HC Deb 16 May 2000 vol 350 cc287-305

12.6 am

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Adam Ingram)

I beg to move, That the draft Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997 (Amnesty Period) (No. 2) Order 2000, which was laid before this House on 10th May, be approved. The order appoints 21 May 2001 as the date before which the amnesty period identified in a non-statutory decommissioning scheme must end. The amnesty period is the time during which firearms, ammunition and explosives can be decommissioned in accordance with the scheme, thereby attracting both the amnesty and prohibitions on evidential use and forensic testing of decommissioned items provided by the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997.

Section 2 of the Act requires that a scheme must set out the amnesty period and that it must end before 27 February 1998—the first anniversary of the Act's passing—unless the Secretary of State, by order, appoints a later day. Three such orders have already been made. Under that made in February this year, the amnesty period will expire at midnight on 22 May.

The purpose of this order is to extend that period until midnight on 20 May next year. When I last spoke to the House on this subject, three months ago, to seek approval for a further extension of the amnesty period, the political process had just experienced a significant setback. As a result of the lack of substantive progress on decommissioning and consequent decline in confidence in the institutions, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State had no option but to suspend the Assembly and Executive on 11 February.

However, if a week is a long time in politics, three months is almost an eternity. Those three months have involved a great deal of hard work on the part of many people, not least the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), as a result of which the political climate is now vastly improved. The details of those improvements were brought to the attention of the House by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State last week, and of course were touched upon in the previous debate.

However, it is appropriate in the context of the order before us today to draw attention once again to the significance of the statement issued by the IRA last week. I believe that it holds out the very real prospect of progress on decommissioning. In its statement the IRA says that the IRA leadership will initiate a process that will completely and verifiably put IRA arms beyond use. That is the first time that it has made such an undertaking. It is making its arms dumps available to outside inspectors. That is unprecedented, and it makes this order even more important.

Without the extension, progress on decommissioning will simply not be possible, whatever commitments are made by the IRA or any other paramilitary organisation. To continue to fulfil our commitments under the agreement, it is essential that we extend, through the order, the period during which an amnesty is provided in respect of offences that might otherwise be committed in the course of decommissioning in accordance with a decommissioning scheme.

The confidence-building measure announced by the IRA last week is the first step in a process that will lead to arms being placed completely and verifiably beyond use. The IRA will re-engage with the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning to take that forward. To quote from the IRA's statement again, it said: We will resume contact with the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning and enter into further discussions with the commission on the basis of the IRA leadership's commitment to resolving the issue of arms. That is what the decommissioning Act required. Precisely how and when that should take place is a matter for the IICD.

However, the British and Irish Governments asked the IICD, as set out in a joint statement of 5 May, to consider whether there are other possible decommissioning schemes that would offer it greater scope to discharge its basic mandate effectively. I should emphasise that that does not in any way affect the commission's basic mandate, including the definition of decommissioning under which it operates. In short, that is not a departure from the decommissioning Act. Indeed, it is wholly consistent and compatible with what was envisaged under the Act. I shall briefly expand on that point.

The decommissioning Act, which was passed under the previous Government, set out four options for decommissioning arms and provided for more to be created if necessary. That Act also says, in effect, that arms can be destroyed or made permanently inaccessible or permanently unusable. If other schemes are proposed to or conceived by the IICD, the commission would be required to consult the two Governments. If the two Governments were satisfied with the proposals, they would introduce the necessary schemes in each of the two jurisdictions.

The understanding is that the confidence-building measure will involve the securing of arms in separate dumps, which will be inspected by independent third parties: former President of Finland, Martti Ahtisaari and Cyril Ramaphosa, former general secretary of the African National Congress, who will of course report to the IICD. The Government are obviously most grateful to those distinguished figures for taking on that crucial task.

The two inspectors visited London and Belfast yesterday for an initial round of discussions. In Belfast, they met the IICD to discuss how they will be taking forward their important roles. The Government have every confidence that they will carry out their task with the highest standard of professionalism, ability and integrity. Their visit indicates the speed with which we are moving forward. It also demonstrates the real nature of what has been offered by the IRA. We are no longer dealing in words or intentions, but in actions that represent real progress.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already informed the House, we believe that those developments are hugely significant. We are confident that we should be able to restore devolved government to Northern Ireland on a lasting basis. This Government are committed to both devolution and decommissioning. The order is essential to ensure the conditions to make decommissioning happen. I commend it to the House.

12.13 am
Mr. John M. Taylor (Solihull)

After the 23rd of this month, the amnesty for decommissioning will come to an end, and with it, of course, any facilitation of decommissioning or surrendering of weapons. We on the Opposition Benches have always taken a position supportive of the Belfast agreement in its entirety. Decommissioning remains an integral part of that agreement, although I am bound to say that in more recent exchanges I have heard the word "deactivation" spoken of with approval by my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) and the Secretary of State. However, whether it is decommissioning or deactivation, it is an integral part of the Belfast agreement and we must continue to stand in earnest hope of it. That being so, we must allow the proposed extended amnesty. The official Opposition will support the Minister.

12.14 am
Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton)

I am delighted to support the order. On 6 May, for the first time, we had a statement from the IRA, not from Sinn Fein; that fact was recognised by the right hon. Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor) when he spoke in the House last week. For the first time, the IRA is speaking on its own behalf, and it has said that it will put its arms beyond use.

