HC Deb 22 November 1999 vol 339 cc345-59 3.32 pm
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Peter Mandelson)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I would like to make a statement on political progress in Northern Ireland.

In July, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach asked former Senator George Mitchell to facilitate a review of the implementation of the Good Friday agreement. The review was to focus on breaking the deadlock over devolution and decommissioning, which has prevented progress for many months.

Senator Mitchell concluded his review last Thursday, after 11 weeks of intensive negotiations. I would like to pay tribute to his balanced, persistent approach, which was at all times good-humoured, evidently fair and respected on all sides. For nearly five years he has devoted his time and energy to helping to resolve the most intractable of problems. Whatever now happens in the coming days, the whole House will want to join me in thanking the senator for a job extremely well done.

The review has not produced a single text like the Good Friday agreement. Instead, it has concentrated on building trust and confidence by means of a number of important steps forward rather than waiting for one giant leap that might never be made.

As a result, last week saw a series of statements by the Decommissioning Commission headed by General de Chastelain, by the parties, by the IRA, by the British and Irish Governments, and by the senator. None of these was in itself decisive. But cumulatively, I believe that these statements, together with the further steps that are planned, have created the conditions in which the agreement can now be fully implemented.

I draw the House's attention in particular to Mitchell's belief that a basis now exists for devolution to occur, for the institutions to be established and for decommissioning to take place as soon as possible"; to the assumption of a more active, assertive role by the Decommissioning Commission in circumstances which it recognises will be transformed by the full implementation of the agreement; to Sinn Fein's acceptance that decommissioning is an essential part of the peace process, to be brought about under the aegis of the Decommissioning Commission in accordance with the agreement, and to its acknowledgement that conflict must be a thing of the past; to the Ulster Unionist party's recognition of the legitimacy of the peaceful pursuit of nationalist aspirations, and its commitment to the principles of inclusivity, equality and mutual respect; and lastly, to the IRA's acknowledgement of the Sinn Fein leadership, and their willingness to appoint someone as an authorised representative to enter into discussions with the Decommissioning Commission.

I plan to call a meeting of the Assembly on Monday 29 November for the purpose of nominating Ministers in the new Northern Ireland Executive. Assuming that Ministers have been nominated, Parliament will be invited to approve a devolution order under the Northern Ireland Act 1998 on Tuesday 30 November, and powers will be transferred on Thursday 2 December.

Like Senator Mitchell, I believe that, with the institutions established, and everything up and running, decommissioning will happen as a natural and essential development of the peace process. Sinn Fein has previously argued that decommissioning must take place in the context of full implementation of an overall settlement. It now has this in prospect as a result of the review. We are, therefore, planning for success, not failure.

However, if there is default, either in implementing decommissioning, or indeed for that matter devolution, it is understood that the two Governments, British and Irish, will take the steps necessary to cease immediately the operation of the institutions—the Executive, the Assembly, the North-South Ministerial Council, the British-Irish Council, the Civic Forum and the north-south implementation bodies.

Nobody should doubt my resolve to ensure that no party profits from preventing progress in all aspects of the Good Friday Agreement. Of course we are talking about voluntary action by all parties to achieve devolution and decommissioning. None the less, in terms of the steps taken and those in prospect, a heavy political price will be paid by those who default.

Unionists, and indeed nationalists, can be assured of that. It would pain me to do so, but I would not shrink from suspending the institutions if it proved necessary, thus restoring the status quo, so as to consider how to rectify the default; but as I said, we are planning for success, not failure. Whether the agreement can move forward now depends on the meeting of the Ulster Unionist council which has been called for this Saturday.

I pay tribute to the courage and leadership of the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), who is advising his party to seize the opportunity that these developments present. It is, for the Ulster Unionist party, a decision of historic importance. A great responsibility rests on it.

I cannot take that decision for the UUP, and I would not, for a moment, overstate the merits of the deal that has now been secured. I would, however, say this. First, the Good Friday agreement is, by any standard, a good deal for Unionists. As the right hon. Member for Upper Bann said at the time, it secures the Union for as long as a majority of the people of Northern Ireland continue to support it. It brings government closer to the people in local institutions, which will be responsive to local needs. It ends the 1985 Anglo-Irish agreement, and it removes the territorial claim in the Irish constitution.

