§ 3.40 p.m.
My Lords, with the leave of the House I shall now repeat a Statement on Northern Ireland made in another place by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. The Statement is as follows:
§ "Yesterday evening, the Irish Prime Minister and I met at Downing Street to launch a new initiative in the Northern Ireland peace process. A copy of our joint communiqué has been placed in the Library of the House.
§ "In the 15 months since the first of the two ceasefires, there has been a dramatic improvement in daily life in Northern Ireland. People have enjoyed the freedom to go about their daily business without fear of terrorist attacks. Many new jobs have been created. New investment has come in. New opportunities have opened for people of all ages.
§ "We have responded positively—following advice from the Chief Constable and the General Officer Commanding—to the much reduced threat to security. By the end of this year half of the Army's emergency or roulement battalions will have left Northern Ireland. Security infrastructure has been dismantled. Remission rates for scheduled offenders have been returned to their pre-1989 levels.
§ "But, though we have a ceasefire, we are still far from a comprehensive political settlement. To work towards that, we must establish a negotiating process open to all democratic parties. That aim underlies the twin track initiative which we have now launched with the Irish Government.
§ "The first of the two tracks in the joint communiqué will involve invitations to the parties to intensive preparatory talks. These are not substantive negotiations on Northern Ireland's constitutional future. They are designed to prepare for such negotiations.
§ "There are many issues to be resolved if substantive negotiations are to take place successfully. The preparatory talks will consider the best structure and format for all-party negotiations, and how those negotiations can address all the relevant relationships in an interlocking three-stranded process.
§ "Several of the parties in Northern Ireland have suggested that an elected body could play an important part in all-party negotiations. Other parties disagree. As the communiqué makes clear, this is an idea which will be discussed in the preparatory talks.582
§ "As I have indicated, meeting the requirements of paragraph 10 of the Downing Street Declaration will be an essential condition for any party claiming a seat at all-party negotiations. Not all of the parties yet do so. This too will be a valid subject for discussion in the preparatory talks.
§ "The format for these talks is intentionally flexible and permissive. We shall build on the exchanges and bilateral contacts which have already taken place. We shall treat each party equally. Exchanges can be bilateral or, where the parties so wish and where it will further the objectives of the preparatory talks, they could be multilateral.
§ "This new round of preparatory talks is an opportunity for each of the parties in Northern Ireland to express its view, in whatever format it chooses, on the best way of moving the political process forward. It is an opportunity for them to work together with one or other or both governments, according to their wishes. It is an opportunity to generate fresh momentum. It threatens no one, no interest and no party. I hope that all of the parties, in their own way, will take advantage of this opportunity. The objective of moving towards a just and comprehensive settlement will be of benefit to all.
§ "Let me turn now to the decommissioning of the weapons and explosives held in large number by paramilitary organisations linked to political parties in Northern Ireland.
§ "Before the Downing Street Declaration and the ceasefire, we recognised that the need to address this question was one of the practical consequences that had to follow the ending of violence. In a democratic society, political parties cannot be linked to private armies. In a society where parties are committed to exclusively peaceful methods, there can be no need and no justification for holding illegal weapons and explosives. In a democracy, parties and governments cannot be expected to negotiate under the duress of an implicit threat of a return to violence.
§ "For that reason, we have throughout this year sought to engage the representatives of both Sinn Fein and the Loyalists in an exploratory dialogue on how their weapons will be taken out of commission. In order to achieve more progress in that area we have now agreed with the Irish Government to establish an international body to provide an independent assessment of the decommissioning issue and have given it specific tasks.
§ "The body will consist of three members under the chairmanship of Senator George Mitchell from the United States. They will act in a personal capacity and on an advisory basis. The body has been asked: first, to identify and advise on a suitable and acceptable method for full and verifiable decommissioning; and, secondly, to report whether there is a clear commitment on the part of those in possession of such arms to work constructively to achieve that.
§ "We expect the body to invite relevant parties to submit their analysis of matters relevant to the decommissioning issue. The governments are not setting limits to the scope of the submissions which 583 may be made to it. It will be for the international body, in reaching conclusions within its remit, to consider such evidence on its merits.
§ "We will not be asking the international body to question the Government's position on what has become known as the third Washington criterion. The body has not been established to make recommendations on when decommissioning should start. That is a matter for a government decision; and, as I have indicated, it is properly a matter for discussion in the preparatory talks.
