HC Deb 05 July 1999 vol 334 cc639-53
Madam Speaker

The right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) raised an important point of order at 2.30 pm today about the joint statement by the British and Irish Governments, which should have been available in the Vote Office at that time. I understand that it was available in Northern Ireland at 9 pm on Friday. There is no reason whatever why it should not have been in our Vote Office early this morning. I hope that those who are responsible for distribution will improve efficiency.

3.31 pm
The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement on last week's talks on Northern Ireland.

Last Friday, I proposed a way forward for Northern Ireland. The starting point was the Good Friday agreement, which set out an agreed basis for a peace settlement in Northern Ireland. It offered Unionists what they have sought for the past 70 years: the principle of consent—that is, no change to the status of Northern Ireland without the agreement of the majority of its population; changes to the Irish constitution, with Dublin dropping its legal claim to the North; and devolution of powers to Northern Ireland, with an elected Assembly, an Executive and other institutions.

For the nationalists and republicans, the Good Friday agreement offers equality, justice, and the normalisation of Northern Ireland society; for the first time since partition, the ability to share power and responsibility and not have their electoral mandate set at naught; a range of new institutions, including north-south bodies; and, over time, as the security situation improves, demilitarisation.

Above all, the Good Friday agreement offered all the people of Northern Ireland the prospects of permanent peace and an end to violence. I believe that it is still the only true way forward for Northern Ireland.

Of course, difficulties remain. There is still violence, much of it recently by loyalists opposed to the Good Friday agreement, and there is still conflict and bitterness, as we can see in Portadown, where I will continue to work for a settlement of the Drumcree issue; but life in Northern Ireland has improved immeasurably since the Good Friday agreement. Normality has returned to most parts of the Province.

Whatever their disagreements, the two sides now talk to one another regularly, but one vital issue is unresolved: how to secure the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons. The Good Friday agreement required all parties to use their best endeavours to secure decommissioning.

On 25 June, the Taoiseach and I secured the commitment of all the signatories to the Good Friday agreement to three principles on which the rest of our work was then based: that an inclusive Executive should be formed, exercising devolved powers; that all paramilitary arms should be decommissioned by May 2000; and that decommissioning should be carried out in a manner determined by the International Commission on Decommissioning under General John de Chastelain.

Both sides need certainty. Unionists want certainty that decommissioning will happen, and a guarantee that, if it does not, they will not be left in an Executive with those who refuse to make it happen. Republicans want the certainty that Unionists are serious about participating in a genuinely inclusive Government. Our agreement last Friday, in my view, provides both.

In more detail, the proposal is as follows. Northern Ireland Ministers would be nominated by the parties, using the d'Hondt procedure, on 15 July. The devolution order would be laid before Parliament on the following day, and powers transferred on 18 July.

The de Chastelain commission would require a start to the process of decommissioning. The general has already said that he expects this to be within literally a couple of days". That process of decommissioning begins when a paramilitary group makes an unambiguous commitment that decommissioning will be completed by 22 May 2000 and commences detailed discussions of actual modalities (amounts, types, location, timing) with the Commission through an authorised representative. So there would have to be definitive statement of intent, certified by de Chastelain literally within days. If that does not happen, and de Chastelain certifies a breach of this process, at that point the Executive is unwound. So we shall know within days whether decommissioning is to happen or not.

The commission then sets a further time limit, within which there is to be a start to actual decommissioning of weapons. The general has said that he would expect that to be within a few weeks. Again, should the actual decommissioning not come as de Chastelain has laid down according to the Good Friday agreement, then the failsafe kicks in. De Chastelain is due to make reports on progress on actual decommissioning in September, October and December and in May 2000, by which time it is to be complete. That is all entirely in line with the Good Friday agreement. Under it, parties are expected to use their best efforts to secure decommissioning. Last Friday's agreement is effectively the basis for how that will be judged.

Should default occur, the institutions are suspended automatically while we find a way forward. We are then, in effect, back to where we are now, but with these two vital differences: the blame for default is clear, and the parties are then free to move on in an Executive without the defaulting party. I cannot make the other parties agree to a new Executive, or force anyone to sit in a Government with anyone else, but I can make sure that Sinn Fein does not continue in an Executive with the Ulster Unionists should there be a default of the de Chastelain process. All that will be set out in legislation.