Secondly, I have already said that, in the new situation that devolution will create, I believe that decommissioning will take place. No longer are the 1RA ruling out decommissioning either by the front door or the back door. I do not believe that the republican movement would have created expectations, as it has, if it did not intend to deliver.

Let us be clear, though, about one thing: the process so outlined may not be perfect, but if it is not attempted, there will be no chance whatever of any decommissioning. Critics of the right hon. Member for Upper Bann have offered no alternative way of meeting their objective, and it is certainly not for want of asking.

We will know before long whether the IRA and the loyalist paramilitaries are engaging constructively with the Decommissioning Commission. Their representatives should be appointed within hours of devolution. The commission will arrange early meetings with all the representatives of the paramilitaries, and it will issue a further report within days of those meetings. General de Chastelain is an internationally respected figure. We can be sure that he will tell it as it is, and set the highest standards.

Finally, let me say to those critics that those who are embarking on this journey in good faith will not be left on their own. If all our expectations of the Good Friday agreement are not met, I will be seeking a way forward in co-operation with those committed to the process, based on the principles of this agreement.

We stand on the brink of a remarkable transformation in Northern Ireland. There are already signs of growing economic confidence. The security situation, while not perfect, has been transformed. Bombs and barricades no longer interrupt daily life; people can once again lead a normal existence.

We must not go back to the bad old days: with a settled political future, in which the needs of both communities are met in a fair and equal society, we will not have to. The alternative is to hold back; to risk the renewal of instability and all that that brings; never to know whether decommissioning would have occurred; and to create an overwhelming sense of disappointment and uncertainty, which could not be more harmful to Northern Ireland's interests, now and in the longer term. In my judgment, that is no real alternative at all.

People in Northern Ireland are demanding a safe, secure future for their children. It is the politicians' job to create that for them. We must give peace a chance. I commend to the House the steps that are being taken.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell)

I am very grateful to the Secretary of State for his statement. Like him, I wish to pay handsome tribute to the work of Senator Mitchell. Without his seemingly limitless patience, we would not have made anything like the progress that we have made—not only during the latest review, but since he was first asked to examine decommissioning way back in 1995.

Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that, throughout the process, we too have been strong supporters of the Belfast agreement and that our overriding objective has been to implement it in full? Does he appreciate that our disagreements with the Government occurred when we believed that the agreement was not being implemented in full, with no decommissioning of illegally held arms and explosives, and no end to violence while 300 terrorist prisoners were released on to the streets early?

We believe that real progress has been made in the review, which could lead to achieving the twin goals of decommissioning and devolution. We welcome, as far as they go, the quite encouraging statements from Sinn Fein and the IRA last week. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition said during the debate on the Queen's Speech last week, we have always made it clear that we would support the establishment of the Executive as long as it was accompanied by the beginning of a credible and verifiable process of decommissioning".—[Official Report, 17 November 1999; Vol. 339, c. 17.] Does the Secretary of State accept that devolution and decommissioning must take place virtually simultaneously? That means that the Provisional IRA should appoint an interlocutor as soon as the Executive is set up. Does he also share our concern about the reported comments of senior republicans Pat Doherty and Martin Ferris in the United States last week? Will he echo the remarks of the leader of the Ulster Unionist party in calling on Mr. Adams totally to dissociate himself from those comments?

I agree with the Secretary of State that we must not plan for failure, but we are of course being asked to take much on trust. Does he agree, therefore, with the words of the Anglican Primate, Lord Eames, who said last week that if arms decommissioning does not take place within the timescale that is being mentioned at the moment, then the world's condemnation will rest on those who have not delivered"? Will he again clearly state that, in those circumstances, he would give his full backing to the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), whose political leadership and courage we applaud? Following that, does he also agree that the appropriate course of action for him as Secretary of State, supported by the Irish Government, would be to invite the formation of a new Executive composed only of those parties that have committed themselves, in the words of the agreement, to exclusively democratic and peaceful means"? We passionately want this to succeed, but we might all be wrong. We might all be let down. We might all be being misled. Does the Secretary of State agree that, if that happens, it will not be the fault of the democrats in the House or in Northern Ireland and that not they, but the paramilitaries and their political mouthpieces, should face the penalties? The time has now come for the paramilitaries—republicans and loyalists—at long last to deliver.