§ "To avoid any doubt, let me stress that the Government stand by the three criteria on decommissioning which my right honourable friend set out in Washington earlier this year. We cannot see a way of securing the necessary confidence to bring all parties to the negotiating table without a start being made to the decommissioning of illegal arms. This is not a matter of dogma but of practicality. It goes without saying that we, like the Irish Government, will consider constructively any practicable suggestions that could help bring all parties into negotiations on the basis of the Downing Street Declaration.
§ "It is no secret that yesterday's agreement between the two governments required long and difficult negotiations. The British and Irish Governments agree on the need for disarmament by the paramilitary organisations but have an acknowledged difference of opinion over its timing. We have decided not to allow that difference to stand in the way of forward movement along these twin tracks. That is a measure of our determination to continue working together.
§ "We have asked the international body to report by the middle of January. We hope that progress in both tracks will then enable the two governments to launch all-party negotiations by the end of February. That is our firm aim. I am confident it is attainable, but it will require a serious commitment by all concerned.
§ "We are ready to make that commitment. But let me make a crucial point. The British and Irish Governments cannot make peace in Northern Ireland. Our role in the process is to facilitate it.
§ "We have borne a great deal of the burden. We have been ready to take risks for peace. Now is the time for others to do so as well. Now is the time for all parties and groups to make a sincere and constructive contribution: for the paramilitaries on both sides to give not merely qualified verbal assurances but a real and tangible commitment to peace—if they mean peace, they do not need guns and semtex; for all political parties to enter the preparatory talks, not with rigid and irreconcilable postures, but with a will to make them work. Because ultimately a lasting and peaceful settlement is in their hands, not mine. Let them all have the courage to grasp it".
§ My Lords, that concludes the Statement.
§ 3.50 p.m.
§ Lord Richard
s: My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Viscount the Lord Privy Seal for repeating the Statement made by his right honourable friend in 584 another place. Noble Lords on all sides of the House will wish to join me in paying tribute to the Prime Minister and to the Taoiseach for their commitment to the peace process and for the spirit of co-operation between the two governments which culminated in today's announcement.
The twin-track approach offers a real opportunity to help move forward the resolution of a conflict which has blighted the history of Northern Ireland for many years. We on these Benches sincerely hope that the proposal announced today will lead to further progress being made. We are all aware that the peace process will inevitably involve lengthy negotiation and that it has to deal with a number of difficult issues. The decision therefore to adopt the twin-track approach should be welcomed. We hope that such an approach will build up trust and confidence between the different parties to the negotiations. I entirely agree that that is vital if the peace process is to be successful and if the problems facing Northern Ireland are to be resolved.
Perhaps the noble Viscount will answer one or two specific questions to enable me to understand properly what is involved. As I understand it, there are to be two processes which will go ahead separately but be linked to the overall attempt to reach a peace settlement in Northern Ireland. First, in connection with the political negotiations, am I right that the talks about talks will take place before the international commission reports in mid-January; or, alternatively, will the international commission make its report on the decommissioning of arms before the talks about talks begin?
As I understand the position, the political talks will start immediately; then the decommissioning—I almost said "decommissioning commission", but that is perhaps not the happiest way of putting it—the Mitchell Commission will pursue its work and report in mid-January at a time when the talks about talks will still be continuing.
Secondly, is it possible for the Lord Privy Seal to give us an indication of who the other two members of the Mitchell Commission are to be? Will they be people drawn from outside or inside these islands? I am also a little unclear about the terms of reference of the Mitchell Commission. According to the Prime Minister it has been asked to,identify and advise on a suitable and acceptable method for full and verifiable decommissioning".
That means that the commission is to look at the way in which that can be achieved. It is then asked to report on,whether there is a clear commitment on the part of those in possession of such arms to work constructively to achieve that [decommissioning]".
As I understand it, the commission is not expected to say when such decommissioning shall take place, nor indeed to say how that commitment to decommissioning fits into the other negotiating process—that is, the talks about talks which one hopes will lead to all-party talks.
Those are questions on detailed procedure. But in this, as in many other issues, your Lordships will appreciate that they are critical to the way in which progress can be made. We give our full backing to the process. We hope that it will continue to gain momentum and 585 produce a settlement which will in the end bring peace, stability and reconciliation to the people of Northern Ireland.
Finally, I shall be grateful if the Lord Privy Seal can give us an indication of what the Government's attitude will be to the status of decisions made by the international body under Senator Mitchell. Can he say a little more about the timetable for creating that body? Subject to those questions, some of which are detailed, we support the Statement.