In my judgment, it is a far better deal than was on offer at Hillsborough. That offered a token act of decommissioning, dependent on reciprocal steps by the British and Irish, with no clear framework for completing the decommissioning process by May 2000. This, by contrast, provides a guarantee of a complete process of decommissioning, plus a failsafe that fully protects the interests of Unionists. There is a challenge to all parties: to Unionists to agree to a power-sharing Executive; to republicans not just to give up violence but to decommission weapons in accordance with the undertakings set out in the Good Friday agreement; and to nationalist opinion to support parties implementing this agreement and not to support those who refuse to do so.

If last Friday's agreement is put through, we will know in days whether the paramilitaries are serious about decommissioning their weapons. After 30 years of bloodshed, grief-stricken families and terror-torn communities, is it not worth waiting 30 days to see whether the undertakings are fulfilled? If they are, peace—real peace—can come. If they are not, we will know that the challenge of true democracy was too much for those linked to paramilitary groups. Either way, we will know. So I say to people: discuss the detail, debate it and engage; but do not throw away the best chance for peace that we will have in this generation.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

We are grateful to the Prime Minister for his statement. The whole House will appreciate his efforts and those of many others to resolve those very difficult problems.

The Good Friday agreement continues to have the full and unequivocal support of the Opposition. It offers the prize of peace and an end to the horror and suffering of the past 30 years. We are committed to making it work and to seeing it implemented in full.

Does the Prime Minister agree that the decommissioning of all illegally held arms and explosives is an absolutely essential part of that process? It was supposed to begin almost immediately and to be completed by May 2000, but, so far, it has not happened. Will he make it clear that the obstacle to progress has been not the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) and his party, who have done all that was required under the agreement, but the terrorists—republican and loyalist—and their political representatives, who have failed to get rid of their arms?

Does the Prime Minister agree that, against that background, the anxieties of the Unionists are wholly understandable? They are being asked to admit, as Government Ministers in a part of the United Kingdom, representatives of terrorist groups that remain fully armed and capable of carrying out violence on a massive scale. They are being asked to take on trust claims by Sinn Fein, which does not even profess to speak for the IRA, that, once it is in government, disarmament might take place.

In assessing these proposals, we have two major areas of concern that give rise to two sets of questions. First, it is clear that there is still no cast-iron guarantee that the IRA will commence decommissioning its weapons. One of its leaders was quoted as saying that there was no guarantee of decommissioning. Will the Prime Minister confirm that, in the emergency legislation—to which the House will give speedy passage—there will be a precise, transparent timetable for decommissioning?

Secondly, on the failsafe guarantee, Friday's document states that, without decommissioning, the Government will suspend the operation of the institutions set up by the Agreement. Does the Prime Minister agree that that could punish democratic politicians for the failure of paramilitaries to decommission? Will he therefore expand on his comments on the radio this morning, when he said that, if the IRA failed to state its intention to decommission within days, it's open to us all to formulate a new way forward without Sinn Fein"? Will the Prime Minister confirm that, in those circumstances, he would seek the suspension from the Assembly of Sinn Fein and any loyalist paramilitary groups? Will he further confirm that the Secretary of State would use the power given her in the Good Friday agreement to invite the Assembly to form a new Executive without Sinn Fein? That is not to say simply that it could do so, but that the Secretary of State would use her power to invite it to do so—that is the difference in what I am asking.

Will the Prime Minister confirm also that, in those circumstances, he would, without hesitation, put on hold any reform of the RUC and criminal justice system and stop the early release of terrorist prisoners?

We are now at a stage where the two Governments—British and Irish—and the democratic parties, nationalist and Unionist, have jumped every hurdle. Let us make no mistake: the stumbling block is the failure of paramilitaries, loyalist and republican, to decommission weapons. Does the Prime Minister agree that it is now up to those paramilitaries to make the process work, and, if they fail to do so, we should set the maximum penalties for them?

The Prime Minister

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his support. The bipartisan support in the whole process has been extremely important in taking it forward, and I hope that it continues, because it will be difficult to make progress without it.

The right hon. Gentleman said that decommissioning has not happened, but the Executive has not yet been established, and the decommissioning issue is precisely what held it up. People point out that we said that representatives could not sit in the Executive until we were sure that they had given up violence for good—that is what I said during the referendum campaign, and that is, of course, precisely why they are not sitting in the Executive. We need to deal with that issue, which is why we have tried to reach agreement in the way that we have.

I entirely agree—it is important to emphasise this point—that loyalist paramilitaries have to decommission too. There can be no question of saying that it is an imposition only on republican paramilitaries; it is in respect of all paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland.