Mr. Mandelson

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his support for all that we are doing and for what the parties, together with Senator Mitchell, have achieved over the past few weeks. Whatever differences of emphasis have existed between those on the two Front Benches in the past, I am very grateful for his recognition that real progress has been made and his agreement with me that the steps that I have outlined today should now be taken. I look forward to receiving his continuing support, and that of colleagues, for what will no doubt be a difficult, occasionally painful and fraught process as we move step by step through the series of changes and measures that have emerged from this successful review.

I do not want to dwell, if the right hon. Gentleman does not mind, on what will happen if we do not achieve the success that we all want. There is always some danger that our doing so would run the risk of reinforcing, rather than addressing, people's doubts and fears, and I do not think that it would be right to do so at this stage. I of course share his view, and that of the right hon. Member for Upper Bann, that some of the reported comments made by certain individuals in Boston and elsewhere have not been helpful. They are, none the less, the comments of particular individuals; they do not speak for an entire movement.

Although I do not speak for Mr. Doherty, it is worth noting in parenthesis that later in his interview he was invited to offer a pledge that the IRA would not decommission. He declined to give that pledge. As the right hon. Gentleman will know, Sinn Fein has issued a statement in his name in which it makes it clear that Sinn Fein are not in the business of double-crossing or misleading anyone. Such a course of action would be disastrous. We are in the business of making peace". It behoves us in the circumstances to take those comments at face value in the knowledge that, in the coming weeks and months, they will remain to be tested.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

My colleagues and I associate ourselves with the references to George Mitchell. Let me also express our appreciation to United States Ambassador Philip Lader, who tolerated our occupation of a substantial proportion of his residence for two weeks during our discussions there.

I agree with the Secretary of State that we have a basis on which we can proceed to both devolution and decommissioning. I emphasise that the one must accompany the other. I am sure the Secretary of State agrees that without decommissioning devolution will not survive, if only because our position would otherwise become untenable. I should also say that we would not wish to remain were that the case.

The Secretary of State referred to the de Chastelain commission, and the discussions that it will have with the contact persons appointed by the paramilitaries. Can he confirm that those discussions are expected in the first instance to relate to the modalities of decommissioning—the number of weapons involved, and the ways in which they will be decommissioned? Reference has been made to General de Chastelain's statement that his commission will report on the discussions on modalities within days. Does the Secretary of State share our expectation that the report will indicate how the next phase of the process will be handled? That next phase will relate particularly to timing.

The Secretary of State referred to what might happen in the event of a default in terms of decommissioning and devolution. He said that the two Governments, British and Irish, would take the steps that were necessary to end the operation of the institutions. Are the Irish Government fully bound in on that? Given that steps to end the operation of the institutions will involve legislative and other measures, may we have an assurance that, should the situation arise, those measures will be introduced as soon as possible, and will include the winding up, as soon as is practicable, of the special administrative arrangements for cross-border co-operation that will automatically come into operation on decommissioning? It is important for those matters in particular to be dealt with, for the purpose of reassurance.

Mr. Mandelson

I am happy to offer the right hon. Gentleman all the assurances that he seeks.

I echo the right hon. Gentleman's thanks to Ambassador Lader for the extremely generous provision of his residence, his dining table and much else besides. That came at a timely moment. I especially welcome the right hon. Gentleman's view that what has been achieved now offers the basis on which we can and should proceed. He is right to say that the job of the de Chastelain commission is to consider, in co-operation with the appointed representatives, the full modalities of how, when and on what basis decommissioning should occur. It is not for me, for the Irish Government or for any other person to seek to impose any sort of timetable or artificial deadlines on the commission; it is independent—truly independent—and that means that the rest of us must observe a certain self-denying ordinance in expressing what will no doubt be our impatience to see progress.

The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that the interlocutors will be appointed, and will take up their roles, on the day devolution occurs. That means that the process of decommissioning will effectively start at the same time as the beginning of devolution, which, I think, is the outcome that the right hon. Gentleman sought—an outcome that has been achieved through painstaking negotiation on his part.

As for the default mechanism, I can say that, following substantive discussions between ourselves and the Irish Government, they are at one with us in regard to the process that I have described.

