HC Deb 03 February 2000 vol 343 cc1311-27 7.13 pm
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Peter Mandelson)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I shall make a statement on the current situation in Northern Ireland.

I first pay tribute to the way in which the new institutions have got on with their challenging tasks in the past two months. The Assembly, the Executive, the north-south bodies and the British-Irish Council are all now up and running, as intended under the Good Friday agreement.

I pay particular tribute to each of the Ministers in the new devolved Executive, and their parties, who have taken up their new responsibilities in good faith, with good will towards each other and a genuine determination to serve all the people of Northern Ireland. I believe that that augurs well for the long-term success of devolved government in Northern Ireland.

Late on Monday, the latest report of the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning was delivered to the British and Irish Governments.

I pay tribute to the patient efforts of the Commission members, General John de Chastelain, Ambassador Andrew Sens and Brigadier Tauno Nieminen, over recent months—indeed years—and their readiness to continue those efforts to secure decommissioning as intended under the Good Friday agreement.

With the appointment of contact persons by the IRA and the UFF in December 1999, all the main paramilitary groups on ceasefire are now engaged with the commission. That is a significant advance. The commission's report points to a number of other positive factors. The ceasefires remain in place. The silence of the guns and the unequivocal support of the IRA and the other paramilitary groups for the political process have played a vital part in recent political advances. The assurance, repeated this week, that there is no threat to the peace process from the IRA is important and will be welcomed.

However, the report also stated that there has not yet been any decommissioning of arms by a major paramilitary group. If this continues, it is totally unacceptable. Notably in the case of the IRA, it has to be clear that decommissioning is going to happen. The commission believes that its conclusion in its report of 10 December—that recent events gave the basis for an assessment that decommissioning will happen—remains well founded. But it needs further evidence to substantiate that conclusion. In particular, it needs definite information about when decommissioning will actually start.

Over the past few days, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I have had intensive discussions with the Irish Government and the main parties. Even as I speak, those discussions are continuing. The decommissioning body has been kept closely in touch with those discussions and it has informed me that it is ready at any time to report further in the event of concrete results emerging from those discussions. If the commission provides a further report, which renders out of date the information that I am giving the House now, I will, of course, make a further statement.

Even at this very late stage, it is right that we and all the parties continue to see whether there is a basis on which the institutions can continue to operate and decommissioning start. The institutions, though, can work only on the basis of cross-community confidence. Without clarity over decommissioning, I have no doubt that this confidence will ebb quickly. All the parties must have certainty that all aspects of the Good Friday agreement are being implemented, without some being forgotten and others overlooked.

If it becomes clear that, because of a loss of confidence, the institutions cannot be sustained, the Government have to be ready to put on hold the operation of those institutions. Nobody who is genuinely committed to the peace process will relish this prospect. However, our purpose if it comes to this will be to preserve them from collapse and to create the time and space in which to rebuild the confidence required to sustain them.

I shall therefore publish a Bill tomorrow to enable us to institute such a pause should one prove necessary despite our best efforts.

This will only be the case if the current unsatisfactory state of affairs is not changed clearly for the better.

We shall invite the House to consider the Bill early next week, with a view to royal assent later in the week unless events between now and then clearly make that unnecessary. In the meantime, we shall redouble our efforts, with the Irish Government and the main parties, to resolve the present difficulties.

Even at this late stage, I believe it remains possible to rebuild confidence in the institutions, to enable devolution and the other institutions to continue, and to ensure that decommissioning starts. But, I stress, those three things are interdependent. We cannot partially implement the Good Friday agreement. It is all or it is nothing.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell)

This is a sad day for the people of Northern Ireland. For weeks, they have prayed and hoped that there would be a proper start to the decommissioning of illegally held arms and explosives. They have been badly let down by the paramilitaries, both republican and so-called loyalist.

May I put it to the Secretary of State that the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), and his Unionist colleagues, made a courageous decision to take ministerial posts in an Executive last December, even though there was no decommissioning by the paramilitaries? It was a courageous decision that we on the Opposition Benches strongly supported. Will he also confirm that there was an understanding that the Provisional IRA would properly start decommissioning its illegally held arms and explosives within a matter of weeks? As General de Chastelain has now reported, this has not happened.

Will the Secretary of State also confirm that all the other signatories to the Belfast agreement have fulfilled all their obligations in full? The only people who have not are the parties inextricably linked to the paramilitaries, whether so-called loyalist or republican. Will the right hon. Gentleman give us an undertaking that General de Chastelain's report will be published so we can learn from it and perhaps gain guidance from it? Will he agree with me that it would be unwise at this juncture to continue with the Disqualifications Bill, which has now gone to another place? That should be put on hold.

Will the Secretary of State accept that we believe that he had no alternative and that he is absolutely right—if we do not, at this late hour, have positive moves on decommissioning—to suspend the Executive, the Assembly and related bodies? When he brings legislation before the House next week, will he accept my assurance that, as far as we are concerned, it will receive a speedy passage?