§ Lord Holme of Cheltenham
My Lords, from these Benches I add our support to that expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Richard, for the Statement and for the initiative that has been taken. Also, I express our warm congratulations to the Prime Minster and the Taoiseach for this agreement reached at the 59th second of the 11th hour before the visit of President Clinton. All of those who follow the affairs of Northern Ireland will know that we should not look for rapid progress. It is a long-standing, deeply rooted, historical dispute and nothing will happen suddenly. We must be prepared for a long haul. On the other hand, as the noble Viscount said in presenting the Statement to us, momentum and movement are essential, and the agreement represents momentum.
I am bound to say that in some ways that momentum was achieved by pushing the problem forward into some point in the future. As an agreement, it has some of the characteristics of the device much disliked by lawyers of an agreement to agree or, in this case, an agreement to disagree. But at the present juncture it is more helpful than not that we have momentum.
I do not suppose the Government feel particularly happy about the last minute alarms and excursions by which they arrived at this point. The great change in the past 12 months, from the time of the framework document, is the fact that in some ways Sinn Fein has drawn a wedge between the two governments. The most notable fact 12 months ago was that the two governments held together solidly and provided a centre for this difficult process. It can no longer be said that that is the case. To that extent I fear that Sinn Fein may have succeeded to some extent in its mission to drive a wedge in between the partners who must see the process through.
I hope that the noble Viscount will not find it too cynical if I ask whether the agreement would have been arrived at in this rather melodramatic way if it had not been for the visit of the US President. Like other noble Lords, I welcome the visit of President Clinton. I felt that he made an extraordinarily good speech this morning and believe that he and the United States have a constructive role to play in Ireland and Northern Ireland, not least in the matter of economic assistance. But we must not allow anybody to persuade us that anybody can solve this problem other than the British and the Irish Unionists and Nationalists working together. This is not, nor should it become, a Bosnia where we are dependent on the United States for leadership.
586 Perhaps the noble Viscount can answer two specific questions. The Statement and the communiquémentioned the elected body as a possibility. We on these Benches are in favour of an elected body in Northern Ireland; it will allow the opinions of the people of Northern Ireland to come into play and not simply the political leadership. For instance, if Sinn Fein were to fight an election for an elected body, it would have to answer questions on public platforms as to whether it has given up the use of violence for ever and is prepared to come to talks on a peaceful basis. There is therefore much to be said for an elected body. Do the Government contemplate, to the extent that this has been discussed, that that body must be an elected assembly or can it simply be an elected body constructed for the specific purpose of a short-term and specific brief?
My other question relates to the decommissioning point. There seems to be a difference of emphasis between the communiqué issued by the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach and the Statement we heard this afternoon. Is the Mitchell Commission—to use the description of the noble Lord, Lord Richard—free to make recommendations in respect of what we have all learnt to call Washington 3? Is it free to do so or not? I shall be grateful for the Minister's reply.
I hope that I have not appeared too grudging in my welcome. This is a difficult moment and it does advance the process. But does the noble Viscount agree that the key is to get the democratically elected representatives of the Unionist and Nationalist communities of Northern Ireland to start talking to each other? If they did that bilaterally, then the point of initiative would move. The great danger is that the initiative rests too much in the hands of terrorists or former terrorists and their associates and too little in the hands of the people and the elected politicians of Northern Ireland.
My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Richard, and to the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, for their most generous—I do not think the noble Lord, Lord Holme, was in the least bit grudging—welcome for the progress that was achieved late last night. In particular I shall pass on to my right honourable friend the Prime Minister the most eloquent tribute paid to him by the noble Lord, Lord Richard, for which I am very grateful and for which I know my right honourable friend will be grateful too. I welcome the wish of both noble Lords to see further progress. I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Holme, understands the need for trying to maintain a form of momentum—something which underlines this agreement. I am also grateful to both noble Lords for their welcome for the twin-track approach.
I was asked a number of specific questions. The noble Lord, Lord Richard, asked me about the precedence which each of the twin tracks would take over the other. The idea, which I think was touched on in the Statement, is that these two matters could and should proceed in parallel, that in a very few days indeed, in the wake of this agreement, exploratory talks should begin and that the international commission under the chairmanship of Senator Mitchell should be appointed and begin to sit.
587 The noble Lord, Lord Holme, asked me about the other two members of the commission. I hope he will forgive me if I do not trail any names at the moment. A number of names are being considered. I can confirm that both the other members of the commission will come from outside the British Isles.