Obviously, in the painful event of our needing to suspend the operation of the institutions, so that we can identify what we do next and how we proceed, given the crisis that will have occurred as a result of the suspending of the institutions, there will be a need for legislation. That will be introduced as soon as possible by the British Government. I can confirm that that will relate to the winding-up of the administrative arrangements for cross-border institutions to which the right hon. Gentleman has referred.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) in questioning the Secretary of State. I hope that I have some credibility with Ulster Unionists in the House in trying to take a serious interest in the affairs of Northern Ireland. In that, I would like to associate myself entirely with the statement by the Secretary of State.

Is it not the case that there are times for hard bargaining, and some of us have associated ourselves with the hard bargaining that has come from the Unionists over decommissioning, and there are times for reaching agreements, when the opportunities are there, and for making honourable agreements. That has occurred at this particular juncture. It is a case of there being an agreement and Sinn Fein being expected to live up to its side of the agreement. There is a case in negotiating for perhaps grabbing someone's hand, nailing it to the table and saying, "This is the position that we adhere to and that we expect to be delivered."

I therefore hope that, on this occasion, the lead that has been given by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann will be pursued and followed, so that we can get further developments towards peace.

Mr. Mandelson

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I immediately acknowledge the serious interest that he takes in Northern Ireland's affairs. I agree that there are times for hard bargaining. Heaven knows I have seen a great deal of those times from all those who have been involved in the talks; but equally, people need to know when the negotiations have achieved all that it is possible for them to achieve—and that time was reached last week.

I go some way in echoing my hon. Friend's sentiments about the future. I say merely this. It is not just a question of decommissioning; we are seeking to achieve devolution, too. Everyone has a responsibility to do what they need to do and to fulfil their part of the bargain to ensure that devolution takes place, as well as decommissioning, so it is to all the parties that we say that they need to fulfil their responsibilities. Our expectations of them all are equally high.

Mr. John Major (Huntingdon)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that he has taken a gamble this afternoon, but a justifiable gamble, which I wholeheartedly support? After last week's welcome statements from the Ulster Unionist party, Sinn Fein and the IRA, it is now probable that we are coming towards the endgame and drifting slowly but inexorably towards a permanent settlement in Northern Ireland. I fervently hope that that is the case, but he will know that difficulties may still lie ahead. There may still even be violence from fringe groups away from the main parties. We need to prepare ourselves for that possibility from people who, even at this stage, may wish to wreck the prospects of a better life for people in Northern Ireland.

May I make one separate point to the Secretary of State? It is absolutely right now to nominate Ministers to the power sharing Executive, but there will be many who still have doubts about that, perhaps in Northern Ireland, and it is important that disillusion should not set in and that the Executive should be able to make successful advances. I hope that the Government will offer them whatever support they can.

The whole House will be aware that one of the difficulties that has so often underpinned what we have come to know as the troubles has been a form of economic deprivation on which the men of violence have fed so frequently. May I suggest that, in working with the new power sharing Executive, the right hon. Gentleman seek to revive the idea of investment conferences to bring in the wall of money that I, for one, believe is waiting to be invested in Northern Ireland? In that way, the everyday citizen in Northern Ireland, at a time of hope, can see the practical and tangible advantages of co-operation in government and a better life for them and their children in future?

Mr. Mandelson

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his significant statement and assessment of the situation. His remarks are particularly telling, given his contribution towards bringing us to this point. I am sure that hon. Members would want me to acknowledge that.

The right hon. Gentleman was right to say that we are taking a justifiable gamble—although we shall be careful throughout not to drop our security guard—and that there will be some in both communities who will not want us to succeed. They have the means available to them to be destructive and to try to bring down what the peacemongers among the politicians are achieving. We must be clear that any security changes that might be contemplated in the future will depend entirely on the assessment that the Chief Constable and his colleagues make of the threat posed.

I particularly like the right hon. Gentleman's idea of investment conferences. I agree that there is a wall of money behind the enormous amount of good will that exists towards Northern Ireland. His conference in 1995 led to a major repositioning of Northern Ireland in the international business community. It was from that initiative that new investments by Fujitsu and Ford came to Belfast. There are no greater salesmen for any locality than the local politicians, who live and work there and represent the people who stand to benefit. We are placing that responsibility in their hands and on their heads as devolution proceeds.

