HC Deb 20 January 1999 vol 323 cc896-9
5. Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury)

If she will make a statement on the decommissioning of terrorist weapons in Northern Ireland. [64859]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Marjorie Mowlam)

I welcome the positive act of the Loyalist Volunteer Force decommissioning which took place on 18 December. While discussions continue between representatives of other groups and the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning, it is now time for them to start decommissioning also. The agreement must be implemented in full and decommissioning is an indispensable part of it.

Mr. Baldry

I do not think that any hon. Member would disagree with the Secretary of State's answer, but it is a fundamental part of good faith in the whole process that there should be decommissioning, and if people cannot have trust in the decommissioning process, how can they have trust in any other part of the process?

Marjorie Mowlam

I agree that decommissioning is an essential part of the agreement and trust on all sides is necessary for it to move forward. We need to see progress on all aspects of the Good Friday agreement. Decommissioning is an essential part of that agreement and should happen. It is not a precondition; it is an obligation.

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down)

I am sure that the Secretary of State and the whole House will join me in condemning the cowardly bomb attack by the Orange volunteers on the house of Patrick Shields last night, not far from where I live in my constituency. It is particularly poignant in that Loughinisland, a small rural community, has already been visited by the loyalist paramilitaries, when six of its people were machine-gunned to death on a summer's night. Does the Secretary of State agree that the best way to resolve the problem of decommissioning and violence is to establish a strong, cross-community government of the people? Will she call on all the elected representatives of Northern Ireland, of whatever party or attitude, to work together to ensure that the will of the people, expressed through referendums and in actions, is immediately implemented?

Marjorie Mowlam

I share the hon. Gentleman's condemnation of last night's barbaric behaviour. I condemn any group from either side of the community that indulges in such behaviour. The security forces are doing all that they can to stop such people. I hope that those who have information will go to the security forces. I know that sometimes that is difficult because of threats, but that is the way to stop such behaviour. As the hon. Gentleman rightly says, we shall achieve that if we implement the Good Friday agreement and show people that there is an alternative to the violence of the past if communities work together to build for the future.

Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry)

The Secretary of State will be aware that, only last week, Martin McGuinness alleged that, during the talks process, Sinn Fein made it clear to the Prime Minister and the Irish Prime Minister that it could not deliver IRA decommissioning or disarmament. Is that allegation correct?

Marjorie Mowlam

I think that the hon. Gentleman will accept that what is important is that decommissioning happens. Many words have been spoken in the past year by people on all sides in Northern Ireland. It is important that progress should be made, with parties talking together to build for the future. Decommissioning is essential. Regardless of what parties have said in the past, efforts should be made to implement the Good Friday agreement in full.

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government are totally committed to achieving decommissioning through the peace process, particularly in view of the risk of armaments falling into the hands of terrorist groups—republican or loyalist—that continue to oppose the agreement violently?

Marjorie Mowlam

I agree with my hon. Friend. We are doing all that we can to encourage decommissioning, but, as the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) said, progress will be made by implementing all parts of the Good Friday agreement. Decommissioning is an essential part of it. If the weapons are collected sooner rather than later, it will be tougher for the small number of groups that are out to destroy the peace process to find arms to facilitate that.

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)

We have often heard politicians associated with terrorist organisations promising that they are doing their best to secure decommissioning. What does "doing their best" mean? Does the Secretary of State have any way of measuring what they are doing to turn their fine words into results?

Marjorie Mowlam

The best way to determine whether the words of effort are serious is to look at the work being done by the parties with the decommissioning body—the meetings that are held and the discussions that are had. In addition, whenever I meet the parties involved with paramilitary weapons and decommissioning, I encourage, nag and cajole them to ensure that they are seriously doing all that they can. There is no true substitute for decommissioning, which we all want.

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that it is not the role of the British Government to attempt to rewrite the Good Friday agreement, which was endorsed overwhelmingly by the people of the island of Ireland? To make decommissioning a precondition would amount to rewriting the Belfast agreement.

Marjorie Mowlam

It is important to ensure that the Good Friday agreement is implemented in full, to the letter. We are trying to do that, in conjunction with the Irish Government where relevant. We hear a lot of uncertainty and negative statements. Sometimes a little more positive confidence from both sides of the House would help the process no end.

Mr. Robert McCartney (North Down)

Does the Secretary of State agree that no institution of government claiming to be democratic could conceivably include representatives of a party said by the Secretary of State to be inextricably linked with armed terrorists? Is she aware that the Chief Constable has said that two parties in the Assembly—Sinn Fein and the Progressive Unionist party—represent terrorist groups? Those terrorist groups are currently committing breaches of the ceasefire by mutilating and murdering citizens on both sides of the community in Northern Ireland.

Marjorie Mowlam

The hon. and learned Gentleman and I disagree on the interpretation of the Chief Constable's words. I read the Chief Constable's words as meaning that there are paramilitary groups on all sides, in a generic sense, involved in punishment beatings, but that he lacks the evidence that is needed in a court of law. Rumour cannot hold in a court of law, and we have to follow the rule of law. Unless we have the evidence, it is impossible to act. I shall keep the situation under review, but I assure the hon. and learned Gentleman that the Chief Constable's words were generic and that he said clearly that, in his opinion, all groups were still on ceasefire.

Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire)

In his new year message to the people of Northern Ireland, the Prime Minister said that there was a clear obligation on decommissioning. Given the 10 March deadline for the handover of powers to the new Assembly, will the Secretary of State assure the House that, if there is no decommissioning by that date, she will not impose an Executive structure and ministerial posts on the Assembly?

Marjorie Mowlam

I think that that contribution illustrates what I said about how it would be more helpful if sometimes a more confident and positive approach, rather than a negative one, were taken. We aim to have everything in place by 10 March, especially if the Assembly approves the reports given to it by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister on 15 February; it is clear that we need to get that through first. The hon. Gentleman will know that it does not help to prejudge decisions, so let us get the Assembly's decision on those reports before looking at what happens next. It is obvious that acting without support across the community and across the parties would mean that decisions taken would not work.

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