saying, "If you don't show a willingness to decommission, we will be entitled to exclude you from the Executive". That leads me to my next point.

Mr. Field

The hon. Gentleman keeps mentioning an impasse. There is only an impasse if one group is trying to prevent something from happening. I have listened to the debate, and I believe that there is no will in the House to state that people should not enter government unless they surrender their weapons. That is in stark contrast to the approach of the Irish Government. As I said by way of intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman), both the Irish Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister have said clearly that they do not think that there should be access to government until decommissioning has occurred. Therefore, the Irish Government are creating an impasse, but we are not. We seem to be suggesting that we are being carried along by events and that we might review the situation after two years. I think that the hon. Gentleman is making his contribution within a deeply mistaken framework.

Mr. Öpik

That is what I meant when I mentioned the risk involved. I am providing the perspective—with which I do not have a great deal of sympathy—of many of those who are presenting obstacles to decommissioning.

Turning to the point raised by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), individuals who are intimately involved in the peace process have created the expectation that decommissioning must take place at this point in order to provide some confidence that the parties really mean it. Incidentally, that is why I echo the comments of the Irish Prime Minister: he has established a moral expectation that individuals will demonstrate their willingness to decommission. My point is that those who oppose decommissioning respond simply by saying: "Where is the time frame in the Good Friday agreement that we are expected to adhere to?" That is the impasse that I am describing.

In case there is any doubt, I am not being an apologist for those who refuse to decommission, but I am trying to move beyond the kind of rhetoric—which is so easy to engage in in the House—that says that their views are without basis.

Mr. Hunter

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Öpik

I will give way when I have finished making this point. Regardless of how right we believe we are, it does not serve any purpose not even to attempt to understand the opposing point of view. A superficiality creeps into our debates about decommissioning that is caused by our unwillingness to ensure that we understand the opposing arguments and show that we do, whether or not we have chosen to accept them. Those on the other side of the debate sometimes feel that we do not even understand where they are coming from.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)


Mr. Öpik

I will give way to the two hon. Gentlemen and then I must conclude.

Mr. Barnes

The agreement involves not just the two-year provision. It does not follow that, if one side decommissions the day before the deadline, it will be seen to have fulfilled the agreement. The agreement also comprises a commitment to the democratic process and having foresworn any participation in activities involving arms. Those conditions influence our understanding of how the two-year deadline operates. It makes sense to say that we must see some movement towards decommissioning and that it is reasonable to expect those signs before the Executive is established.

Mr. Öpik

I now give way—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) is making a speech, not listening to a series of contributions by others.

Mr. Öpik

I apologise for my judgment and thank you for your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am far too generous—it has always been one of my weaknesses. I shall draw my speech to a close and other hon. Members may be able to catch your eye later, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I think that we are violently agreeing. The arguments that we are rehearsing across the Chamber are exactly the ones that we must put to those who refuse to decommission. I shall leave the House with one simple point. We need to understand that there is an intransigence based on a kind of logic, which makes sense to those people who refuse to decommission. I do not agree with them; I do not think that it is right for them to act in what I regard as bad faith—

Mr. Hunter

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Öpik

I really should not; I need to bring my comments to a close.

It is not right to fail to act in good faith, and it is wrong not to trust the process; but let us make our position clearer by proving to the people who refuse to decommission that this Chamber understands their logic, but chooses to reject it. Let us say that we understand that they are arguing according to the letter of the Good Friday agreement, but that we feel there is a moral imperative at this point—an imperative felt not only by politicians, but by a large proportion of people in Northern Ireland as well as in the Republic of Ireland and on mainland Britain—for them to show good faith by decommissioning.

The message that we are sending by renewing the order is that we in this Chamber are acting beyond the simple letter of the Good Friday agreement and are acting in the spirit of reconciliation, trying to open a gateway to make progress. We now expect others to do the same.

