HC Deb 27 October 2003 vol 412 cc21-8 3.30 pm
Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford) (Urgent Question)

I beg leave to ask an urgent question about the information given to the two Governments by General de Chastelain in the context of the Northern Ireland peace process and the decommissioning last week.

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

As both have made clear, the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach have been able to learn more about the decommissioning event than was set out either in the brief statement issued last Tuesday by the two members of the Decommissioning Commission, General de Chastelain and Mr. Andrew Sens, or in the press conference given by them at Hillsborough that day. The Prime Minister and the Taoiseach had a long meeting with General de Chastelain and Mr. Sens at Hillsborough. It was much longer than the press conference. The Prime Minister and the Taoiseach were, in consequence, left with a greater sense of the nature of the decommissioning event than would be apparent from the statement and the press conference alone. However, as the Prime Minister emphasised in this place last Wednesday, the commissioners did not provide him with all the information in their possession, and given to them in confidence, about the decommissioning event. As General de Chastelain has made clear, the confidentiality constraints imposed on him precluded further disclosure.

Mr. Davies

The whole House knows that none of this is remotely the fault or responsibility of the right hon. Lady, and we all have the greatest sympathy with the invidious position in which she now finds herself.

Let me quote the words that the Prime Minister used about General de Chastelain at the Dispatch Box last Wednesday: He gives certain information—not the full information, but certain information—to us, as the two Governments. Although we are not at liberty to disclose that information without his permission, we are working hard to try to find a way in which we can do so, because I believe, on the basis of what we know, that people would be satisfied if they knew the full details. The purport of the Prime Minister's remarks was perfectly clear. First, he said that General de Chastelain had given him and the Irish Government information about the decommissioning that went beyond what General de Chastelain had made public at his press conference on Tuesday afternoon. Secondly, the Prime Minister made it clear that that incremental information was so significant that, if known, it would alter the public's perception of the event, in that people would be satisfied if they knew the full details."—[Official Report, 22 October 2003; Vol. 411, c. 634.]

I was surprised when I heard the Prime Minister's words. I know that General de Chastelain has always interpreted very strictly his obligation of confidentiality on these occasions, and he has always said—to me and to others who have asked him about this over the past two years—that that obligation is absolute and applies to the two Governments as much as to anyone else. Nevertheless, it was the Prime Minister of my country who was speaking, and he was speaking not casually but categorically at the Dispatch Box. So I believed immediately what he said, and supposed that, contrary to my own previous understanding and expectations, the rules had somehow been changed, or that General de Chastelain had somehow made an exception to them.

Unfortunately—very unfortunately—and very regrettably for the people of Northern Ireland, for the peace process, for the credibility of the Prime Minister and, most of all, for the pride that we all like to take in the honesty of our political process and the way in which our democracy works, General de Chastelain has now made it quite clear that he never gave any additional information to the Prime Minister—or to the two Governments by any other means—let alone incremental information that could have had the significance that the Prime Minister claimed for it. General de Chastelain does not, I believe, give press interviews, but over the past two days he has said that to several people in Northern Ireland, including Bob McCartney QC, a former Member of the House, who at my request sent me an affidavit to that effect over the weekend. I have also seen the transcript of General de Chastelain's meeting on Thursday with several hon. Members from the Democratic Unionist party. Moreover, General de Chastelain said exactly the same thing to me on the telephone this morning.

General de Chastelain has had a most distinguished career as a Canadian and NATO officer, as Chief of the Canadian Defence Staff and as Canadian ambassador to the USA. He was chosen for his present role for his judgment, his integrity and his political objectivity. It is inconceivable—and would be entirely without motive—that General de Chastelain would choose to impugn that reputation by telling and sustaining a momentous and blatant lie at this stage of his career.

There is no question of misunderstanding, unfortunately, and no question of memory being eroded by time; the Prime Minister's conversation with General de Chastelain and the general's press conference were held only 24 hours before the Prime Minister's words in the House, which I have quoted. There is no chance that some non-substantive remark made to the Prime Minister during the conversation to which the Minister of State has just referred, and not repeated exactly at the press conference, constituted the additional information to which the Prime Minister referred. The Prime Minister himself said that that additional information was such that it had the power to alter the public's judgment of the whole episode. That makes the point absolutely clear.