Mr. Lembit ¶pik (Montgomeryshire)

Will the Secretary of State accept the good wishes of the Liberal Democrats on the great progress that has been made? Does he agree that Senator Mitchell has proved that if we wait long enough, sometimes pray hard enough and maintain our faith in the process, extraordinary things can be made to happen, even if the moves are not always dramatic and can take some time? The Liberal Democrats have resolutely supported this Government and the previous one in their efforts to secure a lasting peace.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) needs a clear run to secure an accord in his party for the proposals? Of course it is right to be tough on compliance, but is it not now essential that the mainland parties back the accord from a safe distance without interfering or providing any distress in the Province? In that context, does he welcome the recent reaffirmation by the official Opposition that they are genuinely committed to the bipartisan agreement? That was evidenced by their recent important meeting with Sinn Fein president Mitchel McLaughlin and other constructive statements from the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay).

Finally, does the Secretary of State agree that we have got this far thanks not only to the commitment of the Prime Minister, but to that of his predecessor, the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), who initiated the current process? He should be proud of that. As well as those two Prime Ministers, two Taoiseachs, three Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland and, above all, the Northern Ireland politicians have been responsible for the progress made, by showing that they have the capacity to act on the vision of a better future and the courage to work for it. Is it not prudent to remember that the process is not about politics or gaining party political advantage in Westminster or in the Province, but about the people of Ulster?

Mr. Mandelson

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I endorse his sentiments that we want the right hon. Member for Upper Bann to be given a clear run, not because I think that members of the Ulster Unionist party should simply do what they are told and do the bidding of all who are clamouring at them to agree to the proposals, but because the proposals are right for the people whom they speak for and represent in their constituencies across Northern Ireland.

The hon. Gentleman was right to say that many people have contributed to the process—so far, so good—but none more than the parties themselves, who have negotiated this painstakingly and directly between themselves. The earlier attempts to get us to this position were a bit like shotgun marriages, forced by the two Governments. What we have now is certainly not a marriage, but it is a voluntary accommodation between parties, freely entered into on the basis of a carefully negotiated contract. What we have is all the healthier, in that the parties have done it through their own free will rather than as a result of the Governments putting them up against a wall and attempting to force them to do it.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Is there not one thing of which we can be certain? Without the Executive being formed and without devolution taking place, there is no chance whatever of decommissioning occurring. If, as we all hope, the Executive is set up and devolution takes place, will there not be the utmost pressure on the IRA—national pressure, but also international pressure from the United States and others—to decommission on time? Should not we work on that basis?

Mr. Mandelson

I agree. We have good reason to expect movement by the IRA because, for the first time, we have a statement by the IRA. When we were nearly brought to this position in July, the right hon. Member for Upper Bann and his colleagues said that if we had a statement from the IRA, that would clearly transform the situation. For the first time, we now have that statement, and it will potentially transform the situation if it is fulfilled in practice. In addition, we have the IRA's representative, who I confidently expect will work closely, properly and effectively with General de Chastelain.

To those who have told us, and keep telling us, that we will not get decommissioning and that what the parties have agreed over the past 11 weeks is nothing new, I would like to ask—what have they said or offered that is new, or has the remotest possibility of delivering either devolution or decommissioning? The answer is: absolutely nothing.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

I concur with the Secretary of State's tributes to Senator Mitchell and to the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble). Does he agree that there is no way forward in Northern Ireland without risk and no way forward without courage, and that we must hope that the accuracy of the calibration of risk will be matched by the courage of those involved? However, success will depend on trust. If that trust is not fulfilled, those guilty of disappointing that trust will be guilty also of taking the whole process back to square one, if not further back.

Mr. Mandelson

I agree entirely with the right hon. Gentleman. There are risks involved in moving ahead. Certainly those who are responsible for setting up the Executive and implementing devolution will carry enormous responsibility. However, I have no doubt that whatever position I take or whatever attitude the Governments take to the functioning of the Executive, the Executive would collapse itself—without my having to suspend it—if a political crisis were created as a result of decommissioning not taking place.

Trust is at the heart of the operation of all the steps set out today and all the progress that we want to see in the weeks and months to come. Nothing would impair or threaten that trust more than if people's expectations of what will follow in relation to decommissioning were dashed at the last moment.

Mr. John D. Taylor (Strangford)

The Secretary of State said that Unionists must show courage and take a jump of faith, but many Unionists feel that they are being asked to take a jump into the dark. He said that if the IRA default on decommissioning he will throw Sinn Fein out of the Executive; and he had good news for the Unionists and said that he would throw them out as well. That is not very encouraging. The weakness is that there is no time scale for reaching the decision that the IRA have defaulted. We could be asked to jump into the dark and proceed until June 2000.