My right hon. Friend the Minister of State mentioned the 1997 Act, introduced by the previous Government. We have been talking about decommissioning for five years or more, and that talk has bedevilled the making of progress. Whatever we call it, we all want to ensure that the arms are put beyond use and lives are saved. With good will from all sides, the process with which the order deals will ensure that happens. That is why it should be welcomed.

I am especially pleased that the confidence-building measures include the recruitment of two distinguished international statesmen, Mr. Ahtisaari, the former president of Finland, and Cyril Ramaphosa. Those two individuals, especially the latter, have learned about conflict and conflict resolution in their own society. Conflict resolution worked with a conflict as deep and as widespread as the one in South Africa, and it will work in Northern Ireland.

These events take place against the background of the operation of the ceasefires declared in 1994. To put it bluntly, that has meant that, since 1994, hundreds of lives in Northern Ireland have been saved. There are people walking about in Northern Ireland today who would not be doing so had the ceasefires not been in place—that is reality. Everyone in the House should be saying three cheers for ceasefires—three cheers for ensuring that more of our citizens live a decent life and have a prosperous future. That is the sort of society we want and everyone entering the negotiations should have that goal in mind.

Whether or not we are of a cynical disposition, we should rejoice in the fact that lives have been saved. At the weekend, Martin McGuinness made a significant statement on the "Jonathan Dimbleby" programme. He said that, irrespective of whether or not the Executive was resumed, the arms verification process would continue. That is cause for optimism.

Sure, we have travelled a long road and, sure, there are people who remain cynical, but, as one who served for a short time as a Minister at the Northern Ireland Office, I have witnessed the transformation of Northern Ireland's society. I know what the people of Northern Ireland want—they want the same things as the rest of the people in the United Kingdom want. They want good education facilities, good health services, and good prospects for themselves and for their families. That message was repeated daily in my ministerial briefings.

I conclude by mentioning Senator George Mitchell. In his autobiography, he said that he hoped one day to return to Northern Ireland with his young son, to traverse the hills and glens and, on a rainy day, to go to the Visitors Gallery in Stormont and from there watch the politicians of Northern Ireland debate the real issues of Northern Ireland. Those issues are the economy, agriculture, transport and health. The order contributes to the realisation of his vision, and I wish it well.

12.19 am
Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)

It is not surprising that we are keeping the flag flying on decommissioning at such a late hour. We always seem to discuss such issues after midnight. However, consideration of the order is a source of encouragement, not least because of the statements that have come directly from the IRA. That is so significant. We are finally getting statements from the people who are in a position to fulfil the commitment to decommissioning. The quotation that was read out by the Minister, stating: the IRA leadership will initiate a process that will completely and verifiably put IRA arms beyond use is the crucial indication that we are moving forward from the deadlocks that we have experienced previously.

We welcome the order and congratulate the two Governments, as well as the political parties in Northern Ireland, on the progress made, particularly in the past couple of weeks. I especially welcome the statement from the IRA about putting the arms beyond use, because it is becoming less conditional. That is a significant step forward. In some ways, the IRA is moving in directions in which it seemed reluctant to move in 1999. It seems to be a firm commitment.

As the hon. Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall) said, Martin McGuinness's statement on the "Jonathan Dimbleby" programme gives the indication that regardless of what else happens and what blockages occur, the IRA is serious about playing its part in the peace process.

It is good to welcome the former Secretary General of the African National Congress, Cyril Ramaphosa, and the former President of Finland, Martti Ahtisaari, to Northern Ireland. It is significant that that process is independent and that they will report to the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning.

The order is a little more realistic than the one that was passed in February. Given the amount of armaments involved, it will take time to put them beyond use, and considerable time to inspect the arms dumps and determine that they are secure.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Does he not recognise that only the possibility of three dumps being supervised is on offer? We do not know how much will be in them, but many more will be unsupervised and accessible to the other elements that have broken away from the IRA to carry on their terrible deeds.


I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman is correct. There is always a level of risk. One of the crucial points made in the earlier debate is that the risk must be balanced. There is no such thing as certainty in politics. At some point, one must say that the risk is sufficiently low to justify some degree of good faith from us in the Chamber.

All of us must make our call on whether the level of risk is sufficiently low to justify that faith. For me and for the Liberal Democrats and, I guess, for the Government, the risk is sufficiently small to justify our proceeding at this stage. History will prove us right or wrong. I believe that the greatest crime would be to impose barriers of uncertainty—barriers based on an assumption of failure. The Secretary of State has said many times that he does not plan for failure; he plans for success. This is one of the occasions when we must translate those words into action, which in my view means encouraging the process in Northern Ireland to go forward in the way that the order facilitates.

Most importantly, we must reciprocate the strong and clear statement expressed directly by the IRA that it does not intend to be a barrier to the peace process henceforth. That is a matter not of principle, but of judgment. My judgment is that we probably have enough assurances to take the IRA seriously.

On a related point, if only some dumps are inspected, the IRA and the splinter groups will have access to weapons. We have always known that. Even if every gun and bomb was decommissioned tomorrow, they could always buy more. Just as we all accepted that the previous order was based entirely on the importance of symbolism, which is strongly felt, it is incumbent on us to recognise that this order is based on symbolism as well, though obviously it relates to weapons rather than to flags.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that we are discussing more than symbolism? We are considering reality. Arms in a dump, however often it is inspected, can potentially be used at some stage. A weapon therefore continues to be held over democratic politics. Such dumps are, in some sense, a form of blackmail.