Nor is it possible, as a No. 10 press spokesman has apparently offered, that we found ourselves in an absurd position whereby we were unable to explain in lay terms just how significant that event was. The usage of expressions such as 'heavy, medium and light ordnance' obviously meant something to military people but we would acknowledge that it did not carry the same conviction for ordinary members of the public. It was precisely that circle which we recognised"—

Mr. Speaker

Order. This is an urgent question. The hon. Gentleman should be asking questions, not making a speech to bolster a case.

Mr. Davies

I understand that, Mr. Speaker.

General de Chastelain defined the terms precisely at his press conference, so there was nothing new at all. Is it good enough to say as, apparently, Government officials did to the Belfast Telegraph that "Mr. Blair was" not "misleading anyone" because when he said he 'knew', this was in the nature of an 'educated guess' or an 'informed judgment'"? How can the Prime Minister have been making a guess? Anybody may make a guess, but the Prime Minister said that he was making a judgment on the basis of inside information that—he said—he believed that others would share if they had that information.

I leave the House to decide whether the Prime Minister can hide by saying, as his press spokesman apparently suggested this morning, that he is not going to breach the confidentiality of the conversation that he held with General de Chastelain. General de Chastelain has been perfectly happy to confirm to anyone who asks him that he gave no additional information to the Prime Minister.

Is not it clear that we have an all too simple choice? Either we can believe General de Chastelain or we can believe the Prime Minister—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must finish.

Jane Kennedy

We are aware that the hon. Gentleman has spoken to General de Chastelain, who has also spoken to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. The position, however, remains as set out in the answer that I have just given. It is entirely unsurprising that the Prime Minister was left with a greater sense of the nature of the event as a result of his lengthy discussions with the commissioners.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is at this moment working in Northern Ireland to take forward the process and to continue the progress that has been made, notwithstanding the current setbacks. Indeed, I joined him in doing so this morning. I was called back to answer this question, and I have been faced with nothing more than a party political point-scoring exercise, while the Conservative party is imploding around the hon. Gentleman.

David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Does my right hon. Friend recall how, time and again, when we were in opposition, we gave sustained support to the Conservative Government when they attempted to start a peace process? Would it not be helpful if the shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland gave such support to the present peace process, instead of trying to undermine it at every possible opportunity?

Jane Kennedy

My hon. Friend is right, and I am grateful to him for making that point. This is a matter of confidence between the parties, not a process orchestrated by the Government. We have done all that we can to facilitate engagement between the parties, and we came close on Tuesday to a point of great advance. We will continue to do all that we can to facilitate engagement.

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

Does the Minister agree that, at this moment, as so often in Northern Ireland, the important thing is that we try to find a constructive way forward? Does she accept that there was a very good statement last week—the statement of General de Chastelain—but that, thereafter, things sadly fell apart because of the nature of what was clearly a bilateral agreement? Do the Government now propose to include the other parties to the Good Friday agreement—including parties such as the Alliance party, which assisted greatly at an earlier stage in very difficult times—so that there can be an open and transparent agreement, engaging all the political parties, that can deliver a result in the days ahead? Does she agree with what Mr. Gerry Adams said last week, when he said that the statement made by General de Chastelain indicated that paragraph 13 of the joint declaration about permanent cessation of activity has now been delivered and is available in Northern Ireland? Can she give us a date by which she hopes that the second half—the agreement between all the parties—will he delivered? Will she and her colleagues do everything they can to ensure that it will be delivered before the end of this year?

Jane Kennedy

Devolved government was suspended last year because of a catastrophic breakdown of trust and confidence between two of the parties. Restoring the confidence between them is the key requirement for moving forward and the Government have been facilitating that process, but we would not have made the great advances that we have made in recent times without the collective efforts of all the pro-agreement parties. I pay tribute to all of them for their courage and commitment. Without, for example, the SDLP's commitment to the policing process several years ago, we would be much less far forward now.