The right hon. Gentleman said that there were understandable anxieties and that people would be expected to admit to an Executive people who are fully armed and to take their word on trust. It is important to make two points.

First, the benefit of the agreement that we have is that people would not be able to carry on sitting in an Executive fully armed. They would have to be agreeing to a process of decommissioning that got rid of all the weapons by the agreed date, which is May 2000. The problem with the Hillsborough declaration was that it asked for one token act of decommissioning, and no guaranteed process after that.

Secondly, people say that we must take Sinn Fein on trust. The whole agreement of last Friday is based on the simple principle that neither side will take the other on trust. We may as well face up to that; that trust does not exist, for perfectly understandable reasons. Therefore, the purpose of the agreement is to build in guarantees, certainty. So, there is the certainty for the republicans that the inclusive Executive will be set up, and the certainty for Unionists that they will not be expected to carry on sitting in the Executive with those who are not giving up their weapons. We have tried to build in certainty, not trust.

The right hon. Gentleman asked us to say that, if there were to be a default by Sinn Fein, we would invite the other parties to go forward without it. I say categorically that we would certainly be doing that—as long as people understand that I cannot force parties to form a Government together. I cannot force some of the parties now to get into government with the other parties, but I can certainly provide the basis for a way forward and say that the party that is in default in the agreement should be the one that is punished. There is no doubt about that; we can make that very clear.

The release of prisoners is governed by the legislation that is set out, and a range of factors are to be taken into account, including the issues about which we are talking. I make the following point about maximum penalties. At the present time, we simply do not know whether people will decommission. My point is, whatever they say, whatever they have said to us and whatever indications they have given, I understand perfectly well why people will not accept undertakings, words, statements or any of the rest of it. If we do not put this agreement to the test and find out literally within days whether decommissioning will happen, we will never know. The republicans will say, "We might have, if we had been given the chance," and the Unionists will be left without the knowledge of whether the republicans ever would have done so.

I believe one thing absolutely and sincerely: we will never get this Executive to work unless the obligation to decommission is accepted and carried through. In the legislation, we must build in proper failsafes and guarantees so that we give this thing a chance to work, but do not leave the Unionists or, indeed, any other democrats, in an Executive in which people keep a private army and intend to use it.

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)

I congratulate the Prime Minister, the Taoiseach and all others involved on retrieving hope from what looked like pretty irretrievable despair at the end of last week. Does not the Good Friday agreement remain the only blueprint for peace in Ireland, and the Belfast agreement the only route to it? With that in mind, is it not important that all sides, perhaps especially the Unionists, consider this agreement in detail rather than peremptorily dismissing it, as that would damage not only peace in Northern Ireland but very possibly the Unionists' cause as well? Does the Prime Minister agree, however, that he has some work to do to reassure the Unionist community about it? Will he therefore provide a few more details on the following three areas?

First, will the Prime Minister give more details about the timetable for decommissioning and the role of General de Chastelain? Secondly, will he be a little more precise about how long the Unionists will be asked to sit in an Executive before the IRA gives dependable and concrete assurances by way of action on its commitment to decommission before 2000? Lastly, will he assure us that the failsafe will not bring down the whole devolutionary structure and that, if one party defaults—whether IRA or any other terrorists—the others will not only be able to go ahead but will do so with the Government's help, support and good wishes?

The Prime Minister

First, it is important again to point out that there will be no decommissioning if we do not find an agreement to move this issue forward. The alternative to last Friday's agreement is not faster, quicker decommissioning, but no decommissioning. Secondly, the timetable for decommissioning is laid down by General de Chastelain, but he has already given indications of the timetable that he would expect and when the reports are to be delivered—the first, as I said, in September and subsequently right up to May 2000. Incidentally, if he wishes, he can lay down an even quicker timetable for decommissioning. Anybody who has had anything to do with General de Chastelain realises that he is, rightly, respected by all sides, both as independent and as extremely concerned to ensure that decommissioning is actually delivered.

It is as well that the right hon. Gentleman raised the third point; it is not that Sinn Fein must provide a statement to the de Chastelain commission within days of the formation of the Executive, but that the paramilitary group itself—the IRA—must do so, as must the other, loyalist, groups. Most people would recognise that as a pretty significant event. We shall know that within days, and then, some weeks down the line, we shall know whether actual decommissioning is occurring. During that time—literally the next few weeks—we shall be able to see whether those undertakings are honoured.