Perhaps in some sense, but that is a melodramatic interpretation of a rather stable situation. The hon. Gentleman is entitled to believe that the risk is too great to support the order, but I hope that most hon. Members are satisfied that the clear, unequivocal statements of the IRA are genuine and can be accepted.

In a recent debate on Northern Ireland, I said that our discussions, comments and decisions in the House are not passive; they directly influence the process. If we take the right action here, the right outcome is more likely.

The process is about arresting not those who hold guns, but violence. We have held that debate on previous occasions when we discussed the amnesty. We are beginning to progress from a rather narrow definition of decommissioning to a more balanced and reasonable definition of deactivation. It is not decommissioning that matters, but the fact that the guns and bombs are no longer used.

It is important that people do not get killed for a cause in Northern Ireland. That can be achieved now; violence can be replaced by political debate. I believe that if we approve the order tonight, we effectively rubber-stamp another year of peace in the Province.

12.27 am
Mr. Ken Maginnis (Fermanagh and South Tyrone)

The hon. Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall) said that decommissioning had been a troublesome word in the past five years. It is troublesome because decommissioning, or disarmament, has not been achieved, not because the need for it and its verification does not exist. I am pleased that the decommissioning commission, headed by General de Chastelain and his two colleagues, will be kept in place for a further year. That is important for several reasons.

First, whether or not we want to make perverse political points, it is generally acknowledged that the IRA had no intention of rolling over, putting its feet and arms in the air and allowing us to tickle its belly. It intended to maintain its stance of "not a single rusty bullet" for as long as it was viable in its terms. However, over the years that we have worked to move Northern Ireland to more peaceful times and to create a democratic process, with which Northern Irish society can identify, there has been a general realisation—it has not totally gripped the IRA or loyalist paramilitaries—that illegal guns and organisations cannot exist side by side with true democracy and peace. That is the crux of the matter.

Whether it is acknowledged or not, we have been assisted by the national and international reiteration of that point of view. It is all very well to be sceptical about a president here, a past president there or a general somewhere else, but that reiteration has had an overall impact throughout the island of Ireland. People have come to the point of view that we advocated five, six, seven or eight years ago: disarmament and the verification of that process have to take place.

I shall not be terribly disturbed if somebody plucks a euphemism from the air and puts it in place of my term—disarmament—and my requirement for verification, nor shall I worry about what term is used. I shall not worry as long as the process moves forward. I have an expectation that arises from the unique statement by P. O'Neill, although I do not know whether I am right to do so. Perhaps the Secretary of State or the Minister can tell me. The IRA referred not to some of its arms, but to "our" arms. I expect that to mean all its arms—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) makes a remark from a sedentary position. I shall give way if he wishes.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

If the hon. Gentleman believes that the IRA will make all its arms available for inspection, he is living in cloud cuckoo land. I did use another word, which was fool.

Mr. Maginnis

The hon. Gentleman abuses me, but I shall not react to that. Some people probably considered me to be a fool during the years in which I put on a uniform and faced up to terrorists. Perhaps people such as me were also considered to be fools because we faced up to the reality of death for the benefit of society, our children and their future.

I was referring not to what I believe the IRA will do, but to what I would expect it to do on the basis of the statement. I expect—I require, if that pleases the hon. Member for Macclesfield more—"our" arms to mean all its arms. Mr. Ahtisaari and Mr. Ramaphosa must be able to inspect the dumps in which those arms lay. The fact that P. O'Neill has drawn those two people into the equation leaves the IRA open to criticism. Let us forget its terrorism for a moment. The whole raison d'être of its members as republicans—people with a political aspiration—would be held up to international ridicule if this step forward, and it is only a step, was seen to be a cod or a deceit. By continuing the international commission's work, the House will say that, ultimately, we require nothing short of decommissioning, or disarmament as I like to call it.

If the interim confidence-building measure is to have any meaning for us, Mr. Ahtisaari and Mr. Ramaphosa must have access to the sort of information held by the commission. We are assured by General de Chastelain that they will have the co-operation of the commission on one issue in particular: the quantity and type of weapons. How can the verification of the two inspectors have any meaning if they do not understand the volume, or quantity, of arms that they must inspect?

I ask the Secretary of State and the Minister to ensure that one thing happens that did not happen in January. When reports are presented, Mr. Ahtisaari and Mr. Ramaphosa will present a report to the Governments, through the commission, and the commission will present reports to the Governments. Will the Minister reassure me that there will not be a hiatus such as the one that we saw in January, when a report was suppressed and the commission's credibility was diminished—I hope only temporarily—because the Government had suppressed that report?

Mr. Ingram

I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that he seeks—the assurance that was given to his right hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) in a letter from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

Mr. Maginnis

I am grateful to the Minister. I was aware of that letter, but I wanted it to be put on the record.

I have never expected us to achieve all that we hope to achieve—to put right every wrong and every injustice that has occurred. How can we put right some of the injustices of the past 30 years? I believe, however, that we can at least impose such an obligation, and create such an atmosphere among the vast majority of people—with the support of the nation and the international community—that sooner or later we will achieve the ultimate objective. Gone are the days, I want to believe, when "Not a single rusty bullet" was what we heard in response to the requirement of our society that illegal weapons and illegal organisations should become a thing of the past.

12.38 am
Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis), who made an important speech. Unusually, I wish that he had spoken for longer in the same vein. He often makes lengthy speeches when I think that he should be more succinct. The hon. Gentleman was clearly not being soft on the IRA, but wanted to use, extend and develop the current position to secure the objective that he had had all the time.