Will the Secretary of State also accept that many people—myself included—will regret the return to direct rule? The great majority of people in Northern Ireland, in both communities, have appreciated and enjoyed the end of the democratic deficit. They have welcomed the fact that their democratically elected politicians are taking important decisions and running much of the Province, and there will be regret that those within the Unionist community and the nationalist community who have done so much and have fulfilled their obligations are now being penalised in the same way as those who have failed to fulfil those obligations. We must bear it in mind that, particularly, the right hon. Member for Upper Bann and the Deputy First Minister—the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) —have done an outstanding job and they also deserve better than that an Executive should be suspended through no fault of their own.

Mr. Mandelson

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his support for what I have announced today. I entirely share his analysis of the courage and the initiative shown by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) and his colleagues as well as other Members of the House who are present tonight. Both the First Minister of Northern Ireland and the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland—both of whom are here tonight—have shown tremendous strength of leadership to both traditions throughout Northern Ireland. I know the House will wish strongly to commend them for the leadership that they have shown.

I accept that it was clearly understood during the course of the Mitchell review that, while no commitment or guarantee was given that decommissioning should happen in January, none the less it was equally clear throughout, among all those who were involved in the Mitchell review, that if there was no decommissioning by the end of January, the Ulster Unionists would be unable to sustain their involvement in the Executive in Northern Ireland. There was no ambiguity about that—no guarantee, but no ambiguity either. It is, therefore, a disappointment that progress has not yet begun on decommissioning.

The right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) was right in what he said about everyone else's obligations under the Good Friday agreement. I believe that the criminal justice review has yet to be published. That will happen in a matter of weeks. I cannot think of anything else that has not been done, is not being done, or is not about to be done.

I am not going to engage in some sort of blame game tonight, but everyone in Northern Ireland will be disappointed that progress has not been made in decommissioning, for precisely the reason given by the right hon. Member for Bracknell. People in Northern Ireland are rightly proud of the Executive. They like seeing local people—locally elected politicians with local accents—taking charge of local affairs, and they want that to continue. It will only continue if all aspects of the Good Friday agreement are properly implemented.

I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that, in the event of a further report from the de Chastelain commission, the report that the commission gave the Governments on Monday will also be published, at the same time, so that any difference between the two can be carefully noted.

As for the Disqualifications Bill, it is not linked to what I am talking about now, and I think that its passage can be safely left to the other place.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

As the Secretary of State has said, it is clear that no decommissioning has occurred. Can he confirm that there has also been no serious discussion, let alone agreement, on the modalities of decommissioning of any specific terrorist weapons, and that the progress made over the past six weeks has been minuscule and deeply disappointing? Does he understand the disappointment we feel—after taking the risk to proceed, in advance of decommissioning, with the formation of the Administration—about the fact that now, months later, there has been such a contemptuous response from the paramilitaries concerned? Does he understand our astonishment at the fact that, after all the discussions and the review, so little has happened? I think the House will appreciate that, now that the basis on which we proceeded to devolution has been falsified, we have no alternative, and cannot continue in an Administration with those who have disappointed the hopes that were created.

I must ask the Secretary of State whether he intends, unless there is clear, significant and verifiable decommissioning in the next few days, to suspend the institutions. He referred to the presentation of a Bill that would receive royal assent next week; can he say precisely when it will be brought into operation?

Mr. Mandelson

Let me say straight away that no one doubts—indeed, I think every Member will applaud—the commitment of the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) to the Good Friday agreement. That is beyond doubt. Equally, let me say that we shall need his strength and determination again to keep the process moving ahead.

Both traditions throughout the community in Northern Ireland want to see the agreement work. They want to see the political parties—they want to see their political leaders—working together as well in the future as they have during the last two months. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues will not take precipitate action in relation to the Executive, and that they will allow the events of the next few days to unfold before making a final judgment.

I have to confirm, however, that, as the right hon. Gentleman said, there has not been an adequate engagement on the part of any of the paramilitary organisations with General de Chastelain's body. That is simply unacceptable. It is a betrayal of the entire community in Northern Ireland, of whatever hue, whatever background or whatever tradition—especially when it is abundantly clear from every expression of public opinion and every opinion poll published on the subject, both in Northern Ireland and in the south, that Unionists, nationalists and, I suspect, most republicans, overwhelmingly want decommissioning to happen, and want it to start now. I appeal to the paramilitary organisations to heed the call of the people to get cracking and to enable local self-government in Northern Ireland to flourish once and for all.

Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh)

May I commend the Prime Minister, the Taoiseach, the Secretary of State and the Minister for Foreign Affairs for the remarkable efforts that they have been making recently to solve the problem, and are making now, as we speak, on the issue?