With regard to the terms of reference, both noble Lords asked me in different ways about what has come to be known in the jargon as Washington 3. Perhaps I may trespass on the patience of the House for a moment by trying to make clear what the remit of the international body will be, particularly in relation to the third criterion enunciated in Washington. Both Governments have given the international body a remit to provide an independent assessment of the decommissioning issue. We have set down in paragraphs 6 and 7 of the communiqué the specific requirements for the body's report. It may be worth while if I once again repeat those requirements.
They are, first, to identify and advise on a suitable and acceptable method for full and verifiable decommissioning; and, secondly, to report whether there is a clear commitment on the part of those in possession of such arms to work constructively to achieve that. I ought to make it clear, as the communiqué makes clear, that it will be for the international body to determine its own procedures. The two governments expect it to consult widely and to invite relevant parties to submit their analysis of matters relevant to the decommissioning issue. Their analysis will go as wide as they like. But the commission itself, in reaching its conclusions within its remit, should consider such evidence on its merits and within the remit. It will be for the commission itself to make that judgment about what part of the evidence falls within its remit. I should emphasise that it is agreed between both governments that the body will not question our position on the third Washington criterion. It was not established to make recommendations on when decommissioning should start. We believe that that is properly a matter for discussion in the preparatory talks and for a government decision. Indeed, the communiqué issued by both Prime Ministers makes that perfectly clear.
The noble Lord, Lord Richard, asked about the status of the recommendations. I should emphasise that they are purely advisory. The timetable of February which has been agreed is one which we hope can be achieved, because momentum, as the noble Lord, Lord Holme, said, is important. But it is a target. It is not a deadline but a target and it is one which we shall certainly do our best to make sure is achieved.
The noble Lord, Lord Holme, asked whether there was a wedge between the governments. I think it is clear from the Statement that there was a difference of emphasis which was clearly acknowledged by both Prime Ministers. I do not think there is anything new in that. However, that difference of emphasis is, as the Statement said, one which both Prime Ministers—this was clearly so last night—wish to emphasise should not stand in the way of the momentum which the noble Lord himself emphasised is so important.
588 As to whether the agreement would have been arrived at if the President of the United States had not been due in London this morning, I leave for the House to judge. I would merely say that this agreement has been a very long time cooking. Progress has been made over the past months and weeks. We had hoped that an agreement might have been possible as long ago as September. I think both Dublin and London were hopeful that that might be possible. Unfortunately, there were some details which needed agreement and those details, fortunately, appeared to be capable of resolution over the past few weeks. It was clearly helpful and appropriate that if possible—it was not essential—that agreement could be arrived at for the President's visit. However, it was not, I think it is right to say, the catalyst which brought it about. There was good will from both sides of St. George's Channel.
Perhaps I may also take this opportunity to say how much I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Holme, in the welcome that he gave to the speech of the President of the United States this morning to the joint Session in the Royal Gallery. I am sure the whole House will agree that it was a magnificent occasion. We were honoured to hear a very fine speech in which, if I may say so, the President honoured us with a penetrating analysis of world problems and gave a very great deal of reassurance to all sides of your Lordships' House.
Finally, so far as concerns an elected body, the noble Lord, Lord Holme, will be aware that the United Unionist Party has for some time been interested in the question of an elected body. As the noble Lord said, no solution, including the device or mechanism of an elected body, can be imposed any more than any other kind of solution can be imposed. As the noble Lord so rightly said, these matters are for the people of Northern Ireland. If it is proposed that an elected body is a sensible way forward, whether it be by means of an assembly or what I might loosely call a convention, that is something for agreement. It is not something which Her Majesty's Government would in any way wish to stand in the way of if it appeared to be a way forward to which all parties could agree.
§ Viscount Whitelaw
My Lords, this is a very difficult moment for Ireland and indeed for all concerned in it. I therefore welcome very much the determination to try something which has to be tried because this problem cannot be allowed to go on and on. We have to make every effort to seek to achieve a solution. I believe that it can be achieved and therefore one ought to congratulate the Prime Minister for having taken a very difficult decision indeed. I also believe that the Taoiseach had a difficult decision, too; but probably the Prime Minister's decision was the more difficult of the two.
It is the right course to take because in Ireland everything is difficult. It is no good just saying, "it is difficult". If one wants to spend time arguing about petty views here and there, one will always be able to do so. That is never difficult, and one has a certain amount of experience of that. I very much welcome the fact, as the noble Lord, Lord Richard, said, that the Labour Party support the Government. I heard that in the other House they also support the Government, and that is right. 589 We have a chance to make a success on this issue and that is why I very much welcome what has been done although there are still very great anxieties ahead.