Many Unionists are hesitant because they do not know what will happen if there is failure. It is wrong to say that we are not planning for failure; we know that there could be failure. Members of the majority community in Northern Ireland need to know what the position will be if there is failure. When they have reassurances on that, they might go with this, but until then the process is in real trouble.

Mr. Mandelson

I am interested in the right hon. Gentleman's remarks. It is important to note that he does not quibble with or oppose fundamentally the negotiated deal and way forward that are the outcome of the Mitchell review. I am grateful to him for making a clear distinction between the fundamentals of what has been negotiated and agreed and the additional assurances that people will need in order to summon the courage to go forward.

I hope that I have contributed this afternoon to providing those reassurances and I would be very happy to meet the right hon. Gentleman and any of his colleagues should they want to put further questions to me about exactly how I envisage the developments and events of the next few weeks and months unfolding.

We are justified in planning for success but that does not mean that we are not providing for failure. The right hon. Gentleman will have noted carefully what I said about that point. It is not right to say that we are jumping into the dark. We are taking some risks, but they are all carefully calculated and controlled and will remain under the control of the parties and the Governments and, above all, of the Assembly itself.

The right hon. Gentleman talked about my excluding Sinn Fein from the Executive in the event of the IRA failing to decommission to the satisfaction of the de Chastelain commission, but it is up to the Assembly, not me, to take that action. In the event of those circumstances arising, I would certainly move to suspend the operation of the Executive but it would then be for the Assembly and all the Members and parties in it to take what action they think appropriate.

We will not necessarily punish all parties in the event of a default. Effectively, all parties are being punished at the moment through the failure to set up the Executive and our inability to make a reality of devolution and satisfactorily to implement the Good Friday agreement as a whole. In the current situation, it is not possible to say clearly where responsibility for those failures lies; but if default occurred it would be only too clear where the responsibility lay. That would represent a considerable move forward and provide a helpful basis for our resolving the situation and rectifying the default in ways that I and all the parties consider appropriate and possible.

Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that considerable courage has been shown on both sides in Northern Ireland to get where we are today, and that the progress that has been made should totally marginalise those who would pursue violent means to their ends? In the process of planning for success—which my right hon. Friend should use as a slogan in Northern Ireland—will he recall that some people claimed not to understand what they agreed to in the Good Friday agreement? Will he consider publicising the content of the recent review so that people are clear about it and the men of violence are marginalised?

Mr. Mandelson

I entirely share the sentiment expressed by my hon. Friend. The achievements of the past 11 weeks have shown that it is politics that work, not violence. That is what the agreement is all about and what the Mitchell review demonstrates. That is a message that I shall drive home with all the communication skills available to me.

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)

The House will have noted the Secretary of State's confidence and that of Senator Mitchell that the Good Friday agreement can now be delivered in full, and those of us who have worked in any way on the process will wish profoundly that that will prove to be the case. Will he accept the wise warning from my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major)—that this is a time of real hope, but also undoubtedly a time of considerable danger? Certain groups at both ends of the spectrum offer no good will to the agreement and will find no comfort in an accommodation in Northern Ireland. Whatever the views of the Governments, the issue is now for the people of Northern Ireland to resolve, with our good wishes and our confidence that if they can find the accommodation that we seek for them, the future can be bright.

Mr. Mandelson

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his comments, which are shrewd and based on much personal experience in Northern Ireland. He is right to remind us of the colossal public support that exists for the Good Friday agreement. That was tested at the time of the referendum and, more recently, in successive opinion polls. At the time of the referendum, more then 70 per cent. of people in Northern Ireland endorsed the Good Friday agreement. According to a recent, valid, properly conducted opinion poll, and despite all the frustrations, problems and delays of the past 18 months, that percentage has barely slipped. People in Northern Ireland overwhelmingly want to see the agreement implemented, because they know that on it rest their futures, their prosperity, their peace and the possibility that their children can remain in Northern Ireland as leaders instead of becoming exiles. That is why they are crying out for the politicians to implement the agreement and to make the progress that has been agreed in the Mitchell review.