I apologise for being overly generous in accepting too many interventions, but their number and the nature of the debate in the past 10 minutes underline how easy it is to miss the point at our end. They should also be a powerful sign to us of how easy it is for others to miss our point at their end. Our message in renewing the order is simple: "We understand your argument and your logic, but at the moment it is simply not good enough. We need to see more." Everyone here agrees that we need to see more. Most importantly, we are moving beyond the letter of the law to the spirit of the agreement and the spirit of the peace that we are trying so hard to build in Northern Ireland.

11.12 pm
Mr. John D. Taylor (Strangford)

The renewal of this order is a timely event because decommissioning has certainly been the main issue in political debate in Northern Ireland in recent weeks. If decommissioning does not take place in the forthcoming year—the order is being renewed for another year—I regret to say that the whole political process built on the Belfast agreement will collapse.

I disagree with the interpretation advanced by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) of what is required in the Belfast agreement in respect of decommissioning. I say that as one of the three negotiators for the Ulster Unionist party who was involved for two years in those negotiations and knows exactly how every word of the agreement was carefully chosen.

I well recall the Tuesday before Good Friday when we had the first draft of the Belfast agreement, which I dismissed out of hand and said that I would not touch with a 40 ft pole, and rightly so. The Prime Minister came to Belfast that evening, and we had continual negotiation for the next three days, culminating in the revised agreement from which, I am glad to say, many things were removed and to which, I am afraid, some things were added. None the less, there had to be compromise, and on the basis of that compromise we have the Belfast agreement.

Why is the renewal of the order timely? It is timely because all the participants in that agreement had to do something, and almost every one of them, with the exception of Sinn Fein-IRA, has done what was required. Her Majesty's Government were required to commence the release of terrorists imprisoned for criminal offences. I hope that the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire is listening. There was no time scale for the beginning of the release of prisoners. There was a two-year end-date, but no date for the beginning, yet the release of prisoners has commenced.

The review of policing in Northern Ireland and the review of the criminal justice system—these were commitments by Her Majesty's Government, and they have commenced. There was a commitment by the Dublin Government and the people of the Republic of Ireland that they would recognise Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom. This they have done by means of a referendum. There was a commitment by the SDLP that it would enter into a new British-Irish Council, replacing the Anglo-Irish Agreement—this it has agreed to do.

I was in Edinburgh on Thursday and Friday meeting the Labour party, the Conservative party, the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish nationalists. I was glad to find enthusiasm in Scotland for the British-Irish agreement. The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), was in Wales recently and also in the Isle of Man. I gather from his press releases that there is encouragement for the beginning of the British-Irish Council.

The Ulster Unionists have also made their contribution. They were not happy with the idea of north-south implementation bodies, but on 18 December, we agreed those with the SDLP and with the Irish Government. The six implementation bodies are ready to go into operation, once we get an Executive in Northern Ireland.

There is only one thing left to happen in order to make the agreement the success that the House wants it to be, and that America, the Dublin Parliament and the peoples in the whole of the island of Ireland want it to be, and in support of which both the European Parliament and the Council of Europe have passed motions.

What is that one remaining thing? It is, of course, decommissioning. Sinn Fein-IRA—the Secretary of State on the Floor of the House has confirmed that they are inextricably linked, and the Dublin Prime Minister has said that they are one and the same organisation, with interchangeable membership—say that there is no need for decommissioning. Well, there is a full chapter on page 20 of the agreement on the need for decommissioning. It is not there by accident. I repeat that it is there as a result of detailed negotiations with all the parties in the Stormont talks, including Sinn Fein-IRA.

Paragraph 1 states that 'the resolution of the decommissioning issue is an indispensable part of the process of negotiation'". Paragraph 3 of the decommissioning chapter goes on: All participants"— that includes Sinn Fein-IRA— accordingly reaffirm their commitment to the total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations and to achieve the decommissioning of all paramilitary arms". Here I want to make a distinction from a comment that was made by the hon. Member for North—East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss)—I think it was a slip of the tongue. The agreement does not call for total disarmament. It calls for the total disarmament of illegal armaments. It is Gerry Adams who calls for total disarmament. I see that he is away to Australia and already saying that there must be total disarmament—the British Army must have no arms in Northern Ireland, the RUC must have no arms in Northern Ireland, and the farmers must have no shotguns.