The Secretary of State knows that I believe that suspension of any kind of the institutions in the north of Ireland at this time and in this context would be unwise for three reasons. One: it could do serious and perhaps lasting damage to the new political dispensation, which is beginning to work and is beginning to work well, if I may say so. Two: it would make obtaining decommissioning immeasurably more difficult, if not ultimately impossible. Three: it would play straight into the hands of those who are opposed to the agreement, its institutions and the working of those institutions.

May I ask the Secretary of State if he agrees that the priority as of now must be to allow and ask General de Chastelain to obtain answers from all the paramilitary groups to two questions? One: "Will you decommission?" Two: "If yes, when will you decommission?" Will the Secretary of State then inform the House of those answers; inform all the political parties in Northern Ireland; consult with the Irish Government; and, in light of those answers, decide how to proceed—but not until answers are got to those questions, which should have been answered many, many months ago?

Mr. Mandelson

I think that all those questions are extremely relevant and I can assure my hon. Friend that those are precisely the detailed questions that I have already put to General de Chastelain. I regret to say that, in answer to most of them, the answers have been extremely lacking. Let me make it absolutely clear to him: no one is seeking suspension of the Executive. It is the very last thing that I would want to see happen, save to have those institutions collapse and fall apart. If that is the choice, suspension is the better of those two options and that is what is motivating us.

No one wants to do anything that will make decommissioning any harder to achieve, but there comes a moment when we have to express our impatience and, indeed, our intolerance, that decommissioning is failing to happen. I know that the hon. Gentleman has expressed his own impatience and his own very strong feelings on behalf of the people whom he represents, and that is welcome.

May I say this, too? I know that there will be many nationalists whom the hon. Gentleman represents who will be bitterly disappointed that, having gained their places in government after being treated as outsiders for so long in Northern Ireland, they might be suddenly snatched away from them. To them, I say, "Have faith and have confidence." There are no longer any second-class citizens in Northern Ireland. Their place in government is absolutely assured. That is precisely why we are trying to build up the confidence of everyone in Northern Ireland in the Executive and in the institutions that have been created—just so that their place and the place of every section of political opinion can be properly secured in that Government in Northern Ireland.

Mr. John Major (Huntingdon)

Many hopes—hopes across the divisions in Northern Ireland—will have been fractured by the failure of the paramilitaries to decommission. One of the great conundrums of the process from the very outset has been whether the leadership of the paramilitary groups—and most important of all of Sinn Fein-IRA—wished to disarm, but were inhibited from doing so by the views of the membership, or whether there was in reality never any real intention to disarm at all. That, sadly, is still unclear to me, and I suspect that it is still unclear to the House.

What is clear is that the leaders left the impression that there would be disarmament; but there has been none. In the circumstances, sadly, and I hope, temporarily, the Government have no alternative left to them but to return to direct rule, and there should be no doubt where the blame for that backward step now clearly lies.

May I follow up the important point made by the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) by making a slightly different point? Can the Secretary of State tell me whether Sinn Fein and the IRA have ever been directly asked by the Government if they would place a proposal for disarmament before the general council of the IRA and a general meeting of volunteers? Can he tell me whether that point has ever been put? If not, can the Secretary of State undertake to put that point now, so that this House may know the clear intentions of those people with whom the Government have been negotiating on behalf of this House for some time?

Mr. Mandelson

I can say to the right hon. Gentleman without any equivocation at all that we would not have got this far, and that the Government would not have treated with Sinn Fein in the way that we have, had it not been made absolutely clear by that organisation that they regard decommissioning as an essential part of the peace process. That having been said, the IRA, in their statement at the conclusion of the Mitchell review, said among other things that they accepted the leadership shown by Sinn Fein. I think most people would infer from that that they were accepting and endorsing the political strategy as expressed by the leadership of that organisation.

If that is the case, they must accept, as Sinn Fein has said, that decommissioning is an essential part of the peace process. That is what they are being tested on and that is what they will be judged by. I hope very much indeed that, in the time that is available to them, the IRA will make that clear—just as Sinn Fein has made that clear—so that the powers that I am proposing to take in the legislation next week do not have to be used and so that we do not have to suspend the Executive and the institutions. There is time yet.

We have not reverted to direct rule yet. I hope that everyone will come to their senses, see the value in what has been created and not put it in jeopardy any more.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

Does the Secretary of State accept that Liberal Democrat Members will offer complete, but sad, support for the proposition that we shall have to have reserve powers to suspend the working of the Northern Ireland Assembly, if that is what is required at the end of next week?

Will the Secretary of State join me in appreciating the enormous efforts made by Members—both Unionists and nationalists—of this House who have brought us to the brink of peace, and whose efforts we must all try not to frustrate at this stage?