Finally, in relation to the failsafe, yes it is extremely important to recognise that, in order to give the automatic guarantee, we have to suspend the institutions, but, of course, we shall then find a way forward that ensures that the punishment is visited on the defaulting party, whoever that defaulting party may be. That is obvious; it is right and just.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

I echo the words of the Leader of the Opposition in thanking the Prime Minister and, indeed, Taoiseach Ahern for the amount of time that they have devoted to this issue, and for spending all of last week in Belfast. It is appreciated and, as the Prime Minister is aware, it is also appreciated by my Assembly colleagues—even if we differ slightly as to the outcome of matters.

The Prime Minister knows that my Assembly colleagues and I want to see devolution, and that we want to see actual decommissioning occur. However, he also knows that, in asking us to include Sinn Fein in an Executive in advance of decommissioning, he asks us to sacrifice the democratic principle to expediency. He is asking us to take a gamble with an ineffective and unfair safety net. That point has already been made. The question is: why close all the institutions? In effect, why give a veto to the paramilitaries? That would mean that, if the IRA does not like the results of, say, the Patten commission on policing, it could close things down, simply by delaying decommissioning. It also gives other paramilitaries a veto.

What will happen if the UDA, the UVF, the LVF or the INLA decide that they will stop decommissioning in order to destroy all the institutions of the agreements? That is not an effective remedy. The remedy should be directed towards the parties in default. With regard to the other paramilitaries, closing the Executive is no penalty; the only possible penalty has to do with prisoners. That has to be looked at again.

Finally, does the Prime Minister recall that, at the beginning of last week, he was seeking a series of declarations—especially one from Sinn Fein that the war was finished, over, done with and gone? He also wanted from Sinn Fein a declaration that it will succeed in persuading those with arms to decommission. He was also seeking from the IRA a statement that, in effect, accepted the Sinn Fein statement. What happened to those declarations?

The Prime Minister

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his kind words about the time that we spent in Belfast. I do not regret any of the time that I spend in Belfast—occasionally, I wish it were slightly more productive. I also thank him for the constructive way in which he has engaged in the negotiations. I entirely understand the anxieties that he rightly represents.

If the issue is the democratic principle that we cannot sit in government with people who have a private army in reserve, every democrat would agree with that. The reason why I believe this process to be superior to Hillsborough is that, in the Hillsborough declaration, we could have had a token act of decommissioning, but we could still have been sitting in an Executive with people who had a private army. After all, if they get rid of one load of weapons, that is not the same as getting rid of everything. It is, therefore, better to have a process of complete decommissioning; I think that the right hon. Gentleman would accept that. The issue is simply how it starts. I hope that I have provided some assurance as to that by saying that the process of decommissioning, which begins with the explicit statement on behalf of the paramilitary organisation, has to start within days, otherwise, we go back immediately and rewind the position.

The second point that the right hon. Gentleman makes is about the ineffective and unfair safety net. Surely that is precisely what we should try to discuss in the coming days, because there will have to be legislation, which will be properly scrutinised, and the points that he is making—perfectly fairly—need to be taken into account. For example, he asks why groups that have not decommissioned should have a veto over the process. In a sense, one could say that, by not decommissioning now, they have a veto over the process, but I think that our way of dealing with it prevents them from having a veto because the suspension is not the only thing that happens. We then go into a review, and then we can invite the parties to take a different way forward. So we do not—and should not—end up in a situation where the defaulting party manages to bring punishment upon everyone else and no punishment upon itself. I agree with that. Again, we are happy to look at a way that we can deal with that objection.

In respect also of the loyalists, I think that it is very important to realise that, although the loyalists will not be part of the Executive, none the less they have the obligation to decommission. The entire range of factors that must be taken into account are very clearly set out in the legislation on prisoners, and I would refer back to them in detail.

The right hon. Gentleman also asked whether it would be right to end up closing all the institutions. There was an implication there—this may be a misunderstanding—that all those institutions would come to an end and never be revived. That would not be my view as to the way forward. There must be a suspension—otherwise, the Unionists are left on the Executive with those who have refused to decommission or are in breach of their agreement—but then we must find a way forward that ensures that the institutions do work again, but work in a way that is consistent with the democratic mandate of the Ulster Unionist party and the other parties, ensuring that those parties in default pay the price for being in default.

