HC Deb 20 March 2002 vol 382 cc288-91
2. Mr. Jim Murphy (Eastwood)

If he will make a statement about terrorist weapon decommissioning. [42004]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Jane Kennedy)

We welcomed the announcement on 23 October 2001 that the Provisional IRA had put a quantity of arms completely beyond use. We now want to see further decommissioning by the IRA, and decommissioning by all other terrorist groups.

Mr. Murphy

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. She is aware, as am I, of the long-held belief that people who retain illegal arms do so to protect their place in the illegal drugs trade in Northern Ireland. That belief is strengthened by the activities of IRA members in Colombia in support of FARC, the terrorist and drug trafficking organisation. She will know that the issue has been raised in Congress very recently by US State Department officials. As part of the process of urging the decommissioning of illegal arms, will my hon. Friend ensure that pressure is also brought to bear on republican and loyalist terrorist to end their ownership of arms and their part in the illegal trade in drugs?

Jane Kennedy

I hope that my hon. Friend will be reassured to learn that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State discussed that very matter with the American Government when he visited the US last week. There has been a credible start to decommissioning, but last October's event needs to become a process without further delay. We also want decommissioning to be undertaken by loyalists and by dissident groups that remain outside the peace process. Loyalist and republican paramilitaries both must realise that the Belfast agreement is the only way forward.

Mr. Michael Mates (East Hampshire)

Have there been any further acts of decommissioning since that first event?

Jane Kennedy

We have received no information from the decommissioning commission that any further event has taken place, but the old arguments for holding on to illegal arms are obsolete. We have lived up to our commitments, as set out in the Belfast agreement and at Weston Park. It is time for all paramilitary organisations to honour their commitments to decommission.

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down)

Does the Minister agree that the total decommissioning of paramilitary and terrorist weaponry and the disestablishment of paramilitary and terrorist structures are prerequisites to creating an environment in which our new institutions can thrive and prosper? Does she share my concern at the murder in my constituency a few days ago of Matthew Burns, for which local media reports claim that the Provisional IRA was responsible? Given that organisation's alleged truce, what action does she propose to take, and what inquiries will she make?

Jane Kennedy

I endorse everything that the hon. Gentleman says. There is a need for society to move away from violence and the culture of violence. The ceasefires that we have in Northern Ireland are not perfect, but neither is democracy in Northern Ireland. I condemn unreservedly the cold-blooded murder of Matthew Burns in Castlewellan on 21 February, but the investigation of the incident is continuing and it would not be appropriate for me to comment until it is complete. Obviously, my colleagues and I wish to join those who have expressed sympathy, because we have yet another bereaved family in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North)

Can the Minister recall the promises made at the time of the referendum in Northern Ireland, linking the ending of all terrorist violence and the decommissioning of all terrorist weaponry with concessions, such as IRA-Sinn Fein in government and the early release of terrorist prisoners? Does the Minister accept that, in Northern Ireland, people regard with horror the notion that the Government are considering an amnesty for terrorists on the run in the absence of any further decommissioning? Will she give an assurance to the House that no such amnesty will be forthcoming?

Jane Kennedy

I note the hon. Gentleman's position and he has expressed his concerns before. He may wish to listen to the answer that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will give to the next question. The decommissioning that took place in October last year was a significant event and a real shift in the republican mindset. But that event needs to become a process, which needs to be extended to other paramilitary organisations that continue to cling to their illegal weapons.

Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

Does my hon. Friend agree that where there are groups in Northern Ireland-both loyalist and republican—that have failed to decommission their weapons, that helps to breed fear and mistrust at the grass roots of the organisations, particularly in urban areas, which find it more difficult to allow the democratic process that we have set in motion through the Good Friday agreement to take root and flourish?

Jane Kennedy

I absolutely agree with everything that my hon. Friend has said. It is not within the Government's power to promise a successful end to decommissioning, or to any other aspect of the Belfast agreement. However, we have come a long way. Much has been achieved, and our work will continue.

Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley)

The Minister will be aware of the growing disappointment in Northern Ireland, as we approach the fourth anniversary of the agreement, that we have not had further progress on decommissioning. What steps are the Government going to take to apply pressure on loyalist and republican paramilitary' organisations to complete the decommissioning process? Is she aware that if the Government do not act, we will?

Jane Kennedy

I hear what the hon. Gentleman has said. He will know that we continue to work tirelessly towards achieving all the objectives set out in the agreement. That is our intention and our work is focused on that.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford)

I wholeheartedly agree with the Minister that the Belfast agreement is the best basis for moving forward, and we all want complete decommissioning by both sides. However, after four years of unilateral and unlinked concessions in one direction, will the Government finally learn, after releasing all the prisoners without demanding any decommissioning at all and after crafting a special status for Sinn Fein-IRA MPs in this House and giving them the red carpet treatment in Downing Street, that making such concessions is not the right way forward, that appeasement does not lead to peace, and that there is a difference between the two?

Jane Kennedy

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. All aspects of the Belfast agreement must be implemented in full. None is conditional upon another. Everybody who has signed and is committed to that agreement needs to carry out their responsibilities under the agreement. Those paramilitary organisations that continue to cling to their illegal weapons need to learn that the only way forward is the true implementation of the agreement and the abandonment of weapons for good.

Mr. Davies

Does the hon. Lady realise that the fundamental lack of linkage is at the root of the problem of the Government's tactics and the reason why we have not made more progress? Does she accept that if her Government go forward with an unconditional amnesty for terrorists on the run, not only will there be revulsion, as the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) said, throughout both law-abiding communities in Northern Ireland, but the Government will reinforce the sense in Sinn Fein-IRA that they can get all the concessions they want while sitting on their hands and on their arms?

Jane Kennedy

We have seen massive advances in Northern Ireland, albeit often painful and even acrimonious at the time. In any context, that progress has been extraordinary. Enormous programmes of reform have been achieved—the Assembly, policing, criminal justice reforms and human rights—but the situation is not perfect. Hard decisions have still to come. We recognise the pain that victims and relatives feel, but as in many areas, we need to draw a line under the past and turn towards construction. Let no one belittle the significance of last autumn's decommissioning act. It was historic. It was a clear symbol of a major shift in attitudes towards constitutionalism, and the process must continue on all sides. Loyalists, too, need to play their part in bringing about a better future.

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