Will the Secretary of State explicitly share with me the view that, given how far so many people have come already down the Good Friday road, it is now absolutely clear that it is, above all, the IRA who must take the next step; and that General de Chastelain's report made it clear that, unless the next step is taken very soon, it will not be possible for the May deadline for decommissioning to be met? Does he also agree that the Unionists who have stayed on the road very firmly, despite pressures and temptations, must be encouraged by all of us to stand firm and not to be pushed off course, and that their leadership is the prerequisite to our continuing to make progress together towards continued devolution of power to Northern Ireland?

I have two specific questions on the factual timetable. Will the Secretary of State confirm that, if there is progress over the next few days, there need not even be legislation to produce reserve powers? More importantly, will he confirm that, if there has to be legislation, he will not take a decision to suspend until the last moment, always seeing that as the worst option, and that suspension can be lifted almost immediately if the people who now have a responsibility take the steps that are clearly required to start making progress towards the decommissioning that the whole of the United Kingdom and Ireland need them to take?

Mr. Mandelson

I can confirm what the hon. Gentleman says. Of course, as I have said already, nobody wants to take this step. If we can possibly avoid it, we will, but only if an objective change in the circumstances allows us to make that change. For that to happen, we must see a different approach and a different stance on the part of the IRA. The hon. Gentleman is right in referring to the fact that there is only one deadline for decommissioning in the Good Friday agreement. It is not January, it is not February, it is not March; it is May—to be precise, 22 May of this year. Nobody is trying to impose new deadlines for people to meet. Nobody—not the Unionists, not the Government—is trying to rewrite the Good Friday agreement. All that we are seeking is the full implementation of the agreement that we had. That should be clearly understood by those in the republican movement who have expressed some anger at the turn of events this week. It is very important that they realise that. Nobody is trying, as some have accused me this week of doing, to abandon faith in the political process or the institutions that have been created—far from it: I am motivated solely by a desire to save and preserve the process and the institutions that have been created. That will certainly determine all the Government's actions in the coming week and in the months ahead.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

At this very disappointing time for Northern Ireland, should we not bear in mind that there remains overwhelming public support in the United Kingdom, as in the Irish republic, for the Good Friday agreement, and that the vast majority of people in both countries want that agreement to remain in force? As far as the IRA is concerned, is it not "make up your mind" time? If the IRA want the agreement to remain in force and the Executive and the north-south bodies to continue, they know what they should do. The vast majority of people in Ireland—the Republic and the north—want them to do what we in Parliament want them to do: decommission.

Mr. Mandelson

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. If we did not have the Good Friday agreement and we were starting all over again with all the negotiations from scratch, I have absolutely no doubt that the agreement that suits everyone's needs and aspirations most clearly and the one with which we would end up all over again is the Good Friday agreement. That is why it is so important that we move ahead and implement it in its entirety, but it has to be clear that decommissioning is going to happen. "No more ifs and buts"—that is what people want to hear and that is what they are entitled to hear. The method of decommissioning is for the de Chastelain commission. The commission must act in accordance with decommissioning schemes made by the two Governments. They provide for a variety of methods, but all require arms to be destroyed or made permanently unusable or inaccessible. That must be the basis for the action that is undertaken by all the paramilitary organisations.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

Can the Secretary of State and General de Chastelain confirm that there is not a scintilla of a possibility of a misunderstanding on the part of the paramilitaries and of those associated with them of what the consequences would be of a continuance of their present stance?

Mr. Mandelson

I hope that, in everything that I have said—which, I am sure, is echoed in every part of this House—there is no ambiguity, but if there is, let me make it absolutely clear. If there is no decommissioning, there will be no full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. If there is no full implementation, there will be no devolution in Northern Ireland. That is a matter of colossal regret, but it is a fact.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

May I thank the Secretary of State for making his statement to the House, and for giving an assurance on any proposed legislation or any further statements to this House next week, because we have as great an interest in this matter as the people of Northern Ireland? May I thank him also for the cautious, confident and moderate statement that he made, because he knows that the people of Northern Ireland want this to succeed? May I put it to him that those in either community who are opposed to the Belfast agreement have an interest either in not decommissioning or in suspending the Executive? They feed upon each other.

In considering what might have to happen if no progress is made, will the Secretary of State consider that we do not really want to go back to the old direct rule, because it was under that that so many of the tragedies occurred? May I ask him to give an assurance to the House that the one element that will remain firmly in place is the close co-operation between the British and Irish Governments, because neither is involved in any suspension, and that this direct rule should be direct rule by London and Dublin together, as a way of carrying the process forward?

Mr. Mandelson

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his support. He is absolutely right that there are rejectionists on both sides of this argument who are prepared, in some cases, I am afraid, to fill the atmosphere with hatred and poison, which simply serves to deepen the divide in Northern Ireland's community, to polarise opinion and to frustrate the whole cause of making peace.