Finally, in relation to the declarations by Sinn Fein and the IRA, I have set out where the IRA would have to make its statement, but I want to make this point very, very clear indeed. We could have decided to go with a process that depended on words. We have decided not to do that. This process depends on actual decommissioning happening—actions. If there are not actions, the failsafe kicks in immediately. So I am not asking us to be in a situation where we are expecting democrats to sit in the Executive with organisations linked to paramilitary groups, which then can simply sit there, keeping their weapons, no one being able to do anything about it. We are not saying that words are the protection. There has to be actual decommissioning. If there is not actual decommissioning, the failsafe kicks in, and then we can find a different, and better, way forward.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend and the Taoiseach on the tenacity of purpose that they showed over the past week and their determination to try to bring to an end more than 30 years of mayhem, death and destruction. I also pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who has been most unfairly pilloried during the past few days. She has the admiration and support of every Labour Member.

Can my right hon. Friend confirm that any Executive must have the support of both sides of the community; that on each side of the community more than one party must agree with what is going on; and that, therefore, it does not necessarily follow that there could be an Executive without Sinn Fein?

Secondly, can my right hon. Friend confirm that, for the first time, he has got from Sinn Fein an understanding that he has regarded as being one of the greatest movements of position in politics in Ireland for many, many years? That must be put to the test, and the way that he has suggested puts it to the test. Anyone who would seek to throw that away in a fit of pique or because they wanted every t crossed and every i dotted would, if they persisted in that, be subject to a great deal of deserved criticism from all the peoples in these islands.

The Prime Minister

First, I think that I know better than anyone else what my right hon. Friend has had to go through over the past two years in doing her job. I know of the difficulties that it has caused her from time to time. I can assure the House that I am second to none in my admiration for the way in which she has done her job.

Secondly, my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) made a very correct point about both sides of the community. We should never forget that more parties than Sinn Fein and the Ulster Unionists are involved in these matters. There are other political parties with a mandate—most notably there is the SDLP, but there are others which also need to be taken account of.

Thirdly, as for Sinn Fein and the statements that it has made, I believe that it is prepared to make this historic shift. However, I do not believe that the Unionists should have to rely upon that. That is why I think that it is right to put it to the test. The detail obviously matters as well, and I hope that it is properly scrutinised. I only ask people to let us have a discussion about the detail to see whether the justifiable anxieties and concerns can be allayed.

Mr. John Major (Huntingdon)

It is possible that we may be near the conclusion of a very long trail. I hope that everyone will look clearly at both the opportunities and the difficulties that lie immediately ahead of us.

The Prime Minister and the party leaders have done extraordinarily well to expose the questions that were always going to be there at the end of the day—will the IRA decommission and can the word of Sinn Fein bind the IRA and its future actions? If the answer to those questions is yes, I think that peace is at hand and that democracy has a triumph. If the answers are no, the Prime Minister is surely right to say that Sinn Fein cannot sit on the power-sharing Executive. In those circumstances, I would seek some clarification.

The Prime Minister said a moment ago that the Executive and perhaps the Assembly would be suspended. Will he confirm that that would happen very briefly? Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House whether the Irish Government agree with that policy, and with the Executive and the Assembly then continuing without Sinn Fein? Will he tell the House also whether he has discussed or will discuss with all the political parties, including most importantly for this purpose the Catholic majority party, the SDLP, whether they would remain in an Executive and an Assembly were Sinn Fein to have been removed from it for not decommissioning its arms? That is a crucial point.

As the Prime Minister will know, the fear in Ulster is very straightforward. It is that Sinn Fein will enter the Executive, the IRA will not then disarm, Sinn Fein will assert that it is separate from the IRA, and that there will then be pressure for it to remain on the Executive for fear that its removal would be the trigger for a fresh bout of violence. That is the fear of many people in Ulster. Upon that, I found the Prime Minister's statement of a few moments ago to be encouraging. However, will he be absolutely clear that he would not permit that to happen and that the legislation that will come before the House will ensure by its provisions that that could not happen? If that were to be the position, I think that many of the fears in the House and beyond would be removed.

Finally, does the Prime Minister agree that political pressure from London and Dublin to try to ensure that we can finally produce a peace at the end of a long process is entirely justified, but that it should focus on the paramilitaries and not upon the democratic political parties?

The Prime Minister

First, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his work; he really began this process. I know that there is a great deal of gratitude for all of the work that he did on this issue while Prime Minister. I think that I can confirm all of the points that he has raised. It is the position of both Governments that it is open to the parties to continue in an Executive without Sinn Fein. I simply repeat that I cannot force people to sit on the Executive together, but it is open to them to do so. The SDLP must make its position clear, but I understand that it is prepared to move forward without Sinn Fein should the circumstances be such that Sinn Fein is clearly the defaulting party. However, the SDLP must make its own statement on that.