I appreciate that aspects of Unionism will involve reservations and concerns about the current situation. After all, decommissioning was supposed to have happened by about now—the complete disarmament referred to by the hon. Gentleman. Instead of that, however, at the time by which that should have been achieved the re-establishment of the Executive is taking place. That is not to say that I am against the re-establishment of the Executive, but it was a demand made when the Executive was suspended, particularly by Sinn Fein. Therefore, in a sense Sinn Fein has got the Executive going at a time when complete decommissioning should have taken place.

The other thing that must worry Unionists is that we are extending the order. They have been through that on many occasions in the past: we had direct rule after direct rule extended year by year. There is always something unsatisfactory about measures of that nature, but the order, like the suspension of the Executive, is something that I support entirely. Those measures seem to have been entirely essential in the circumstances that surrounded them. They were essential both for the peace process to take place and to go forward.

I disagreed with one aspect of what the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) said about what would happen if arms were finally put out of use. He believed that, to some extent, it was a symbolic move that had to take place. It is much more significant than that. Once numbers of arms are put beyond use and destroyed, the situation of the IRA will be entirely different.

It is not a matter of the IRA just going around and buying a few more guns to replace those weapons. It must be mobilised and organised to do that. How would it do it? Extra finances might need to be raised. Its members would be told to rob more banks. They would say, "What are you telling us to do? To rob more banks after you have just given the guns away, which now need to be replaced?" Therefore, I think that the move is of great practical significance. Getting to a situation where weapons begin to be out of use, to be controlled and to be contained is of significance to the whole psychology and attitude of the IRA.

Therefore, the IRA statement is of deep significance to that organisation. It is an admission that the arms struggle is to end. It should have gone further; it will need to do so. It will need to be pressed and pushed, but a big, significant change has taken place. We must grab hold of it and seek to develop it. We need the loyalist paramilitary organisations to follow that particular path quite quickly—to follow at least the proposals that the IRA is putting forward. We need them to begin to go beyond that and even to talk about disbanding. That is the logic of the IRA putting arms out of use.

If a paramilitary organisation does not have its arms to draw on, it is changed entirely. Will it change into something else, or will it disappear? It should disappear. Then, if people want to get into the political process, they will do so through their political wing—within Sinn Fein—hopefully acting entirely legitimately and democratically, or getting used to acting legitimately and democratically, with a sea change over time in their approach and attitudes.

The dynamic of the inspection will be quite important. The reports that will be produced, the pressure that that will put on the IRA and, generally, on the development of the political process, is very important. The whole future really depends on the reports that are being produced and on related developments. The process takes on board and develops the bread-and-butter issues that are important in Northern Ireland politics, and it will be bedded in as long as we have the reports confirming that arms are beyond use.

We are now within sight of fruition of the Belfast agreement—which is on track, despite the time—limit problems that I mentioned. However, we must always be alert to the fact that much more has to be done. We shall have to address the issues of intimidation, people being forced into exile and the need for the general disintegration of paramilitary activity, including the type of activity—in which it engages on estates—that can perhaps be characterised as IRA plc and from which it benefits financially very much.

There is also always the possibility of paramilitary splits. I hope that such splits will be made into ever smaller groups, over which the authorities can take control, and over which political control may be exercised by an Executive that is up and operating in Northern Ireland.

12.46 am
Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)

There are not many words in the order that we are considering, but regardless of how much we scrutinise those words, we will not see in them the real reason why the order has been introduced. It has been introduced because of the folly of those who told us that the Belfast agreement had within it a requirement to decommission. Among those people were the leader of the Ulster Unionist party, the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), and no less a person than the Prime Minister. Both of them told the House and the people of Northern Ireland that there was an absolute requirement for decommissioning and that things would not happen unless decommissioning occurred. However, those things did happen.

Prisoners were let out of jail, but no decommissioning occurred. Police were put on the altar for destruction, but no decommissioning occurred. All-Ireland bodies with executive power were established, but no decommissioning occurred. The representatives of unrepentant and armed terrorism got into government, but no decommissioning occurred.

The date specified in the Belfast agreement envisaged the completion of decommissioning. Now, we are talking about extending that date without even having seen the start of decommissioning. The order therefore represents the folly of those who were suckered by the IRA's representatives into believing that, in exchange for the concessions that they made, they were going to get something in return.

Today, we have already heard in the House of the willingness of that same group of people to be suckered yet again—to delude themselves into believing that what the IRA has said amounts to decommissioning. It does not. There is nothing in the IRA statement that meets the terms of decommissioning as stated in the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997.

The 1997 Act required the destruction of weapons and—just as the Minister said—there are four ways of doing that. However, when he went further and gave an interpretation of that—that destruction includes making permanently inaccessible or permanently unusable—he should perhaps have paused a little longer at the word "permanently", because it is absent from anything that is within the IRA statement. All it talks about is "putting beyond use"—but what does that mean? It is not interpreted in its statement. It has also not been interpreted by the representatives. However, people in this place feel themselves fit to interpret it as meaning decommissioning under the terms of the 1997 Act.

We might have thought that, with all the sorry experience that they have had of being made fools of by the IRA, those people would hold their tongues a little longer before preaching to the people of Northern Ireland that what they are now being offered by the IRA is anything close to decommissioning. It is not. Once again, the IRA is trying to put the issue on the long finger and get back to government, still perpetuating the illusion that somewhere down the line we may get decommissioning. After all this time, I would have thought that the House would look more carefully at the Act that it passed.