On the hon. Gentleman's last point about paragraph 13, we need to move forward to a point where we can develop that confidence between the parties. If we need to achieve disclosure to do that, we need to do so in a way that does not undermine the position of the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning and that promotes the confidence necessary for future acts of decommissioning to proceed, and the hon. Gentleman is right: that involves doing so by agreement.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall)

Does the Minister agree that, no matter what the Prime Minister intended to say, what he actually said caused problems in Northern Ireland for some of the parties and a general feeling that people were being misled? Is it not really important when anything is said in Northern Ireland that, if the Prime Minister knows something, people in Northern Ireland should know it too?

Jane Kennedy

I do not agree with the thrust of the point that my hon. Friend makes. It would be much better to go forward into elections in a positive atmosphere. We have done all that we can to help the parties. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that any hon. Member is misleading the House. He will withdraw the remark that I heard him make.

Mr. Quentin Davies

I was simply picking up on the word that hon. Lady used in asking her question. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. So long as the hon. Gentleman assures me that he was not referring to any hon. Member.

Mr. Davies

Of course, Mr. Speaker, I have not used that word in connection with any hon. Member.

Jane Kennedy

The lengthy discussion that the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach had with the decommissioning commissioners last week left them with a far greater sense of the scale and nature of the act of decommissioning than it was possible to disclose in the statement or in the press conference. We should not forget the significance of that event last week, which was described as a substantial act that put beyond use weapons that, in the words of Mr. Sens, would have caused death and destruction on a massive scale. The House should note that and welcome such a step.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

The House will be aware that a degree of uncertainty about the use of English language has existed for some time. While one would not necessarily accuse people of telling lies, one might think that they would be fit company for Ananias and Sapphira. The Minister referred to agreement between the parties. Is that not an agreement between the then interlocutor for Sinn Fein-IRA and General de Chastelain, which has put a block on this matter, and which we have been led to believe is written in law? Furthermore, does part of the trouble arise from further revelations in Northern Ireland that the general may have been kept incommunicado, to put it mildly, for many hours before he was able to return to Belfast?

Jane Kennedy

It is disappointing for all sides that the Provisional IRA chose to impose the confidentiality on the general that led him to be unable to disclose the scale and the detail of the event. That lack of transparency has caused the speculation about which my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) spoke earlier. I do not propose to add to that speculation this afternoon. We are bending all our efforts, however, to continue to make progress in what I recognise is a difficult time.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that what we need, as well as building confidence between the parties in Northern Ireland, is a restoration of confidence between the parties in this House? Does she also agree that that would be best served by the kind of patient, calm approach that she and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State have taken in these matters, rather than the hot-headed emotional spasms of the Conservative party?

Jane Kennedy

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. It is for those who portray themselves as opponents of the agreement to explain to the House and to the country how they would advance our current position. They do not tell us what they would do, and the attitudes that we hear from them would have meant no advance at all in Northern Ireland.

Sir Brian Mawhinney (North-West Cambridgeshire)

As a supporter of the agreement, is the right hon. Lady aware that I was in the House and heard the Prime Minister convey to all of us clearly that he and the Taoiseach had factual information that the rest of us did not have? I have noted that three times today she has used the phrase that the Prime Minister had a sense of what was happening. May I therefore ask her a straight, simple question? Did General de Chastelain give the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach factual information that he did not put in his statement?

Jane Kennedy

The general put into his statement and into the public domain in his press conference what he was able to put under the confidentiality agreement that he had made with the Provisional IRA. In the lengthy discussion that he had with the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach, however, the two commissioners were able to convey and build confidence in both the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach that the event that they had seen was substantial and significantly more than had happened in the past.

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim)

As you know, Mr. Speaker, I gave notice that I wanted to raise this issue on a point of order, but that has been superseded by this short statement.

Will the Minister tell me when General de Chastelain made any arrangements whatsoever about secrecy or confidentiality? This House made those arrangements when it set up the commission. I opposed them, but the people who are shouting so loudly today did not oppose them—they voted for them. The first point that should be made clear is that the House is responsible for the secrecy and confidentiality and only the IRA can raze that. The IRA could have done that and said, "Yes, go ahead", but it said, "We're not going to do that; we're keeping to our confidentiality."