I entirely understand the right hon. Gentleman's point about the fear in Ulster. He will know that people would not want the situation to be left in the hands of the two Governments. That is because they know that the two Governments will be subject to pressures. They would know and would fear—I think that this would be the fear of Unionists—that the two Governments would be under such pressure to keep the process going on any basis that even if Sinn Fein defaulted, some way would be found of ignoring the default. That is why I have suggested that the decommissioning process is in the hands of the independent commission. The commission will lay down the timetable for decommissioning and certify every step in the way. There will be an automatic kicking-in of the failsafe should the commission not certificate that progress is being made or should it certificate that progress is not being made. In other words, there is no possibility of the Unionists being made to sit in the Executive with Sinn Fein, if Sinn Fein is in breach of the undertakings that it gave.

The purpose of making sure that the initial statement, within days of devolution, is on behalf of the paramilitary organisation is to get rid of the notion, once and for all, that a statement by one of the political parties linked to those groups is enough. It is not. The statement must be from the paramilitary organisation, it must be, in the words that we have set out, "clear and unambiguous" in the intention to decommission, and it must be combined with the appointment of a representative to ensure that that happens. We are guarded against the very point that the right hon. Gentleman rightly says we should be guarded against.

It is worth quoting the conclusion of an editorial today in the Belfast Telegraph, which is ready to be pretty sceptical about most of the deals and agreements. It states: On balance therefore, we believe that the deal is worth a try, worth further examination and refinement but certainly should not be subject to rejection out of hand. That is what the Belfast Telegraph has written today, and I ask all parties to try to ensure that that is the case.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

As the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), who started the peace process knows full well, during the 18 years that we were in opposition, we supported the then Government at every stage over Northern Ireland, and we did so because it was in the national interest. Will my right hon. Friend consider letting the Ulster Unionists know, when he next meets them, that the large silent majority in Britain has always supported the wish of most people in Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom, but that they undoubtedly support the Good Friday agreement?

If there is slightest doubt about the wishes of the vast majority of British people with regard to the Good Friday agreement, could there be an opportunity to allow people on the mainland to vote, as people voted in Northern Ireland and in the Irish Republic? If there were such a vote, it would be even larger than in those two places for an agreement that leads to the possibility of a permanent peace in Northern Ireland.

The Prime Minister

I thank my hon. Friend for his support. The Good Friday agreement was agreed in referendums north and south. I believe that with the certainty that we now provide about the link between the Executive and the decommissioning process, support for the agreement should be reinvigorated.

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)

Is the Prime Minister aware that his comment that there is a total lack of trust between different sides can be readily endorsed? Does he recognise that, because of that lack of trust, it is difficult to have much confidence in decommissioning, certainly if one reads the comments of General de Chastelain? None the less, the House would accept that the Prime Minister may have sources of information and further knowledge that he cannot share with the House which give him confidence that there will be the seismic shift that he described, but which is not apparent in any of the documents currently available to us.

I still have one reservation. The Prime Minister speaks of the failsafe kicking-in, but it seems to me that there is no failsafe until 20 May, which is the moment at which it would become clear that decommissioning had not taken place. Unionists therefore face the prospect of sitting in an Executive during that period.

Against that background, the last words of the Belfast Telegraph editorial that the Prime Minister quoted, about the need for further consideration and refinement, not outright rejection—I strongly agree with that—and the reassurance for Unionists to which the leader of the Liberal party referred, are extremely significant.

Does the Prime Minister agree that it is sad that no member of the SDLP is to be seen in the House today? I saw the television broadcast which implied that there were only two political parties in Northern Ireland, in the shape of the Unionists and Sinn Fein, but I believe that the role of the SDLP as the majority non-violent nationalist party is very important.

The Prime Minister

I agree with the point that the right hon. Gentleman makes.

In relation to the detail, I should explain that the failsafe device kicks in at several stages up to May 2000. That is the benefit of the agreement that we have. Under the Good Friday agreement, there was no failsafe up until May 2000. Now we have agreed that, within a few days, the decommissioning process has to start with the statement of intent. After that, there will be the first report on actual decommissioning. Then there will be further reports all the way through to May 2000.

The Unionists will not be left in the Executive with Sinn Fein and the IRA doing nothing about weapons. The decommissioning process will get under way virtually straight away and has to be followed through all the way to May 2000. That is a far tighter timetable and agreement than we had before and they are in the hands of de Chastelain. As I said in answer to questions earlier, people would not accept it if they were in the hands of the two Governments, but most people who have talked to General de Chastelain know that he is deadly serious about decommissioning happening. If it does not happen, he will not certify it as happening.