The weapons will be permanently inaccessible, but to whom? Inaccessible to the IRA, one might have answered a few weeks ago, but under the IRA's statement, its members are the only ones who will have access to their arms—they will not be inaccessible to the terrorists. The statement also says that the weapons will be permanently unusable, but unusable by whom? By the IRA, one might have said, but the IRA's members will be the only people who will be able to use them, if they so choose.

The so-called confidence-building measure involves allowing two individuals approved by the IRA to inspect some of its arms dumps. The intelligence services say that there are more than 20 major arms dumps and hundreds of arms hides for the more operational weapons. It is envisaged that the IRA will allow people to look at three of them—not even necessarily the three largest. Are the logistics of that inspection to be given to the international body? They will certainly not be given to the security forces. The fact that three of the IRA's arms dumps will be inspected by two of its friends is supposed to be a great confidence-building measure that will assure the Unionist community that these people are genuine. The House can be certain that that is what the IRA envisages by putting its weapons beyond use.

The Government and those who negotiated the Belfast agreement can no longer dangle in front of the people of Northern Ireland their claims of what they would get in return for their votes, because the community no longer believes them. The people have been fooled once, but they will not be fooled again.

Before the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik), talked about a stable situation, he might have thought of all those who are still victims of the weapons that the IRA claim it is going to put beyond use. The situation is far from stable. Mr. McGuinness—an army council member of the Provisional IRA and a leading Sinn Fein negotiator—tells us that he is prepared to allow those who carried out the most dastardly event in terrorist history in Northern Ireland to get away with their crime. He has said that he does not recommend those people to give the Royal Ulster Constabulary any information that they have. We are supposed to put our trust in this person, who is a leading member of the IRA army council. On the basis of those who have spoken, that is what the House is asking us to do. The people of Northern Ireland, particularly the Unionist community, will not tolerate their representatives accepting the word of IRA terrorists as bona fide or regarding them as capable of keeping the promises that they interpret them to have made.

The order would allow the Provisional IRA to string along the political process for a further year to get more concessions from the Government and from weak Unionists. I am glad that the overwhelming majority of the Unionist community in Northern Ireland is no longer suckered by the process or torn by those who invited them to embrace it.

12.55 am
Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East)

I think that a short television programme of the previous three speeches should be shown to everyone in Britain and in the island of Ireland. I defer to many hon. Members in their knowledge of Northern Ireland, in their commitment to it and in their hard work on its behalf. Labour Members, such as my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes), have tried to untangle the difficulties of the situation, but the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis) also demonstrated the extent of his strength of feeling and commitment, which have grown out of his long history of fighting terrorism in his part of the United Kingdom. He is clearly prepared to look forward to a better future and, little by little, to take some matters on trust—although obviously he will take what is said in the course of progress with large doses of salt and suspicion.

However, the House then heard the poisonous comments of the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), who said that the former President of Finland and the former ANC general secretary were two friends of the IRA. That was the level to which he fell, as a reading of his speech will show. The hon. Gentleman is so out of touch and full of bile that he has nothing to contribute to the debate any more.

I listened to what the hon. Gentleman said. It was the cheapest—

Mr. Peter Robinson

He spoke at an IRA rally.

Mr. Connarty

I have never spoken at any such rally. Does the hon. Gentleman want to intervene?

Mr. Robinson

I did not say that the hon. Gentleman spoke at an IRA rally. I said that Cyril Ramaphosa spoke at a Sinn Fein-IRA rally.

Mr. Connarty

Given Mr. Ramaphosa's background and the work that he has done in southern Africa—where reconciliation and peace have been the way forward out of the darkest times of apartheid—I am sure that he had much to say to the people who attended that rally. Perhaps what he said led them to make the statements that have been made in the past few days.

The hon. Member for Belfast, East has cheapened the debate by playing for votes. I was watching him as he spoke, and it was clear that he was not talking about the peace process. He was trying to win votes from the Ulster Unionist party, which enjoys the support of the vast majority of Unionists in Ulster. That sums up his view of what this debate has been about. He is interested only in cheap vote-getting. I hope that the people of Northern Ireland eject him from his seat for adopting that approach.

I hope that the order will be accepted without a Division, although I accept that that is unlikely, given the vote that was held on the previous order. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has often been said to work on the dark side of the political process, but I consider that he has been playing with the bright sciences of politics in working to achieve the geometrically possible, and vital, task of squaring the circle of the Northern Ireland dilemma.

I supported the Act that set up the Northern Ireland Assembly, but opposed any attempt to set timetables, on the ground that they were precipitate. When the Assembly came to be suspended, I opposed the Government as I considered that suspension to be a precipitate act. The Government believed that the suspension would have benefits for the internal processes of the Ulster Unionist party, which they considered to be necessary.

I thought that I was being consistent, but my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was being pragmatic. As a result of the suspension, we gained some space. The statement from the IRA is one of the most significant that has been made. People who refer to the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997 as the position from which there must be no deviation may not feel that the IRA statement is significant enough, but I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire, who said that the significance lay in the fact that it was the IRA speaking.

In a meeting elsewhere in this building on the day when the 1997 Act was being debated, I accused Martin McGuinness of being a schizophrenic politician. I said that the position that he occupied meant that he could say, at one and the same time, "You're not talking about me because you're talking about the IRA", and, "You can't talk to me because you have to talk to the IRA—but the IRA says this, through my mouth." Now the IRA has said something in its own right. It has said that it will put its arms beyond use, completely and verifiably. The IRA has said that, not Sinn Fein. That is a new element in the debate.

