HC Deb 28 April 2004 vol 420 cc869-71
1. Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con)

What further progress has been made on decommissioning. [167660]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Ian Pearson)

There have been four acts of decommissioning to date. The latest occurred on 21 October 2003, when the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning reported that it had witnessed a third event in which IRA weapons were put beyond use

Bob Spink

Following the Independent Monitoring Commission report, does the Minister believe that the fine of £120,000 levied against Sinn Fein was proportionate and reasonable, or does he agree with the overwhelming majority of decent people who reject terrorism and believe that the fine was an inadequate way of promoting decommissioning? Does he further agree that simple common sense and decency suggest that the facilities of the House should now be withdrawn from Sinn Fein?

Mr. Pearson

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made clear last week, there is no equivalence between these matters. The IMC report recommended that action be taken in terms of either salaries or allowances. My right hon. Friend came to a decision on the matter, and made it plain at the time that the step taken showed how much the House condemns the activities that have been going on. As for use of the House's facilities, the Government will keep the matter under review, but it is also something for the House itself consider.

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP)

The Minister will remember that something went wrong with the decommissioning process in October. The statement that was due to be made was not made. It was argued among the parties involved that certain promises that had been made and given were not kept. Does not the Minister think that the time has come to announce to the House what those promises were? Why have the general public been kept in the dark about this very important matter?

Mr. Pearson

I truly believe that the time has come to move on. The Government have made it very clear that it is time for all paramilitary activity to cease. Both republican and loyalist groups engaged in terrorist activity must understand that. That is the firm view of the British and Irish Governments, and also of the major political parties and the overwhelming majority of people in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Coop)

I welcome my hon. Friend the Minister's comments on that matter. Does he agree that, if confidence in the decommissioning process is to be rebuilt, the total cessation of paramilitary activity by both Unionists and nationalists is absolutely essential? What progress is being made in reducing that activity?

Mr. Pearson

I agree with my hon. Friend. Decommissioning is an important part of the agreement, but more needs to happen. There must also be an end to all paramilitary activity. That is what the British and Irish Governments want, and the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland. All the Government's work is geared to securing a stable and peaceful Northern Ireland.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann) (UUP)

The Minister has referred to the IMC report and to the need to make progress. Is not the significant thing about the IMC report not the limited sanctions but the clear and unequivocal description that it gave? Did that not provide a very significant springboard for the Government, and should not the Government have rapidly followed up the IMC report by pressing paramilitaries, and republicans in particular, for those acts of completion? Has not the cancellation of the talks planned for tomorrow and Friday been a huge mistake? In the light of the IMC report, surely the Government must realise that they and others cannot proceed with business as usual as if nothing had happened.

Mr. Pearson

Let us be clear that the intensive talks have not been cancelled; they have been postponed. The two Prime Ministers met last week, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State had meetings with a number of the political parties yesterday, and talks need to continue. The IMC report clearly and graphically demonstrated the level of paramilitary activity that is unfortunately still a regular occurrence in Northern Ireland, but there will be no resolution to this situation, and there will not be the stable, inclusive institutions that we all want to see, if we do not and are not prepared to get round the table and talk, so we do need to move forward and to engage in talks, and that is what we will continue to do in the coming months.

John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland) (Lab)

In a democracy the state must have a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, and the arms of the paramilitary groups must be verifiably put beyond use. Will the Secretary of State and the Minister join me in condemning the latest comments by the president of Sinn Fein that the Independent Monitoring Commission is not really that relevant, and will he remind the paramilitary groups that if they reject the democratic process in this way, the blame for subsequent failure in the peace process will be laid well and firmly at their door?

Mr. Pearson

I believe that the Independent Monitoring Commission is truly independent. It has four distinguished people serving on it, and not one of the many press comments that I have seen responding to its report has really taken issue with the fact that it has produced an accurate report on the current situation in Northern Ireland. We need to keep re-emphasising that all paramilitary activity must cease, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right to point this out and to draw attention to the need for us to move forward on the basis of ensuring that we can eliminate all paramilitary activity. I want to assure him that, as far as the security services and police are concerned, we will do our utmost to continue to bear down on criminal and paramilitary activity and bring the perpetrators to justice.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con)

May I take the opportunity to congratulate the Minister on his thoroughly deserved promotion? It is a matter of great satisfaction. Can he tell us whether it is the Government's policy to use the present improved relations with Libya to discover a full inventory of the arms that were shipped to the IRA? Is that the Government's policy or is it not?

Mr. Pearson

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his words of welcome. From previous meetings that we have had Upstairs, I know that we are going to have a lively time. In response to his question, relations with Libya are clearly a matter for the Foreign Office and I will bring his comments to the attention of the Foreign Secretary.