The right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) rightly said that General de Chastelain makes it clear in his report that he is not yet fully satisfied that decommissioning will happen. Correct. Never mind private assurances that are given—I do not take the private assurances that are given either. The only thing that will do for me is decommissioning actually happening. That is why we have set out this process, but if we do not test it out, we will never know whether decommissioning is to be delivered or not.

Perhaps I should make this point as well: people will say, "Why don't you get the decommissioning first and then the Executive?" Under the Good Friday agreement that is put the other way round. It is not a precondition to establishing the Executive that there should be decommissioning, but it is an obligation. We have to marry those two obligations, which is why we have attempted to do it in the way that I have described.

Let us be clear: we want republicans to succeed. If they can bring about decommissioning that will be a huge step forward for everyone. To be fair to them, they have always made it clear to me that they can achieve it if it is in line with the Good Friday agreement, but not if it is a departure from it. That is why they rejected Hillsborough, even though in many ways it offered an easier deal for them.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

As the last remaining Member of the House who was in the Cabinet 30 years ago when the troops were sent in—one of many unsuccessful attempts to impose peace in Northern Ireland by force from London—may I add my sincere congratulations to the Prime Minister on the time, effort, patience and imagination that he and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State have shown and for which there is absolutely no precedent from any previous Prime Minister? Therefore criticism from the other side of the House should not concern him too much.

Will the Prime Minister consider the fact that, whatever the setbacks and difficulties, and there will be both, he should retain two principles at the forefront of his mind? I am sure that he will do so. First, peace and justice in Northern Ireland depend on the involvement of the two communities, and Sinn Fein has the democratic legitimacy of the ballot box. That is the basis of its entitlement to consideration. Secondly, will he cling, above all, to close relations with Dublin? For the first time since partition, London and Dublin jointly oversee the prospects of peace in Northern Ireland. That, along with a settlement of the difficulty that he has described, offers our best hope for a future in the next century quite different from the tragedy that has befallen Northern Ireland in our own lifetime.

The Prime Minister

I thank my right hon. Friend for his kind words.

This is a clear agreement—a deal. For the nationalist and republican communities, there has to be justice and equality. There has to be an end to discrimination. There has to be a genuine sense of sharing power and responsibility. In return, however, once that full ripening of democracy comes about, all people clearly have to give up the notion that violence can be run alongside the ballot box. From now on, people have to make a choice. The next few weeks are the moment of choice for Northern Ireland. People have to decide whether they are prepared, in return for justice and equality, to forswear the use of violence for ever. I hope that they make that choice.

Our relations with the Irish Government offer an opportunity to provide a way forward. The Irish Government and Prime Minister are entirely sincere in wanting to make sure that violence and the gun are taken out of the politics of Ireland for ever. We should work with them to ensure that that is so.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

If there is any delay in disarming and decommissioning by loyalist paramilitaries, who would not necessarily be adversely affected by that decision, would General de Chastelain have any latitude in the certificates that he gives to others whose behaviour might be affected?

The Prime Minister

No. The obligations stand alone for each group. Each of them has a responsibility to decommission, and for one to say that it would not decommission would give no excuse to others. Everyone has the same obligation, and the penalties can be exacted accordingly.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside)

I congratulate the Prime Minister on his determination and perseverance in the inevitably complex pursuit of peace in Northern Ireland. While the achievements of the Good Friday agreement necessarily focus on the saving of lives, does he agree that it is important to note openings for increased standards of living for the people of Northern Ireland that are emerging from the new east-west trade routes developed as a result of the agreement? In particular, the Irish Business and Employers Confederation, the Northern Ireland CBI and the north-west development agency are developing links at present.

In view of the overwhelming importance of saving life, increasing living standards and establishing normality of life for the people of Northern Ireland, does my right hon. Friend agree that the House should support his statement, and that—in and out of Parliament—we should support groups who have difficulties, rather than seeking to exacerbate the problems?

The Prime Minister

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. The potential for jobs, investment and improved living standards is immeasurably increased by a viable peace process. Northern Ireland has an enormous amount to offer inward investors and companies that wish to do business. People should be able to invest in Northern Ireland in the knowledge that a proper political process is under way.

Sir Brian Mawhinney (North-West Cambridgeshire)

I, too, commend the Prime Minister on his diligent search for an agreement.

