HC Deb 15 March 2000 vol 346 cc286-8
4. Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne)

What assessment he has made of when the decommissioning section of the Belfast agreement will be fully implemented. [113218]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. George Howarth)

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, under the Good Friday agreement all parties are committed to working to achieve complete decommissioning by May 2000. In the context of the implementation of the overall settlement, the obligation is on the paramilitaries to make clear how and when they will put their illegal arms fully and completely beyond use. They should do so without delay.

Mr. Waterson

Can the Minister confirm the parliamentary answers given to my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson), to the effect that since the Good Friday agreement more than 2,400 injuries and 49 deaths have been inflicted by terrorists in Northern Ireland? Does not that underline the importance of making no more significant concessions to Sinn Fein until there is meaningful and verifiable decommissioning?

Mr. Howarth

Of course any violence is to be deplored and no member of the Government would apologise on behalf of any party involved in violence. We will behave toward such parties in the appropriate way. However, the hon. Gentleman should be aware that our actions should not be regarded as concessions; they are all part of the Good Friday agreement. It is not true to say that we are making concessions. What we are doing is delivering on the obligations that we and all the other parties made when we signed up to the Good Friday agreement.

Mr. Ken Maginnis (Fermanagh and South Tyrone)

Will the Minister join me in deploring the fact that not one of his colleagues on the Government side of the House seems interested in decommissioning, or has asked a question on that issue? Will he confirm that he and the Secretary of State still consider decommissioning an essential part of the Belfast agreement, and that they will not be beguiled by the unilateral dissent from the 22 May date demonstrated by the junior Minister at the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin? Can the Minister—[interruption.] I know that Labour Members do not want to hear about decommissioning. Has the Secretary of State obtained an answer to the question put by the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon)? Does the IRA intend to disarm, and if so, when?

Mr. Howarth

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was in the House at the time, but if he was, he would have heard my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State dealing earlier with questions from both sides of the House on the subject of decommissioning. And a few moments ago, I dealt directly with a question on decommissioning from an Opposition Member. With all the respect that I can summon for the hon. Gentleman, I conclude that he was not listening, or he chose to ignore what took place earlier.

My right hon. Friend, Ministers from the Republic of Ireland and I are working hard to ensure that all the important aspects of the Good Friday agreement, including decommissioning, are met in a way that is acceptable within the terms of the agreement. That is what my right hon. Friend said, and I repeat it. I do not know what more I can say to satisfy the hon. Gentleman, except that I know that he agrees with us on that point.

Mr. Robert McCartney (North Down)

Is the Minister aware that the Secretary of State said earlier that decommissioning could take place only in the context of the overall implementation of the agreement? Are they both aware that that is an exact repetition of the IRA demand made in its statement to General de Chastelain in February this year?

Mr. Howarth

The hon. and learned Gentleman is trying to work into his question and our answer some sort of collusion that does not exist. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has given a proper assessment of the situation as regards decommissioning, in the context of the Good Friday agreement. To seek to misinterpret or reinterpret that is nothing short of mischievous. If the hon. and learned Gentleman wants to be mischievous, that is his prerogative. We are seeking to bring about peace, and I am sure the entire House would agree that that is the right thing to do.

Mr. John M. Taylor (Solihull)

Will the Minister give an assurance to the House this afternoon that the Executive will not be reconvened until there has been a serious start on decommissioning?

Mr. Howarth

The hon. Gentleman ought to be aware of the fact that we are seriously engaged with our colleagues from Ireland and all the other parties that signed up to the agreement in trying to get the process back on track. I shall not second-guess where those discussions will lead. However, we are seeking to deliver every part of the Good Friday agreement, which includes obligations on decommissioning.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

May I press the Minister further? What evidence is there that there will be any decommissioning before 22 May?

Mr. Howarth

At the moment, there is no evidence that decommissioning will be completed—or even started—by 22 May. That is why my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will be involved in discussions with the Taoiseach next week, and why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I met our Irish colleagues and representatives of the political parties last week. We are trying to deliver the Good Friday agreement in full. We shall continue to pursue that objective.