Mr. Robert McCartney (North Down)

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the leading positions in Sinn Fein and the IRA are held by the same people? Mr. Adams, Mr. McGuinness and Mr. Pat Doherty, the vice-president of Sinn Fein, are all known and recognised by the security forces to be three of the seven-man IRA army council. So when Mr. McGuinness speaks, he is speaking as P. O'Neill.

Mr. Connarty

That is the hon. and learned Gentleman's view of the information that he has. Whether it is true or not, it is significant that, as long as the Sinn Fein leadership said that it could not speak for the IRA and the IRA would not speak directly, there could be no agreement between the IRA and the political process. The difference is that the rubicon has been crossed. It might turn out to be a risk taken by the IRA and the Sinn Fein leadership to move the process forward, which might lead to fragmentation. My worry about suspending the Assembly was that, if the fragmentation was not small, but if large parts of the IRA, with weapons, broke off and joined other organisations, the resulting internecine warfare would kill people in Northern Ireland. It would not simply be a question of the IRA versus the IRA, but would probably involve lots of innocent people. I hope that that does not happen, but there is still a question over the political and military situation in Northern Ireland to be resolved.

I have no aim for Northern Ireland or southern Ireland in terms of whether they will end up being united or divided. I am a democrat. I spoke with the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone at the launch conference of the Labour group of the Ulster Unionist movement for people interested in getting social reform on to the agenda. The three elements discussed were demilitarisation, democracy and the rule of law. We are moving steadily towards those three objectives. They may not be recognisable by people who see the process in terms that can be defined only by a 1970 perspective, but they are emerging, bit by bit, in Northern Ireland.

I will fight for the right of the people of Northern Ireland always to remain within the Union of the United Kingdom if they so choose. In that way, I am a committed Unionist. I come from a Catholic and a nationalist background, but I am a democrat. That is the fundamental base.

We have to move through this period, and part of doing so is passing the order to extend the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997 for another year and, I hope, for further years to come. Decommissioning is restated by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State as making weapons permanently unusable. For me, that is what decommissioning is about. I saw the previous Government spike themselves on their interpretation of decommissioning as handing over weapons. When I heard the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my right hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Marjorie Mowlam), and the Prime Minister use the same terms in the early part of this Parliament. I thought that we would never be able to move beyond that impasse. I believe that we now have a formula that will move us through the impasse to a peaceful future.

I believe that the militarists' theory will rot on the vine, and that the guns will rust in the dumps. Extending the 1997 Act for a further year will give us time to watch that happen.

1.4 am

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

I appreciate the opportunity of making a brief contribution to the debate. I understand the points made by the hon. Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Connarty).

There is one point that I should like to clarify, because it has come up several times. I refer to the comparison between Northern Ireland and South Africa. In South Africa, they were all South Africans. They are still having problems because they did not deal with the issue of weapons, and many folk, black and white, are suffering accordingly. I likewise understand something of the arguments of the hon. Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall).

We are happy that there are people living today who might not be living if the bombs had continued to go off. On the other hand, there are others not able to walk around freely in Northern Ireland because of the continued terrorist beatings, whether by loyalists or republicans, in which weapons have been used—not simply crowbars and baseball bats, but even guns. The cries that I have heard from those within the nationalist community, as well as those within the loyalist or unionist community, are that we have to deal with that situation.

One of the things that amaze me, especially with regard to hon. Members from Scotland and others in the House, is that we rushed to take legal weapons away from people after a lunatic shot children in Dunblane, and yet we do not seem to have the same passion for removing weapons from terrorists who are defying the country and two Governments, as well as the American Government.

In that context, I was speaking this morning to one who has laboured consistently with victims and others within Northern Ireland, right across the divide. He reflected the very point that the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) made tonight. He told me that people from the nationalist community, including leaders of that community, are saying clearly, without any equivocation, that we have been giving too much to the provos, without putting pressure on them.

I represent Belfast, South, where one of those who previously had been active in republican terrorism is now calling himself the Northern Ireland Human Rights Watch. He has stated—this has not been refuted—that, although republican terrorists and paramilitary groups have said that people will not co-operate with the police, and that that is why the people are turning to the local provos to implement their mob law, the bulk of those who have been accused of social misdeeds have already been dealt with by the Royal Ulster Constabulary. People have been going to the police on those issues, but the argument is still going on in loyalist and republican circles that the gunmen on both sides are seeking to dominate their communities.

When we are extending this amnesty for another year it is salutary to ask ourselves how many weapons have been handed in and destroyed or put out of use in the last two years. To the best of my knowledge, there has been only a handful, from the Loyalist Volunteer Force.

There have been references to cynicism. Cynics in Northern Ireland are saying that the loyalist paramilitaries are not prepared to bring their weapons for destruction because they do not have that many; they have spent most of the money from their rackets to live a high life. It must be recognised that at times what seems to be cynicism is not cynicism, but realism. Maybe sometimes the House needs a dose of realism before starting to go down roads of dreams or fancies.

There are those of us who want peace, but we will never have true peace as long as we continue to allow terrorists, of whatever hue, to run rings round democratic governments and put pressure on democratic Members.

1.9 am

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

I have always taken the view that more important than decommissioning was the political decision by the IRA that it could not achieve what it had set out to achieve—a united Ireland—through violence and terror. To me, that was the most crucial decision of all. I hope that there will be no reversal by the IRA.