None of that is in the agreement. Sinn Fein-IRA, led by Gerry Adams at the Stormont talks, agreed that the decommissioning should be of illegal armaments only. That is what is in the decommissioning chapter. What is most important in that chapter—I ask the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire to pay greater attention to the detail of the Belfast agreement—is the fact that decommissioning is specifically and deliberately connected to the chapter on setting up the Executive.

That point did not appear in paragraph 1 of the decommissioning chapter by accident. It was put in deliberately and it was agreed by all the participants in the Stormont talks, including the two Governments, that in resolving the decommissioning issue, we also recall the provisions of paragraph 25 of Strand 1 of the Belfast agreement.

Paragraph 25 states that those who want to serve in the Executive of Northern Ireland must be totally committed to peaceful and democratic methods. It states: Those who hold office should use only democratic, non-violent means, and it continues: and those who do not should be excluded … from office"— in other words, such people cannot even get into the Executive.

Some speak of such people being removed from office, but the agreement went further, deliberately. It stipulates that people who are not fully committed to non-violent and democratic means will be excluded from the Executive. That is the way that most people in Northern Ireland interpret the agreement, and it is certainly the interpretation of the main party in Northern Ireland, the Ulster Unionist party. There is no way that Ulster Unionists will serve in an Executive with people who have not ensured the decommissioning of their illegal armaments.

Mr. Wilshire

May I be clear about what I have just heard? Did I hear it stated that it is a clear, firm policy of the Ulster Unionist party that it will not sit in an Executive with Sinn Fein-IRA until decommissioning in a substantial form has started?

Mr. Taylor

Absolutely. Decommissioning in a credible form must have taken place before we accept Sinn Fein-IRA in an Executive in Northern Ireland. I would have hoped that the hon. Gentleman realised that that has been our policy from the outset.

Mr. Hunter

May I press the right hon. Gentleman further? Total commitment to non-violence and democracy must surely mean total disarmament. We are not talking about a few weapons or a few ounces, pounds or tonnes of Semtex in that context. It is total commitment and therefore total disarmament.

Mr. Taylor

When someone tells me what total disarmament is, I will understand what that intervention means. It all depends on one's knowledge of how many illegal armaments there are in Northern Ireland. There cannot be total disarmament until we are aware of the total number of illegal arms. Let us not pursue that. We want credible disarmament so that the people of Northern Ireland can see that decommissioning is under way. Let us not quibble over other words.

Decommissioning is an important issue in Northern Ireland. We very much welcome the intervention of the Dublin Prime Minister, Mr. Bertie Ahern. He analysed the situation accurately, but he is not on his own. As has been mentioned, the Deputy Prime Minister of the south of Ireland did so in Australia last week. Significantly, the annual conference of the Fine Gael party, the main Opposition party which could well form the next Dublin Government, unanimously passed a motion, Saturday week ago, that there must be decommissioning for Sinn Fein to get into the Executive in Northern Ireland. I hope that there will be similar statements from London and Washington in coming weeks.

I am disappointed because I think that Sinn Fein-IRA are not taking this issue seriously. The leader of Sinn Fein, who was elected as a Member of Parliament but has refused to take his seat, Mr. Gerry Adams, is not in Northern Ireland; he is in Australia. He will be away for 10 days, and then he is going on to celebrate St. Patrick's day in the United States. Yet 10 March has been stated by the Secretary of State as the deadline to get the Executive up and moving in Northern Ireland. It seems to me that Sinn Fein-IRA are not taking the issue of decommissioning seriously. If that is so, I regret to say that an impasse will have been reached.

Rev. Martin Smyth

I appreciate my right hon. Friend's giving way. He said that the whole thing could collapse in a year's time. Is there anything in the Belfast agreement that would prevent the Secretary of State, even now, from appointing to the Executive those who have honoured their commitment and leaving out those who obviously have not? One bears in mind the fact that it was not in a clandestine position that the negotiator representing Sinn Fein-IRA on decommissioning said that it was not a question of the IRA being unable to decommission, but that it would not.