I can assure my right hon. Friend that the co-operation between our own and the Irish Government remains very close indeed. As the Taoiseach said in the Dail last November: The whole Agreement is based on mutual confidence, partnership and the sense that everybody is acting in good faith in implementing all its terms. If there is difficulty, either in relation to devolution or decommissioning, we are, by definition, in a very serious situation. In those circumstances, where the Agreement was not being implemented in significant respects, the Governments would have to step in and assume their responsibilities, including through appropriate suspension arrangements. Nobody wants it, but both Governments know that if it has to be, it will be.

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim)

Does the Secretary of State agree that the statement made by the previous speaker, the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) that we should have a new form of joint rule from Dublin and this House is the sort of statement that would bring about a disastrous situation? Should not the Secretary of State tell the House today that no such joint rule will take place in Northern Ireland?

Secondly, does not the Secretary of State understand that his statements tonight are not at all helpful to the people of Northern Ireland? He says that the unequivocal support of the IRA and the other paramilitary groups for the political process has played a vital part in recent political advances". Surely we are here tonight because the IRA has not played its part, and has not lived up to the promises that it made. The other amazing statement was that the assurance repeated this week that there is no threat to the peace process from the IRA is important and will be welcomed". Surely the threat from the IRA is that it has the means to destroy life in Northern Ireland, and that it has an arsenal bigger than any other terrorist arsenal in western Europe, which it refuses to decommission. When he comes next week to present his Bill, can he give us an assurance that we will possess de Chastelain's report? It is unfair to ask Members from Northern Ireland to discuss this matter next week if we do not have in our hands the report of de Chastelain. The Secretary of State said something about another report, but if there is no other report, will we have the report of which we have not as yet seen the contents? If there is going to be a pause, may I ask him, "Will he pause the release of prisoners?" Will he stop the implementation of the Patten report? These are matters that need to be handled, and handled urgently.

Mr. Mandelson

I must say that I did not share the hon. Gentleman's precise interpretation of the remarks by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn). I do not think that he was calling for joint rule as such, but in case there is any ambiguity about the Government's policy, I may say that we do not support joint rule—however advantageous and beneficial it is to the people of Northern Ireland to have the ready support and contribution of the Irish Government for the political progress that has been made in Northern Ireland.

If the hon. Gentleman does not mind my saying so, I think that he is slightly splitting hairs over the statement that I have made. Of course I readily acknowledge—indeed, I said—that the arsenal of weapons held by the IRA makes their continuing, indefinite involvement in democratic politics impossible. We know that, and they themselves have accepted that, which is why they say that decommissioning is an essential part of the peace process. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman disagrees with me, but I happen to believe that the ceasefires are not unimportant as an essential condition for political progress.

I think that anyone who is in any doubt about the difference that has been made to life in Northern Ireland by the ceasefires could just go over there and live there for a few days, and talk to the people who live there. They would soon find out that it has made an enormous difference to the quality of life of everyone there.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will reflect and provide not rancour and not recrimination in these circumstances, but his support for those who have made such a success of Northern Ireland's government. Among those, I include the representatives of his own party, who have been excellent Ministers on the Executive.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

Would it be correct to say that my right hon. Friend's statement is a holding operation? It is an essential holding operation and has a dynamic contained in it, in that the Bill will provide the arrangements by which the suspension of the Executive is imminent unless the paramilitaries deliver. Therefore, there is a duty on right hon. and hon. Members who have any influence with our friends from Northern Ireland to point out to Unionists the significance of the Bill that will be put forward. Those who have links with Sinn Fein should press them to see that decommissioning takes place.

Mr. Mandelson

All of us will be pressing all the paramilitary organisations to ensure that decommissioning takes place. My hon. Friend is right, in a sense, that I am describing a holding operation, but it is an operation that will not permanently be on hold. I will take the necessary powers in case the discussions that are going on now are unsuccessful. That is a prudent preparation to enable me to move as quickly as the situation demands, and nobody should be in any doubt that I will.

Mr. Robert McCartney (North Down)

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the House will not have to wait until there is a second report from General de Chastelain before we get the first report that he received on Monday of this week?

Is the Secretary of State aware that General de Chastelain and his fellow commissioners, in a report on 7 July 1999, set out the clear criteria for the commencement of the process of decommissioning—not decommissioning itself, but the process—which contained two requirements: that the paramilitaries had given an unambiguous commitment to the completion of decommissioning by 22 May; and that the interlocutor had agreed all the modalities, including timing and verification? Will the Secretary of State confirm that neither of those criteria has been met?

Mr. Mandelson

I think that I made it absolutely clear in my opening remarks that that is precisely the situation and that we find it disappointing and unacceptable. That is why we hope and assume that the paramilitary organisations will rectify the situation without delay.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde)

I warmly endorse my right hon. Friend's positive remarks concerning the democratic functioning of the institutions in Northern Ireland. I spent the whole of Tuesday at Stormont and I saw Members of the Legislative Assembly going about their work in a way that would be immediately familiar to Members of Parliament and, dare I say it, Members of the Scottish Parliament. Assembly Members and many members of the local public said to me that they were deeply alarmed at the prospect of the enormous loss of what has already been achieved in terms of stable partnership government and the working of the Assembly.