Ms Margaret Moran (Luton, South)

I join in the congratulations to my right hon. Friend and all the parties on the progress made to date, especially the prospect of rapid devolution. I also congratulate my right hon. Friend on his wisdom in selecting the Women's Coalition conference for discussion of the progress of the review. Does he wish to comment on the role that the smaller parties, such as the Women's Coalition, played during the review and will play in future, in the power sharing Executive and in rebuilding the civic society which is so necessary in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Mandelson

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. Before I mention the smaller parties, however, I wish to put on record my appreciation of the role played by the Social Democratic and Labour party throughout the negotiations and, indeed, the entire peace process. All the values underpinning the Good Friday agreement, and all the good will that has driven forward the Mitchell review, are encapsulated in what the SDLP stands for and what their leaders have contributed throughout the entire process.

My hon. Friend was right, too, to acknowledge the contribution made by the smaller parties. It was a delight for me to go, on Saturday, to the annual conference of the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition to make my announcement. Ever so occasionally, their enthusiasm got slightly in the way of the neat delivery of the soundbites that I had carefully prepared—but I do not mind a bit of chanting and jumping on seats interrupting the polished delivery of my speeches if it demonstrates the enormous tide of good will and public support for implementation of the Good Friday agreement.

Mr. Ken Maginnis (Fermanagh and South Tyrone)

I welcome the Secretary of State's statement. As someone who has been a Member of this place for 16 and a half years, and felt alienated from this place for 14 of those years—since the Anglo-Irish agreement—I find this an exciting and hopeful time. I hope that getting rid of the Anglo-Irish agreement and the Irish Republic's territorial claim will provide us the platform that will enable us to move forward.

I ask the Secretary of State and other right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House whether, after D-day, they will continue to pay attention to events and support us during what will be a difficult time? Such support will be most important, now that we have achieved consensus with most people in this Chamber.

On a parochial note, I ask the Secretary of State if he takes encouragement from the fact that—although a virtual spectator to attempts to normalise Northern Ireland politics—the Ulster Democratic Unionist party has today indicated its intention to take up its ministerial entitlement in a new Northern Ireland Executive. Conversely, is he—like me—puzzled by the assertion by the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) that disarmament of terrorist organisations is not a priority?

Mr. Mandelson

I am very interested in the hon. Gentleman's last comment. Undoubtedly, the hon. Member for Belfast, East—a leading member of the DUP—will satisfactorily explain to his constituents and others why he thinks that decommissioning is not important any more, and why he attaches so little value to it. It is something for him to explain, rather than for me to comment on.

The hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis) was also right to draw attention to the fact that members of that party are prepared to receive the gain of what he and his colleagues in the Ulster Unionist party have negotiated without going through all the pain of that negotiation. I only assure him that, of course, when and after we reach D-day, we shall certainly not be losing any interest at all. Support for what is going on, and what has been achieved, is full and will continue to be so.

I hope that, in the days leading up to Saturday's Ulster Unionist council, the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone will make it very clear to his hon. Friends and colleagues and to members of his party that, unless we get the go-ahead and the vote that we want on Saturday, we shall not be seeing the end of the Anglo-Irish agreement made in 1985, and we shall not be seeing removal of articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution. So if for no other reason than those two great steps forward—there are other reasons—I hope that the council votes yes on Saturday.

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West)

We await the prospect of DUP Ministers with bated breath. I should have thought that one of the first things they could do is to return some of the paving stones in their constituencies to their natural state.

On a more serious point, we all applaud the efforts of the genuine pro-agreement parties in pushing forward the peace progress so that we are on the threshold of implementing the Good Friday agreement in full. However, how confident is my right hon. Friend that some of the smaller loyalist paramilitary groups and splinter groups are genuine about the process of decommissioning, particularly in the light of the appalling gangsterism that still exists in certain parts of the Province and the sporadic outbreaks of equally appalling sectarian acts?

Mr. Mandelson

My hon. Friend is right to point out that recently, and even now, nationalists—members of Northern Ireland's minority community—are suffering disgusting and unwarranted attacks in appalling incidents, many of which, I am glad to say, have been forestalled by the intervention of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the security forces. I am glad to put on record my acknowledgement of, and thanks for, what the RUC has done in recent weeks to stop the pipe bombers and others who have been intercepted on their way to carrying out the most despicable and unforgivable attacks.