Mr. Taylor

Everything depends on one's individual interpretation of the Belfast agreement. I would think that Sinn Fein-IRA could be excluded under the terms of the Belfast agreement, but obviously the Secretary of State, at the moment, does not.

It has been said by Sinn Fein-IRA that decommissioning has not happened in other countries. It is important to place on record that some of the main terrorist and revolutionary campaigns have resulted in decommissioning in order for political and democratic solutions to emerge and to stick. For example, Lebanon can be cited as one of the worst examples that we have had in the past 20 years. In 1989, there was an agreement whereby the green line—it ran for five miles between the Christian and Muslim territories in Beirut—was removed. It is significant that under the Taif accord, which brought about successful political reform, it was insisted that the disbandment and disarmament of all militia should take place. That disbandment and disarmament of all militia—Christian and Muslim—took place in advance of the political settlement.

Likewise in Mozambique, people were trying to get a political process under way without decommissioning. The then Secretary-General of the United Nations, Mr. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, strenuously rejected that and held fast to the point that elections could be held only after full demobilisation had taken place. In 1994, the United Nations operations in Mozambique confirmed that there had been the total disarmament of the various illegal organisations in that country.

Thirdly, I remember the troubles in E1 Salvador from my time as a Member of the European Parliament. Again, there was an agreement—in 1992—which brought about the total disarmament and decommissioning of illegally held weaponry, in pursuit of peace. A settlement was then achieved, so it is important to place on record the need for decommissioning for peaceful, democratic government to emerge in countries such as Lebanon, Mozambique and E1 Salvador.

There are places where there has not been decommissioning; one is South Africa. Anyone who has been there in the past two years will know that people now regret that they did not have decommissioning before they reached a political settlement. Now there are more illegal arms running around South Africa than there are lawful arms, and the situation is deteriorating in some of the major cities.

The order is timely. We have to achieve the beginning of credible decommissioning to achieve a political settlement in Northern Ireland. We are 95 per cent. of the way to achieving what every Member of the House would like achieve in Northern Ireland, but, at the moment, I remain unconvinced that that will happen. There is less than a 50 per cent. chance of the Belfast agreement succeeding; I still believe that Sinn Fein-IRA will not decommission and that they are determined to wreck the Belfast agreement.

On that note, I shall ask one question of the Secretary of State. Last week, Sinn Fein-IRA were caught by the Royal Ulster Constabulary with firearms—that is the Provisional IRA, which is supposed to be at peace and on ceasefire. In what year were the detonators that were discovered with the explosives last week manufactured?

11.27 pm
Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne)

Before I come to the main points that I want to make, I want to pick up on what the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) said. He suggested that whereas there was in the Republic of Ireland a will to say that there would be, or should be, no entry into an Executive before decommissioning, we had not heard that sort of sentiment expressed in this House.

If I have understood the debate correctly, I have heard my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) make that point absolutely and I have heard the right hon. Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor) make the very same point—there can be no entry into an Executive before a credible start to decommissioning is made. My hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) feels the same and I have made my position absolutely clear. In case I have not, let me restate that there are some Members of this House, and a large number of people in this country, who believe that it is absolutely intolerable to contemplate armed terrorists taking their seats in a democratic Government.

I tried to intervene on the Secretary of State, but was not able to do so. Therefore, I ask the Minister to make clear for this House exactly where Her Majesty's Government stand on the question of entry into an Executive before there is a start to decommissioning. This House and this country have the right to know exactly what is the Government's policy on that matter.

These are my main points. As the House will know, I was unhappy when the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997 was first brought to the House and I am still unhappy about this process. I felt then, and I feel now, that the whole act of an amnesty allows bombers and murderers to get away scot free. It therefore follows that I wish we were not doing what we are doing tonight. Nevertheless, I am a democrat and I accept that it was the will of the House that the Act should be passed. I have no objection to us continuing, having started down this track. I do not intend to force a Division. The House will want to renew the order.