Decommissioning is important. It is important to bring about in Northern Ireland a society in which arms are not in the possession of paramilitaries of any kind, be they republicans or loyalists. The IRA statement is to be much welcomed; it is a step forward. Since the IRA ceasefire, Sinn Fein has said that it cannot speak for the IRA. Of course, we know that there is a close link between IRA and Sinn Fein, but IRA has spoken clearly. Whatever one might say about that organisation—I have never been reluctant to condemn its violence, as hon. Members will know—when it says that it will do something, it normally does so. So I have confidence that the IRA statement is genuine and that the IRA is willing go along the path that it has outlined. That is why I welcome the order.

Reference has been made to the fact that the IRA has not given up its basic objective. However, have we not always argued in this place that it is perfectly legitimate in Northern Ireland to campaign for a unitary state? People in Northern Ireland have as much right to do that as those who argue that Northern Ireland should be part of the United Kingdom. However, we have said that it is wrong to try to bring about a united Ireland through terror and violence. Parliament has been unanimous about that for more than 30 years. Despite all our differences on domestic issues, we have been unanimous that we would not give in to terror and violence, and we have not done so. That fact should always be borne in mind.

In a bitter and negative speech, the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) demonstrated that, like his party, he is wholly opposed to the Belfast agreement. He is perfectly entitled to hold that view. However, when we listen to him, to the leader of his party, the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) and to the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney), we should bear in mind that they do not want the implementation of the agreement. They were against it from the beginning. They do not want an all-inclusive government in Northern Ireland; they believe that to be wrong and inappropriate.

However, we—the vast majority of Members—believe that, given the traditions of Northern Ireland, the best and most effective means for good government is to bring the two communities together. That is what the Belfast agreement is about. I want to see an end not only to the terror and violence, but to punishment beatings—to which my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) referred—whether carried out by republicans or loyalists. Such beatings are unacceptable on the mainland; they should be unacceptable in Northern Ireland. I hope there will be a decrease in, and then an end to, those beatings, which demonstrate such brutality and indifference to the rule of law.

I conclude my brief remarks by pointing out that, undoubtedly, a huge majority in Northern Ireland was for the Belfast agreement. If people on the mainland had had a vote on the Good Friday agreement—if there had been a referendum in this part of the United Kingdom—there would have been an even larger majority for its implementation than there was in the Irish Republic. That is the way forward in Northern Ireland. I hope that that will lead to a guaranteed peace, and that violence and terror will come to an end so that people in Northern Ireland can live the same sort of life as those of us on the mainland—a life without the fear of being killed or tortured. It is because I believe that the Belfast agreement is the way to bring that about that I hope that it will be implemented, and that the situation in Northern Ireland will be very different from that which has prevailed during the past 30 years.

1.14 am
Mr. Robert McCartney (North Down)

It has been said that there is a very fine line between blind optimism and complete foolishness. Much of what has been said in support of the proposed order verges on the latter.

The hon. Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Connarty) made a quite unprovoked and personal attack on the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson). We have heard suggestions that an overwhelming majority of people, particularly in the pro-Union community, voted for the agreement. It is true that, in the referendum, there was, perhaps, a slight balance in the Unionist community in favour of the Belfast agreement. What brought that about? It was brought about by pledges given by the Prime Minister in his own handwriting that certain things would occur. One of those things was that decommissioning would have to be accomplished before representatives of Sinn Fein entered into an Executive.

Decommissioning has a long history. Each position on decommissioning that has been assumed by British Governments has been resiled from. Initially, under paragraph 10 of the joint declaration of December 1993, the representatives of terror were not to be permitted even into negotiations unless they had undertaken permanently to give up violence and to engage in the process of democracy.

The Conservative Government then took up the further position that, until there was an actual handover of weaponry or a proportion of weaponry—the so-called Washington three principle—there would be no prospect of Sinn Fein and other terrorist groups being allowed into negotiations. That position was resiled from.

We then had a promise that, if Sinn Fein were allowed into the negotiations—the previous Secretary of State for Northern Ireland repeated this ad nauseam—there would be a twin-track process and that, on the day on which a political agreement was reached and when that train arrived in the station, a train would also arrive with IRA weaponry. The Belfast agreement was reached and it was subsequently approved in a referendum, but not one single round of ammunition or one single ounce of Semtex was removed. However, as I have already said, prior to the referendum, it was suggested—indeed, it was promised and pledged by the Prime Minister—that decommissioning would occur. That pledge has been broken.

Then we had a seismic shift in July of last year and, currently, we have what is described as the great breakthrough—a new seismic shift. That does not amount to a hill of beans. The very first paragraph of the IRA statement makes it absolutely clear that there will be no lasting peace until its objective of a united Ireland is achieved. That is the first and most basic prior condition in this so-called IRA statement.

The second paragraph makes it patently clear that the Belfast agreement is considered to be only what the IRA and Sinn Fein have always claimed it to be—a transitional phase en route to Irish unity. That is Sinn Fein's phrase; it is not a Unionist phrase. It is Sinn Fein's description of the agreement. The second paragraph of this magical IRA statement makes exactly the same point. If the Belfast agreement is implemented in full according to IRA specifications, it can provide the political context in an enduring process—the so-called peace process—in which the causes of conflict can be removed and the potential for the end of the conflict provided. The IRA recognises the agreement for what it is—a transitional phase en route to Irish unity.