If my right hon. Friend has to introduce a period of suspension, I urge him and members of the Irish Government to do their utmost to ensure that it is as short as is humanly possible, so that democracy can take healthy root in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Mandelson

I strongly welcome and echo my hon. Friend's comments. I can give him this reassurance: the only point of creating a pause in the operation of the Executive of the institutions in Northern Ireland would be to avert their collapse and to allow them to get back on track as rapidly as possible. I am proposing to take this power in the legislation next week precisely because I fear that, if we did not put them on hold, should the circumstances arise and so demand, confidence in the institutions would continue to ebb and we would place in jeopardy their continued operation, through the actions of other people. The aim is precisely to save the institutions, to preserve what has been created for the benefit of the people in Northern Ireland.

My hon. Friend is right to say that the Members of the Assembly and those in the Executive are thoroughly conscientious and diligent. Above all, whatever political background they come from and whatever tradition has elected them, it is most noteworthy that all the Ministers speak and act for the interests of both traditions and all people in Northern Ireland. That is a huge step forward and something that we will want to preserve at all costs.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West)

I have been cautiously pessimistic about the process in Northern Ireland for well over 10 years, but there are grounds for hope. I spent the day in Mid-Ulster today, and there was no sense of crisis, although clearly there is a political problem that could develop into a crisis. People right across the political spectrum, from Sinn Fein to the Unionists, had far more sense of partnership on practical matters. We have a week, possibly, before the Executive would have to be suspended; does the Secretary of State think that Sinn Fein-IRA will be able or will choose to make possible a continuation of the Executive without suspension?

Mr. Mandelson

I hope very much that that is the case. I do not think that any of us in the House can begin to imagine what the inner workings and political dynamic of Sinn Fein and the IRA are. I certainly do not know. I suspect from what I glean that there is a strong debate, a strong argument—a bit of a struggle—going on among different people who probably come from different backgrounds and have different leanings within the republican movement as a whole.

I suspect that Sinn Fein's leaders have tried hard. I believe that they have been personally sincere in their commitment to fulfilling that statement originally made by Sinn Fein at the close of the Mitchell review. But words, in these matters, while welcome and valuable, are not enough to sustain the confidence of both traditions in Northern Ireland for the political process. It is in order to rebuild and replenish that confidence in both traditions that we ask and plead that all the paramilitary organisations now do what the people of Northern Ireland want—that is, make a proper start to decommissioning.

Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough)

As I understand my right hon. Friend, what we are doing next week is passing legislation that will be a sword of Damocles over all the work and institutions that have been created in Northern Ireland and throughout the island of Ireland. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that there can be no veto over these democratic institutions by terrorist organisations, and that the Government of the Republic of Ireland and the Government of the United Kingdom are absolutely as one that there can be no veto.

Can my right hon. Friend also confirm, building on the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), that it would be unwise to rush back to direct rule? We need time and patience. We need closeness with the Government of the Republic of Ireland. Is it not a fact that such closeness and co-operation are as much in the interest of Unionism as they are of nationalism?

Mr. Mandelson

I think that my hon. Friend's words are extremely wise and to the point. It is so frustrating and vexatious for people in Northern Ireland, who are so committed to devolution and to democracy in Northern Ireland, to find themselves cheated of those things by the actions of those who had hitherto placed themselves outside the democratic process. What we have seen over recent years is not only the all-important ceasefires, but, inching ahead, month by month, year by year, a growing distance being put by the paramilitary organisations between themselves and the violence that they engaged in in the past. The problem is that while they are now a long way from the sort of violence and military strategy, the bombings and the barricades, that were such an appalling feature of Northern Ireland in the past, they none the less seem no nearer to the decommissioning that is essential if the peace process is to be sustained in the future. It is that change that we need to see now.

Mr. John D. Taylor (Strangford)

The Secretary of State has confirmed from the de Chastelain report that, even though decommissioning of illegal arms was a requirement of the Belfast agreement almost two years ago, and our Prime Minister confirmed that he expected it to begin in June 1998, there is still no decommissioning of IRA arms. Could the right hon. Gentleman refer to another part of this absent de Chastelain report—which I hope some day we will see—and confirm that it states that such is the magnitude of the IRA arsenal, decommissioning would need to begin now for the completion date of 22 May 2000 to be achieved?

When the Secretary of State talks about suspension of the institutions, is he also intending to suspend the north-south bodies and the British-Irish Council? Finally, does he fully understand the seriousness of the situation in Northern Ireland tonight, irrespective of some comments from other parliamentary colleagues, and that spin and words will not rescue the situation? The only way to save devolution in Northern Ireland is to move swiftly to suspension and not play for time, because if we play for time, we will lose everything.