I have little doubt that the few of us present tonight will be back again next year and the year after to extend the period, because we are wasting our time. Sinn Fein-IRA have never had any intention of decommissioning—and they never will. Do not take my word for it: listen to Sinn Fein-IRA, which have made it clear that there will be no decommissioning. Let us come back next year and have another go, and see whether we can persuade ourselves that this is a good idea.

I understand only too well why the Government want to fudge the spirit of the Good Friday agreement. If they do that, they can justify to themselves—and they can try to justify it to the country—that they can, after all, allow armed terrorists into an Executive.

Marjorie Mowlam

The Government are implementing the Good Friday agreement, which the party leaders in Northern Ireland agreed to and for which the people voted. The agreement says clearly—this is our position—that decommissioning must take place and the Executive must be formed. Both must happen for the Good Friday agreement to work.

Mr. Wilshire

The right hon. Lady has yet again not told us in which order that must happen. Will the Minister, when he winds up, please tell us in which order those two things must happen?

Marjorie Mowlam

If it would help the hon. Gentleman, I can explain that it is up to the parties to decide in which order that takes place. The parties, with the Government's support and encouragement, must find a mechanism to move this process forward. They have done so in the past on other issues, and I believe that, with the will and determination they have shown, they can do so again.

Mr. Wilshire

If I understand that intervention correctly, the Secretary of State is saying that she is prepared to contemplate allowing armed terrorists into an Executive. That is nothing short of abject surrender to the gunmen.

Mr. Hunter

Does my hon. Friend agree that what we are witnessing is a process of appeasement that morally corrupts the appeasers? The Government give way every time inch by inch simply to keep the process going. We are witnessing a moral corruption of government and a corruption of moral authority.

Mr. Wilshire

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is how he and I have always seen it.

I also understand only too well why the Government claim that there is no proof that the recent find of arms has anything to do with Sinn Fein-IRA. It is convenient to claim that there is no link, because that way they can pretend that the ceasefire is still in place. I also understand why the Government are prepared to believe the wholly spurious claim that Sinn Fein-IRA weaponry has been stolen. When it is used, it is possible to fudge the issue yet again by saying that it was not used by Sinn Fein-IRA.

I also understand only too well why the Government are always talking about a start to decommissioning. If they are pushed hard, they may call it a meaningful start, which perhaps means two bullets rather than one. I also understand why the Government keep talking about tokens of good faith. The one thing we can never accuse Sinn Fein-IRA of is having good faith.

Mr. Barnes

Sinn Fein-IRA may not have good faith, but they are subject to influences and pressures from other people. Their involvement in intimidation and terror has been highlighted, so they have backed off in the past fortnight. They have done so because attention has been drawn to such activity in the House and elsewhere. If we advance such arguments, we have the moral authority to shift opinion. Even more important, opinion in the Irish Republic and throughout Northern Ireland will help to change the position.

Mr. Wilshire

I am sure that those who would have had their kneecaps smashed and their ankles smashed and their elbows smashed are grateful for a fortnight's respite; but I do not think that tells us a great deal about what will happen.

Mr. Barnes

That is an obnoxious response. I have tried, in the House, to aid bodies such as Families Against Intimidation and Terror in order to ensure that such action stops, and I have always seen that as an attempt to secure decommissioning in the end. If we stop exile, beatings and intimidation, we shall move a stage further, and the prize will be decommissioning. The hon. Gentleman may not like what I have said, but I very much dislike the response that I have just received from him.

Mr. Wilshire

If the hon. Gentleman feels that I was being personal in regard to him, let me put the record straight. I know of his integrity in these matters, I know of his hard work and I know of his commitment; 1 did not seek to cast aspersions on his approach. As far as I can see, however, any sort of token decommissioning will not get us anywhere. This is the slippery slope towards moral corruption that was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke. Sinn Fein-IRA have enough Semtex to spare a tonne of it, and still murder and maim thousands of people in both Northern Ireland and Great Britain. There must be total decommissioning of all paramilitary arms and explosives—a point made by the right hon. Member for Strangford.