General de Chastelain indicated in his report that he asked the paramilitary groups and parties to respond to two questions—were they committed to disarmament within the terms of the Good Friday agreement, and when would the Government receive details of the modalities? Does the Prime Minister recall that General de Chastelain said that no response was received from either the IRA or the UDA by the 28 June deadline? Will the Prime Minister give us some insight into the discussions held since 28 June with the IRA, either by General de Chastelain or by Ministers, which have enabled him to give so much more encouraging a statement to the House today?

The Prime Minister

I think, again, that is vital to stress certain points. The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that de Chastelain made it clear that he could not say at present that there would be decommissioning. That is why the agreement that we have entered into is not dependent on anyone's saying that there will be decommissioning, but, in the first instance, on the Paramilitaries—whether the IRA or the loyalists—giving a statement of intention to decommission, which will be followed by a declaration of satisfaction from the Independent Commission on Decommissioning that that is so.

Actions are what matter. People say that I have received great assurances from Sinn Fein or the IRA that they are about to move ahead, and I believe that the political leadership of Sinn Fein wants the process to work. But my belief is not enough, and assurances are not enough. We have constructed a process in which, unless assurances translate into deeds, people will not sit in the Executive alongside democrats. That is the important point to remember. All sorts of discussions were held last week, and all sorts of assurances given. However, we have learned often enough in Northern Ireland that we cannot pay attention simply to assurances. Unless the assurances are followed by deeds, there is no deal.

Mr. Tony Worthington (Clydebank and Milngavie)

I should also like to congratulate the Prime Minister and all those involved in these strenuous negotiations. I should particularly like to congratulate the Official Unionists on what they have achieved in the past three years. If one had said three years ago that the Official Unionists had achieved the principle of consent, backed by the people of Ireland, north and south, in a referendum, it would have been difficult to believe. If one had said that there was to be a massive devolution of legislative powers to Northern Ireland, it would have been difficult to believe. Now all the IRA's armaments and other weapons may be decommissioned by next May. There are failsafes. Does the Prime Minister agree that, if the Official Unionists go along with this agreement, it will be the most miraculous negotiation that anyone has ever achieved?

The Prime Minister

It has not happened yet.

I thank my hon. Friend for the work that he did as Labour Opposition spokesman on Northern Ireland. If we do not put this to the test, we will never know whether decommissioning would have happened. That is why it would be foolish to throw away the chance of getting the decommissioning of all paramilitary weapons by May 2000. My hon. Friend is right to say that many of the issues are already resolved. The issues that have torn apart negotiations in Northern Ireland for years and years, such as the principle of consent, the idea of an Assembly, and the changes to the Irish constitution, are now resolved.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe)

I, too, join in the tributes that have been paid to the Prime Minister for his persistence. Does not he accept that the complexities that he has painstakingly explained to the House, however well-intentioned they may be, would be wholly unnecessary if the men of violence were prepared to lay down their arms? What makes the Prime Minister suppose that, if they have genuinely given up violence but refuse to lay down their arms now, so that the Executive can commence, they will lay down their arms in days, weeks or months from now?

The Prime Minister

The simple answer to that question is, if they do not, they will not sit in the Executive with the Unionists. It is up to them what they do now. They have always said that they will decommission in the context of the implementation of the agreement and the establishment of the institution. Let us see it. If it does not happen, they will not sit in the Executive with the Unionists. If it does happen, we should all be grateful. We must put it to the test. We will never get out of this situation unless we finally throw down the challenge to them, put them to the test, and see whether the test is met.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

I, too, join in congratulating the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State on their patience and expertise in all these negotiations, and on the prize that that offers of peace in Northern Ireland and long-term peace for all the island of Ireland. I am sure that he recognises the enormous movements that have been made by the nationalist and Unionist communities in reaching this close position in which we may get long-term peace. I am sure that he, too, wants to see a non-military Northern Ireland in the future. Were there any discussions in the past week or will there be anything in the legislation that he proposes to introduce on limiting the private ownership of licensed arms and the large number of gun clubs in Northern Ireland? Having reached a point at which decommissioning is a real possibility, we surely would not want to see a growth of private arms, which could lead to the destabilisation of a peaceful Ireland in the future.

The Prime Minister

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words. The tricky issues that he raised in the latter part of his question should be resolved in the longer term. The immediate task is to establish a framework which spells out a guarantee for the parties. That guarantee will allow us to ensure that both devolution and decommissioning occur. That is the primary task.