Mr. Mandelson

Nobody is playing for time. We are playing for product and playing for progress. If that progress and product require a little more time, I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will be the last to deny anyone an opportunity to make it work, even at the 11th hour. If, in the event, that does not happen and fortuitous circumstances do not arise, I have already said that we shall take the powers necessary to place on hold the working of the institutions. I do not think that I can do more than that.

As for the right hon. Gentleman's remark about the magnitude of the weaponry that is held, he is right that it is great. It is not the case that General de Chastelain and his colleagues have said that for the deadline of complete decommissioning to be reached in May, a start has to be made now. It is desirable and necessary that a start should be made now, but the practical time frame to which the right hon. Gentleman referred is a little shorter than that.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe)

Does the Secretary of State agree that the already difficult process of ensuring that deadlines in the Good Friday agreement are met is not necessarily made easier by the tendency of some parties to impose additional deadlines on other parties? Does he agree that we are discussing the need for a credible plan from the IRA for meeting the May deadline, and no other deadline? If it is necessary to suspend the institutions for a period, and in order to avoid demoralisation and discontinuity during that period, will my right hon. Friend consider asking some of the bodies that are working at the moment to continue on a shadow basis to advise the institutions of direct rule so that they will be able to resume their work officially, should the opportunity arise?

Mr. Mandelson

I can confirm that the legislation that we shall introduce next week will make it clearly understood that existing Ministers will continue to hold their posts, but will not exercise any of their functions. When—I hope it will be in a short time—devolution and the Executive resume, the status quo ante will simply apply. All existing Ministers—including the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, assuming they are willing—will revert to their previous ministerial roles.

It is true to say that the only deadline in the Good Friday agreement is for decommissioning in May, and I certainly agree that we need a credible plan to achieve that from the IRA. However, I must add that a deadline is one thing, and a credible plan another. For one to be reached and the other implemented, we require the maintenance of confidence right across the community in Northern Ireland. If that confidence subsides, people's ability to sustain the Executive and the institutions will inevitable wane. It is in order to replenish confidence among everyone in all the parties in Northern Ireland that we need not just credible plans, but early moves to achieve decommissioning.

Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon)

Can the Secretary of State tell us whether the Irish Government fully support the statement that he has made and the actions that he proposes to take? Will they make their support absolutely clear, so that an unequivocal message goes from both Governments to the terrorists?

Mr. Mandelson

I do not think that there is any doubt at all—I must say this—about the position of the Irish Government in relation to this issue. The Taoiseach and his deputy and other Ministers have made it clear, again and again. As recently as January—on 13 January—the Taoiseach said: It is my view with certainty that the entire thing will fall apart if decommissioning does not take place. Whatever happens after that, that is another thing. I do not think that he could have been clearer. I think that his support and his commitment to the implementation of the Good Friday agreement as a whole are necessary and welcome. He should be applauded for the strength of that commitment.

Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)

Those of us who had the privilege of participating in the negotiations in Castle Buildings in April 1998 always knew that the agreement was reached without trust. Does the Secretary of State agree that trust has begun to creep in, and that one of its bases is the excellent relationship between the British and Irish Governments? Will he assure the House that, whatever happens during the next week, we will not go back to bad relations between our two Governments, and that the excellent relationship that has been established will be built on in the future? Will he also assure the House that the agreement is the property not of the eight parties that signed it, or of the two Governments, but of the people of Ireland—in the north and the Irish Republic—who voted for it overwhelmingly? Will he confirm that the agreement will not be torn up, as some rejectionists want, but will continue in some form in the future?

Mr. Mandelson

There is absolutely no question of the Good Friday agreement being torn up. It will encounter many vicissitudes; it will encounter difficult times and, no doubt, strong opposition from familiar quarters. However, in my view, it is strong enough—robust enough—to withstand all that, because it is the right agreement for the people of Northern Ireland, as well as for those in the Republic. The agreement simply could not have been achieved without the efforts, put in over so long a time, by people in political parties in north and south and by the Governments both here and in the south. It is absolutely important that those relations are built upon, and they will be, so that that trust, which my hon. Friend rightly says has crept in, is kept in and built on in the future.

Mr. Jeffrey Donaldson (Lagan Valley)

Will the Secretary of State now confirm exactly when we can expect to receive the de Chastelain report? Secondly, if decommissioning has not been completed by 22 May 2000, will the Secretary of State confirm that, under the terms of the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998, he is under a statutory obligation to halt the early release of terrorist prisoners, which is not due to be completed until July 2000; that between 22 May and the end of July, there is a considerable number—perhaps somewhere in the region of 150—of terrorist prisoners remaining to be released; and that it would be most unfair if those releases were to continue in the absence of the decommissioning of terrorist weapons?