However often we return to the House to renew the order, terrorists will always be the same. Terrorists keep arms for one purpose, and for one purpose only: to use them to kill people, and to obtain ever more concessions from those who are foolish enough to try to do deals with them. However much this Government twist and turn, in the end all they are doing is seeking to appease killers, bombers and maimers. History teaches us—if we only care to read it—that appeasement is always doomed to failure.

11.37 pm
Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield)

I shall try to be brief, as I realise time is short.

I welcome the renewal of the order. When we discussed the whole question of the agreement last year, it was obvious that, to a certain extent, the agreement involved an act of faith: that the peace process could be got moving, and that a momentum would be maintained. It seems to me that one of the features of today's debate—and I certainly enjoyed listening to the contributions—is that there is a growing crystallisation and unanimity about some of the next stages of that peace process, which is moving away from simply the minutiae of the detail of the agreement to what is actually required to bring lasting peace to Northern Ireland. In that context, decommissioning is clearly central, and it always seemed to me that it would be central when we discussed the agreement last year.

We cannot predict what will happen. Certainly, the Government have my best wishes and my good will to bring about what appears at the moment to be very difficult, but I must tell the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) that it has seemed to me from the various discussions that I have had that the position of Sinn Fein-IRA on this issue has not been to look at legalistic niceties within the agreement, but to make blanket proclamations that they do not intend to decommission. If that is indeed their intention, this peace process is going straight into the sand. That seemed to me to be the case when we discussed the agreement and looked at the legalistic niceties last year, and it seems to me that it remains the position this year. It is therefore greatly to be hoped that the pressure that has been spoken about—not just by what we say in the House, which I dare say will carry very little weight, but by those outside and, indeed, in other countries—may be brought to bear on Sinn Fein, so that it can see the advantages of moving and showing that it really intends to maintain a peace process. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire was right: that is clearly very difficult in view of the culture of violence and of the gun that has prevailed in Northern Ireland. I share his view that we in a democratic assembly sometimes forget that there is another world—the other side of the mirror—which, to those who participate in it, appears to have equal validity, even if we as democrats have abandoned it. Therefore, it is a difficult transition to make. I agree with his comments on that point.

All we can do is hold the door open. What we are doing by passing the order and renewing it is holding that door open. On that basis, I welcome the order and hope that the parties start to move through that door.

11.40 pm
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Adam Ingram)

The debate has been brief, but interesting and, in some ways, thought provoking. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) and to the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) for their thoughtful contributions. Both hon. Members always add balance to the debate. We are grateful for that.

The right hon. Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor)—someone who has been very close to the whole process—made a major contribution. Obviously, the Government will take his points into account. Clearly, he is very close to the negotiations, discussions and the whole process. He knows the way in which the issue can be moved forward and the momentum maintained. I read from his comments that he wants the Good Friday agreement to work. He knows that that is the overwhelming view of the people in Northern Ireland. It is important that that message is put across: it is a difficult process, to which we are trying to find answers.

When it was last debated, the order was dealt with in Committee. Representations were made by the Opposition to have it debated on the Floor of the House. There was no objection from the Government. We felt that it would be useful, but it is interesting to note that, having made those representations, the shadow Secretary of State is not here. There may be good reasons why he is not here. I understand that he was in Northern Ireland today. I just make the point that I and, more important, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland have had to come back for the debate in the middle of a very difficult process. There has been a discourteous approach by the Opposition. I do not object to the debate taking place on the Floor of the House, but I hope that we can get a much more serious contribution from Her Majesty's official Opposition on the issue.

Not all parties from Northern Ireland are represented in the debate. That reflects what the right hon. Member for Strangford and others have said. It is an important order, but it should be approved and not used as a vehicle for other debates, with hon. Members trying to widen the debate into other areas.

I cannot stress too strongly how important the draft order and the subject of decommissioning are. They are critical to the whole process and underpin the Good Friday agreement. As the Secretary of State said, the draft order will allow for an extension of the period during which there can be the amnesty from prosecution for offences, mainly possession related, committed by people during decommissioning. Without it, there would be no decommissioning, which is, after all, a voluntary process that, but for the provisions of the 1997 Act, would put people at risk of prosecution.