I believe that the de Chastelain commission will take its responsibilities very seriously in relation to all the paramilitaries. It will adopt an active role, and I am confident that it will do what is necessary to achieve what we all want to see—that is, full decommissioning by all the paramilitaries by May 2000, as set out in the Good Friday agreement. We have already lost some time; there is now an opportunity for the paramilitaries to pick up speed and make further progress so that they will have achieved their targets by the end date set out in the Good Friday agreement.

Mr. Robert McCartney (North Down)

I am sure that the Secretary of State will forgive me if, in the best traditions of this House, I introduce a note of discord to his orchestrated harmony. In July this year, when the first seismic shift was in progress, the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor, now the Minister for the Cabinet Office, indicated that a draft treaty was available in the Library. It consisted of a letter addressed by the right hon. Lady to the Foreign Minister of the Republic, introducing a failsafe treaty dealing with the points so ably raised by the right hon. Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor).

Is there, in this second seismic shift, a similar failsafe treaty that will ensure that in the event of Sinn Fein/IRA defaulting on their bargain, a treaty will be available setting aside the institutions? The Secretary of State will be aware that those institutions—the north-south implementation bodies and the north-south ministerial councils—are the subject of treaties, not between the parties but between the sovereign Governments—hence the necessity for the failsafe treaty. Is a similar treaty available in this case?

Secondly, is the Secretary of State aware of any institution of government claiming to be democratic that would include the political representatives of a terrorist organisation still in possession of its arms and still dedicated to the destruction of the state?

Mr. Mandelson

In answer to the hon. and learned Gentleman's specific question about the treaty, it was not pursued because the plan fell. However, similar understandings with the Irish Government exist, as I think that I have made clear during the course of my responses this afternoon.

The hon. and learned Gentleman said that he had to introduce a note of discord to our proceedings. Quite honestly, I would not have expected anything different from him. I regret to say that he has contributed not a jot to the negotiations or to the progress of the review. I note that he attempts to take no share either of the credit or the responsibility for what has been achieved.

I have not spoken about seismic shifts, either today or on any other occasion. I am interested only in what we can achieve at the end of the full implementation of every aspect of the Good Friday agreement, which is the seismic shift that the people of Northern Ireland want. If and when we achieve that, as I confidently believe we will, I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman will be the first to cheer, and to say "I was wrong".

Sir Brian Mawhinney (North-West Cambridgeshire)

Does the Secretary of State accept that everyone involved in making this significant political progress is to be commended? Does he recognise that the bedrock on which that progress has been founded are the fortitude, courage and common sense of the vast majority of the people of Northern Ireland over 30 bloody years? Does he accept that their fortitude and courage ultimately resisted the men of violence, slowly but inexorably strengthening the hands of the democrats so that they can now take the risks that they are justifiably taking?

Bearing in mind that, in terms that the Secretary of State will understand, the good reputation of the many has been tarnished by the actions of the few for 30 years, will he take this opportunity to pay tribute to the people of Northern Ireland—whatever their religious background or political persuasion—who have stood firm and made today possible, and who, we hope, will make tomorrow possible?

Mr. Mandelson

The right hon. Gentleman's sentiments will be shared by most if not all hon. Members. We would not have achieved what we have, and I would not be standing here to announce it, without the majority of the people of Northern Ireland having asserted their values, their good will, their principles and what they believe. They have struggled through so much to achieve it, and it is their mandate that has enabled the parties to negotiate successfully. It is their rejection of violence that has caused the paramilitaries to fall away and to resort to the politics from which they should never have deviated.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe)

One of the great advantages of the peace process is that it appears to be marginalising the extreme groups that still seek change through violence rather than politics. Everyone from the Ulster Unionists to Sinn Fein is being given a common interest in defeating those groups. However, every stage of the process in Northern Ireland, as in similar processes elsewhere, has been punctuated by attempts at disruption through terrorist acts by violent groups. Will my right hon. Friend state that any attempt to disrupt the process through violence by fringe splinter groups—successful or defeated—will fail, because we are committed to completing the process and gaining a long-term peace agreement for Northern Ireland?

Mr. Mandelson

I assure my hon. Friend that that will be the case. The security forces will not lower their guard, and the people of Northern Ireland will not tolerate any distortion by a continued resort to violence of what they have achieved or the progress that we are making. I am in constant touch with the Chief Constable, the General Officer Commanding, NI, and other members of the security forces. They maintain their guard and their responsibility, and while I remain Secretary of State, that guard will not be dropped.