To what does the agreement, as a confidence-building measure, amount? The IRA will select, by location and contents, a number of its dumps—perhaps three—to make available to the two international inspectors, but those dumps will never be removed from its control. The dumps to be inspected will almost certainly represent only a tiny fraction of the IRA's total armoury, which will remain at all times immediately available.

The IRA goes on to say that if the British Government facilitate its demands, it will consider alternative modalities to those already laid out in the schemes that General de Chastelain was to supervise. At every point in the IRA statement there is a conditional clause. The fundamental condition is that, as long as the process continues to take the IRA irreversibly en route to Irish unity, its guns will remain silent. They will not be used, but they will not be destroyed or dispensed with. Why not? As long as the political process delivers the objectives for which the guns have been used, they will remain silent, but as soon as the process ceases to provide that irreversible thrust towards Irish unity, the guns will be available.

It has been suggested that people are cynical. I have lived all my life—64 years—in Northern Ireland. My son is married to a Catholic; I have full cousins who are Catholics; I have employed Catholics and I have been employed by Catholics and the Catholic Church. I have no objection to republicanism, although I do not share its views, or to nationalism, but I have a fundamental democratic objection to sharing power with gangsters, thugs and gunmen who threaten the principles of democracy with force. While the guns remain silent, their threat is none the less powerful.

A report in Dublin's Sunday Business Post said that the true basis of the IRA's agreement is that three or four weeks ago at Chequers, representatives of the IRA and Sinn Fein met the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister and made it clear that, unless their terms are accepted, there will be a renewed bombing campaign on the mainland during next year's elections.

I believe, as do many people in Northern Ireland, that the fundamental policy driving the whole peace process has little to do with political settlement in Northern Ireland; the imperative is to keep bombs off the mainland at any cost. That policy of appeasement will continue and will be leeched upon by the IRA. [Interruption.] I am sorry, but I do not share the optimism of other hon. Members. I sincerely wish that I could do so, but I think that it will prove to be misplaced. The order merely extends over years the time in which the representatives of terror can toy with the principles of democracy.

1.23 am
Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill)

The hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney) has excelled himself by being even more negative than usual. I sometimes think that if he won the lottery, he would complain that the cheque was sent by second-class post. On a more serious point, it is easy to be cynical and doubtful, and it is also cheap, but it is important to find ways forward. It is extraordinary that any hon. Member can make a lengthy speech without once referring to the great gains that have been made in the past few years, which have been much more peaceful, allowing all the people of Northern Ireland to live in better circumstances.

To take up a point made by the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), when the IRA leadership said on 6 May that it would put arms beyond use—which it has never said before—it would have been easy to reply, "Does it mean it? How can we prove it?" I should point out that the IRA has been well aware of international criticism of its slowness in moving forward. People have asked, "Why doesn't it get on with it? What is the big difficulty?" It has been aware of that. If its actions were to turn out grudging or there were attempts to deceive the international inspectorate, it would lose credibility in the international community generally. So, having made such a statement, it has to be able to move forward.

People have been talking as if the IRA were one monolithic block of opinion, but none of us should underestimate the difficulties of the peace-mongers in the IRA and Sinn Fein in determining to move along the paths of peace. We should not underestimate what they would have been up against among some of their more hard-line colleagues in achieving such movement. It is therefore important to get behind the statement and to ensure that it is acted on.

I was wryly amused by the fact that, after commenting in the previous debate that, although over the issue of flags the SDLP would be in a difficult position, it was easy to predict that all parties would encounter difficulties over one issue or another, just a few minutes later the hon. Member for Belfast, East did his utmost to make life difficult for the Ulster Unionist leadership—not because he thinks that it is constructive to do so, but because it is simple vote-grabbing from another segment of Unionism. That is truly deplorable because the leadership of the Ulster Unionists has been extremely positive and deserves a lot of credit.

If the heart of the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis) will stand it, I will say that I agree with much of what he said. His comments were very constructive. Yes, we must recognise that breakaway groups from the IRA will hold on to their arms, but we cannot hold the IRA responsible for the actions of such groups any more than we can hold Unionist Members in this Chamber responsible for the actions of loyalist extremists and breakaway groups. If we do not grab hold of this opportunity, there will be difficulty putting pressure on all those groups to come up with the goods and to follow the path of peace, which is obviously what the people of Northern Ireland want.

Earlier today, I listened to a little of the debate in another place, in which some extraordinary comments were made. One of their lordships said that the Minister was looking on the matter with rose-tinted spectacles simply because he wished to take up the prospect of moving forward which the IRA has opened up. A baroness whose name I did not catch questioned whether a Finn and a South African could do the job, which was an extraordinary thing to say. She asked whether the inspectors had ever seen Semtex or handled a gun. I should imagine, having been highly involved in the politics of South Africa over the past decade or two, they most certainly had. Those are the sort of nonsensical arguments that one hopes not to hear, and we did not hear them in this Chamber.

It has been said that an unknown quantity of arms will be held by individuals on both sides. I do not know how much. I dare say that the police in Northern Ireland have a pretty good idea and could estimate the amount reasonably accurately. Clearly, we must consider that in future, because it is of course unacceptable to deal with arms dumps but leave vast quantities of arms in the hands of individuals, regardless of whether they are political extremists. There could be another madman like Mr. Hamilton in Scotland. The sooner that we take arms out of civil society the better—whether in Scotland, Northern Ireland or the United States. We need to move forward on getting rid of arms.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the draft Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997 (Amnesty Period) (No. 2) Order 2000, which was laid before this House on 10th May, be approved.