I want to make it clear that there must be decommissioning. It is an essential part of the Good Friday agreement, which all parties to the agreement endorsed and said they would urge others to achieve. The agreement is not something from which one can pick and choose the bit one likes and will abide by. All parties who have endorsed the agreement should take early action to show their commitment to it.

The right hon. Member for Strangford listed the various matters dealt with in the Good Friday agreement—the Belfast agreement—on which the Government and the Government of the Republic of Ireland have made progress and which fell to them to implement. They operated with no time scale operating against them, but with a determination and commitment to create an entirely new environment in Northern Ireland. We have started to do that against very difficult odds, after facing up to some very difficult conditions.

Mr. Cash

Will the Minister answer a very simple question? Does he endorse the statement on decommissioning that the Taoiseach made the other day and that has been mentioned several times in this debate? Yes or no?

Mr. Ingram

The Taoiseach speaks for himself, and the hon. Gentleman should read what he said both in that interview and in the Dail. The Taoiseach speaks for himself, and we do not speak for the Irish Government. We say that both processes must move forward. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said both in her opening remarks and in response to similar interventions, there are two strands to the process—decommissioning and the Executive. They must happen; otherwise, we shall not have continuation of the Good Friday agreement. That is the reality. It is the complex environment in which we operate, and the matter to which we are trying to seek agreement.

The matter rests not only with the Government, or with the two Governments, but with all the parties who signed up to the Belfast agreement. No one said that the process would be an easy one or that it was a matter simply of reaching agreement and, the day after, of everything falling automatically into place. If Opposition Members think that that is how peace processes work, they have not been living in this century or understood the lessons of history.

Mr. Wilshire

I can well understand why the hon. Gentleman does not want to speak for the Republic's Government, but will he speak for the British Government? Will he tell us, please, whether the British Government will allow into the Northern Ireland Executive armed terrorists before they have started decommissioning? Will the Government sanction such entry, or will they not?

Mr. Ingram

The Secretary of State already answered that question, and there is no point in my trying to find different words simply to repeat what she said.

I want to quote from a letter to the Leader of the Opposition that was written on 6 January 1998 by the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire). He wrote: I had absolutely no doubt that its 'Peace Process' was doomed to failure and that the Talks were going nowhere. Within months of that letter being written, we had the Belfast agreement and had made substantial progress, both in the referendum and in the commitment of the parties to take the process forward. Progress continued right up to December and beyond it, into the new year.

I do not want to enter into debate with the hon. Member for Spelthorne as his speech was over the top, and I tend to ignore such speeches. However, his speech was deeply offensive to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and to other Labour Members who are trying to move the process forward. We are not appeasers of terrorism—which is the most outrageous statement to make about any right hon. or hon. Member. The Government—like previous Governments—have been resolute against terrorism. That is why we have committed so many brave men and women—in the RUC and in the armed forces—to defend the democracy that we want to uphold in Northern Ireland. We shall continue to do so.

I do not want to get involved in a debate with the hon. Member for Spelthorne, as the judgment that he demonstrated in his letter to the Leader of the Opposition shows that his opinions, which may be strong ones, are misplaced.

Mr. Hunter

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Ingram

I shall not constantly give way. The hon. Gentleman had the opportunity to make a speech in the debate but has only intervened in the speeches of other hon. Members. He could have collected his thought processes and made a speech, but—[Interruption.] Some hon. Members say that he could not have done that, but I was trying to give him the benefit of the doubt. He decided not to make a speech.

We have already seen some decommissioning. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said, the LVF has decommissioned weapons through the independent commission. We can only hope that that action will be followed by others.

Decommissioning not only can happen, it must happen, and I am certain that it will happen with the determination and commitment of those who hold illegal weapons in Northern Ireland. The question is no longer whether there will be decommissioning, but when terrorist and paramilitary groups will start the process. The sooner they do, the better it will be for everyone. The order provides a framework for the process to be taken forward and I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


That the draft Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997 (Amnesty Period) Order 1999, which was laid before this House on 1st February, be approved.