Will the Minister tell the House about the two officers—one from the American army and one from the Canadian army—whom her Government wanted to accompany the two commissioners but who the IRA turned down as well? From the very beginning, the IRA was not going to give the opportunity for any real declaration of what took place.

When the Prime Minister made his statement at Hillsborough, I met General de Chastelain with my MPs and asked him whether I knew anything less than what he had told the two Prime Ministers. He said, "No, you know nothing less. They only know what they were told by me, and you heard my statement. I couldn't give them any more information." I said, "Suppose that you are pressed by the Governments to give more information", and he said, "If I am pushed by the Government, I will resign because I am bound under the commission that set me up and confidentiality."

The Minister said that we should all be happy—

Mr. Speaker


Rev. Ian Paisley

One final question.

Mr. Speaker

Order. Not one more—the Minister must have a chance to reply.

Jane Kennedy

The hon. Gentleman is quite right that the opportunity to impose confidentiality on the decommissioning commissioners was allowed by the law underpinning the work of the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning. If he has had the opportunity to talk to the general, he will have had the same opportunity that the Prime Minister and Taoiseach had. Members of his party have acknowledged the scale of the event that was witnessed last Tuesday. Members of his party who will be fighting the election have acknowledged that an event of significance happened. I think that Members on both sides of the House should note that.

Rev. Ian Paisley


Mr. Speaker


Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell)

As the Minister will be aware, I am a strong supporter of the Belfast agreement. Will she accept from me that trust is a commodity in very short supply in the Province, especially in the Unionist community, and particularly as the four hand-written pledges that the Prime Minister gave on the eve of the agreement referendum were subsequently not met? Will she assure us that after the mistake that I think that the Prime Minister made when he spoke from the Dispatch Box during Prime Minister's Question Time last Wednesday, everyone will be far more cautious? If the trust gets any worse, we will not make any progress at a vital time for the Province.

Jane Kennedy

I acknowledge the right hon. Gentleman's position and the support that he has given to the agreement, and I hear what he says. It is true that we should all bend all our efforts to grow and develop confidence and trust among parties if progress is to continue to be made.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne)

During the lengthy discussions between the general and the two Prime Ministers to which the right hon. Lady referred, did the general pass on any additional facts to the Prime Ministers?

Jane Kennedy

The general did not break the rules of confidentiality or the promise of confidentiality imposed on him by the Provisional IRA. Although those rules might be seen as a stumbling block at this moment, they have allowed a series of acts of decommissioning that, in my estimate, would not have taken place without them.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

The Minister speaks of trust and confidence. Do not two things arise out of this sorry business? The first is that it is difficult to have any confidence in a decommissioning process that takes place in secret. Is it not up to the Government to ensure that that is done in public, with transparency? The second issue is why, in the light of all the evidence and experience to the contrary, the Government persist in trusting the IRA and Sinn Fein, which are inextricably linked?

Jane Kennedy

I have said a couple of times that last Wednesday's event has been acknowledged as significant. The general explained a range of the detail when he shared with us what he could. We know that the amount of weapons was substantial and that what was put permanently out of use was sufficient to take out of circulation things that would have caused death and destruction on a massive scale. That process and event last week was significant. It should not be forgotten or lost among all the noise, sound and fury that has been created as a result of the speculation that arose because the general was unable to be clearer and to give more detail. We are seeking to make progress on that. Had he been able to be clearer about the detail, that event and the statements might have been sufficient to allow confidence to grow among the parties.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield)

The Minister knows that I, too, am a supporter of the Good Friday agreement. Does she not agree, however, that trust has again been damaged by the loose use of terminology and words by the Prime Minister? In those circumstances, the one thing I have not heard from the Minister, which would go some way to restoring the situation, is an apology on behalf of the Government? Would it not be a sign of a mature Government for them to apologise now to the House and to those people who consider themselves seriously misled by what the Prime Minister said?

Jane Kennedy

I think that Opposition Members are choosing to pretend that they were seriously misled. Quite honestly, I have answered the question many times. The Prime Minister did not mislead the House. As I said, the position remains as I set out in the answer I gave at the outset. It is unsurprising that following that discussion, the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach had a clear sense of the scale and nature of the act of decommissioning. Hon. Members will want them to take the process forward and to wish them well as they do so.