HC Deb 28 April 2004 vol 420 cc874-7
4. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op)

What role the report of the Independent Monitoring Commission will play in the future of the decommissioning process. [167663]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Paul Murphy)

The Independent International Commission on Decommissioning and the Independent Monitoring Commission are separate bodies with distinct functions, both of which play a vital role in the process. The decommissioning commission's objective is to facilitate the decommissioning of firearms, ammunition, explosives and explosive substances, while the responsibility of the monitoring commission is to report on ongoing paramilitary activity and progress on implementing security normalisation measures.

David Taylor

The whole House will have welcomed an IMC report that has helped to illuminate some of the bleak and dark recesses of recent paramilitary violence and criminality in Northern Ireland. Does the Secretary of State agree that the IMC now has a vital and continuing role to play in helping to get the gun out of Northern Ireland politics, and that those politicians who have any influence over the paramilitaries must now urge them to disarm and to use only the ballot box, and not the bullet, to achieve social and political change?

Mr. Murphy

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. He is right to point to the ongoing work of the Independent Monitoring Commission, which will report in six months' time. I hope that we will then be in a position in which we can move forward. In the meantime, the details of the report are such that everybody in Northern Ireland now knows that paramilitary activity is at a level that is completely unacceptable in a civilised society and that it has to stop. Until it stops, it will remain an obstacle to the peace process.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East) (DUP)

Will the Secretary of State address the issue of sanctions? It is clear that only one of the paramilitary organisations involved can be kept out of government and suspended or excluded, and that only one of the paramilitary organisations is therefore open to the full range of sanctions and penalties in the legislation. Will he consider introducing a wider range of sanctions? Bearing in mind that the IMC has an international composition, does he agree that there is no limitation or prohibition on its making recommendations of an international standing, which could be recommendations to other Governments?

Mr. Murphy

The IMC can, of course, do that; its role is to decide what sanctions it wishes to impose. The hon. Gentleman will know that the IMC said in its report last week that if the Assembly had been up and running, a different sanction would have been recommended. As the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, South (Mr. Pearson), the security Minister, made clear, whatever sanction is imposed on different parties as a consequence of the report, at the end of the day, it is the detail of the report that shows people in Northern Ireland and indeed the world that paramilitary activity is at an unacceptable level, that it is an obstacle to the peace process and that it must stop.

Mr. Michael Mates (East Hampshire) (Con)

While the answer that the security Minister gave a few moments ago to my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) may have been technically correct, we nevertheless need an answer to the thrust of the question, which is very important. Will the Secretary of State confirm that he has made representations to his colleague the Foreign Secretary to find out from Libya under its new openness regime exactly what arms were shipped to Northern Ireland during the time when Gaddafi was co-operating with the IRA? If he has not done so, will he tell us why not?

Mr. Murphy

Obviously, it is important that the issue is discussed and that the Foreign Secretary looks at these matters, but it is also important to understand that what has happened in Libya over past weeks is hugely important for the safety of the world. I shall certainly take the right hon. Gentleman's views into account when I next talk to the Foreign Secretary about this issue. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. The Chamber is becoming very noisy. These are important matters.

Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh) (SDLP)

The Secretary of State is right to state that the international decommissioning body has a very specific remit—to facilitate and verify the decommissioning of weapons. Will he ensure that that specific remit is protected and preserved; that the body will stand alone and independent of the Independent Monitoring Commission and any other similar organisation; and that it will report solely to the two Governments who appointed it?

Mr. Murphy

My hon. Friend is right to distinguish between the two bodies. He was deeply involved in the creation of the Good Friday agreement, and knows that decommissioning is central to the process. The agreement says that decommissioning should happen, but the decommissioning that has occurred has not been sufficient, and we must ensure that it happens. The IMC's work is also extremely important, and it spoke about paramilitary activity last week. Both bodies are central to peace and progress in Northern Ireland.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con)

Last week, the IMC said that if the devolved institutions were sitting, it would have recommended sanctions against Sinn Fein and the Popular Unionist party, up to and including exclusion from Executive office. Given that the Government stated that they accept the IMC's findings and recommendations, does that mean that they are prepared to consider reconvening the devolved institutions and excluding from Executive office those parties that the commission identified as being linked to paramilitarism?

Mr. Murphy

No, it does not. We will not reconvene the devolved institutions immediately because, if the Assembly were restored, it would not reach an agreement within six weeks. Under the terms of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, the consequence would be either suspension, again, or another election, neither of which would serve the process in Northern Ireland. The other issue is that if we were to restore the Assembly, the points that the hon. Gentleman refers to do not guarantee the formation of an inclusive or exclusive Executive.

Mr. Lidington

The Secretary of State knows that the Prime Minister of the Republic of Ireland has repeatedly stated that a party that is integrally linked with a paramilitary organisation and a private army would not be a fit partner in a coalition Government in Dublin. Will the Secretary of State explain why that principle should not also apply to an Executive in Belfast?

Mr. Murphy

In reality, that is why the Assembly is suspended. In 2002, confidence was lost in Northern Ireland, and, despite the election, the Assembly and the Executive have not been restored because confidence has not returned, which is due to continuing paramilitary activity. Paramilitary activity is still the obstacle, and we must address it in the weeks and months ahead. Everybody wants the problem to be resolved so that we can have an inclusive Executive.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD)

How will the IMC report, and in particular the confirmation that some parties appear to be in breach of their obligations, alter the Government's approach to negotiations? Specifically, will the Minister consider excluding those parties? Does he feel that such an action would help or hinder the process?

Mr. Murphy

Such an action would not help the process. We want to persuade the parties that they must ensure that paramilitary activity stops, and the best way to do that is to engage with them. What has happened in the past week or two has, or course, influenced discussions and negotiations in Belfast, and the report is important. This morning, we continually made the point that paramilitary activity must be tackled, and that issue obviously underlies the discussions. We also discuss other issues in Belfast, but the hon. Gentleman is right to point to the difficulties posed by paramilitary activity.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab)

The IMC and the Northern Ireland Office should consider more serious financial sanctions against political parties linked with paramilitary groups. Such sanctions could include treating political funds in Northern Ireland in the same way as they are treated in Britain; tackling smuggling, which paramilitaries are involved in; and dealing with paramilitaries under legislation to seize the proceeds of crime.

Mr. Murphy

My hon. Friend is right to refer to the fact that the Assets Recovery Agency in Northern Ireland is looking specifically at the ill-gotten gains of paramilitary organisations. That is very important indeed. I would point out to him that one cannot have any sanction that is equivalent to trying to identify what the report said about murders, paramilitary activity, so-called punishment beatings and all the rest of it. Those issues will never have an equivalence in sanctions. However, the report ensures that people in the House of Commons, in Northern Ireland, and in the country as a whole are aware of the activities of these paramilitary groups.