Mr. Mandelson

On the specific point of the prisoner releases, the provisions relating to those flow from legislation that was foreshadowed in the Good Friday agreement. Prisoner releases had always depended not on the state of decommissioning, but on the state of the ceasefires. That remains the case. The maintenance of the ceasefires obviously remains under permanent scrutiny by the Government. We will not be suspending the Good Friday agreement; therefore, we are not going to put into reverse all those gains and all those changes that have flowed from its implementation. We will be suspending, if we need to—and only if we need to as a last resort—the operation of the political institutions, for what I hope will be a very short period of time.

As for the report issued by General de Chastelain, I have described fully and accurately—and certainly somewhat disappointingly—the contents. I can give the hon. Gentleman this assurance: it will not be changed prior to publication and it will be published alongside any further report, should one be issued.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead)

In agreeing wholeheartedly with the tone and the content of my right hon. Friend's statement, may I ask him whether he thinks that the key to progress is to try to get some clarification of the relationship between Sinn Fein and the IRA? There seems to be a variable distance between them. When there is a ceasefire, Sinn Fein claims that it is close to the IRA and, hence, that it deserves the credit for the ceasefire. When there is a failure to decommission, there is a huge gap between them and Sinn Fein claims, as it did to us yesterday in Belfast, that it is nothing, or very little, to do with it. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, if there is a huge difference between Sinn Fein and the IRA on the matter, the undertakings that Sinn Fein gave in the Belfast agreement were not given in good faith because it did not have the necessary relationship to give those undertakings?

Mr. Mandelson

No, I do not think that it would be fair to say that any commitments made in relation to the Good Friday agreement were made in bad faith. I genuinely do not believe that. I think that there was a sincere commitment made by individuals to do their best to bring about the changes to persuade their colleagues in other parts of the republican movement to fulfil the Good Friday agreement in the way that they had signed up to. They do not appear to have been entirely successful, however. Rather than spending time clarifying the relationship between Sinn Fein and the IRA, I would just urge them to agree on what needs to be done and to get on and do it.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Only five Members are waiting to be called. I am conscious that the Secretary of State has been at the Dispatch Box for more than an hour, and it is not usual to keep a Secretary of State at the Dispatch Box for even an hour. All parts of the statement have been well aired, so can I have brisk questions and brisk answers from the Secretary of State? I do not wish to disappoint hon. Members on such an important issue.

Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke)

The Secretary of State appears to be saying that he will not publish independently, in advance of any second report that there may be, the de Chastelain report on which he based his statement. Why is that?

Mr. Mandelson

I have already described accurately and fully the contents of the report. If I felt it were important and relevant for the House to see and to compare one report with another in the event of a further report being issued, I shall make sure that the original one is published alongside it.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield)

Will the Secretary of State take the opportunity, when he speaks to Sinn Fein, to point out to it that the two-year time frame was largely for the benefit of those who needed to have trust built? If they are not taking advantage of that to take staged decommissioning when the opportunity exists as they go along to have the reassurances that they may need, they are losing the benefits of the agreement to which they themselves signed up.

Mr. Mandelson

The hon. Gentleman—perhaps inadvertently—puts his finger on a thorny issue. The problem for members of Sinn Fein as they would present it, if they had taken up their seats here and were to respond to him directly, is that, whereas the Good Friday agreement was signed 18 months and more ago, the Executive and the institutions came into effect only last December. Therefore, they think that the time frame has become somewhat concertina-ed. It is a matter for them to make the case on their own behalf—I am certainly not going to do so for them—but it is not unreasonable to take that into account even though it does not provide an excuse for the inaction that we have seen.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

When is an understanding and an agreement not an understanding and an agreement, and when are procrastination and good faith not procrastination and good faith? Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that it appears to be when we are talking about decommissioning? Does he accept that there can be no lasting, certain peace in Northern Ireland without the decommissioning of the huge arsenal of terrorist weapons? Will he now lay down a firm timetable for such decommissioning? We have been talking about it for three years.

Mr. Mandelson

The hon. Gentleman misunderstands the nature of my responsibilities and those of General de Chastelain and his colleagues on the decommissioning body. It is their job, not mine, to do what he has described, and they are trying their best to achieve it.

Mr. William Cash (Stone)

Will the Secretary of State give the reasons for the Disqualifications Bill? Will he deny that it was based on a secret agreement with Sinn Fein-IRA?

Mr. Mandelson

The reasons for the Disqualifications Bill remain the same as described by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, and no, they were not the subject of any deal made with any organisation.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne)

I am most grateful to you, Madam Speaker, for your forbearance on this occasion.

In order that the people of Northern Ireland and the Members of the House can make a complete, fair and balanced judgment, will the Secretary of State undertake to publish the de Chastelain report before the House rises tomorrow afternoon?

Mr. Mandelson

I have nothing to add to the answers that I have already given on four occasions during the course of the statement.