My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend for what he has said. He perhaps has as much experience as anyone in your Lordships' House on this intractable question. I am most grateful to him for his support. It is by no means certain that we shall succeed, but we should remember that the longer we are able to make progress, fewer people will die or be maimed both in the Province and on the mainland.
§ Lord Mason of Barnsley
My Lords, first, I join with my noble friend the Leader of the Opposition in congratulating the Prime Minister and the Northern Ireland Secretary for concentrating many efforts and many hours of endeavour in trying to maintain the peace process.
Secondly, in the press this morning a breakthrough was mentioned. I urge the House to treat that word with the utmost caution in this matter. Is the Minister aware that I note from what he said that an international body will be set up to advise on disarming the Provisional IRA and that the Provisional Sinn Fein will be allowed to take part in talks to set the agenda for full-scale discussions on the future of the Province—the twin-track approach?
Is the Minister further aware that as regards the first point the Provisional Sinn Fein will have to answer that a clear commitment exists to work constructively towards the decommissioning of arms, and then—and only then—will they be allowed to enter into the preparatory talks which may eventually lead to substantive talks? Is he also aware that they are not prepared to move on decommissioning—not now, and it is doubtful in the future? That is the major sticking point because to the Provisional IRA it is the signal of surrender and so far they see nothing in return. That is the major obstacle which has to be overcome.
Finally, on the twin-track approach, in previous discussions with the Prime Minister, have not the Unionist parties turned that down? Do I gather now that their views have changed or are changing?
My Lords, I am constantly reminded, in sessions of this kind in your Lordships' House, of the care with which I have to approach making statements because of the very large number of former Secretaries of State that there are about on any given subject, and the noble Lord is no exception.
I am grateful to him for the congratulations that he gave. I certainly agree with him about the indiscriminate use of the word "breakthrough". I would rather publicly expect little, and for those expectations to be exceeded rather than the other way round. Nevertheless, I believe that the word "breakthrough" was perhaps justifiable in one sense in that this has been a difficult negotiation, as many of your Lordships have acknowledged this afternoon. It looked at one moment as though it was going to be difficult to translate the goodwill of both sides into something concrete. To that extent I believe 590 that the word "breakthrough" is justified, but I certainly agree with the noble Lord's clear implication that we are not there yet and that the difficult part is still to come.
Perhaps I may change the emphasis of one part of what he said. The second part of the twin-track—the "talks about talks" as the noble Lord, Lord Richard, called them—does not allow Sinn Fein to set the agenda. They are exploratory talks to see whether we can agree on the agenda for the substantive round table talks which we hope will follow. Sinn Fein does not have a monopoly on setting that agenda; indeed, I suspect that unless, for instance, the present constitutional parties were all able to agree as well, the term "round table talks"—if Sinn Fein were to be the only people there—would be the ultimate misnomer. Therefore, I say to the noble Lord that for them to say that they will set the agenda is not strictly right.
Of course, decommissioning is a major obstacle. I should like to emphasise that Her Majesty's Government have in no way changed their stance on this matter. At the very beginning they made it clear that there will have to be clear and substantial progress towards the decommissioning of weapons before the parties who were identified with terrorist organisations can take part in round table talks for the reasons that my right honourable friend gave in his Statement. That position has in no way changed, and I hope that the noble Lord will be reassured by that.
§ Lord McConnell
s: My Lords, I also wish to welcome the Statement that has been made by the Lord Privy Seal. I believe it is true to say that virtually everyone in Northern Ireland has a burning desire for a permanent peace, and the Ulster Unionists are second to no one in that desire. I was glad to hear mention of an elected body. That is a suggestion which was made recently by the leader of the Ulster Unionists in the other place. I believe that that might be a useful move in securing a permanent peace because any peace must be a permanent one and on sound foundations.
I am also glad to hear that the Government are standing firm on the question of handing over private arsenals and decommissioning, not merely in the sense of armaments, but also as regards the personnel of some of these gangs because there may not be so much shooting going on, but there is still a great deal of beatings up, intimidation and terrorising people. Unless that stops we cannot have a real and permanent peace. That problem has to be addressed somewhere in the process.
I also welcome the establishment of a commission. I am glad to hear that the Government have not handed over their responsibility, but that this commission will be advisory and that the Government will, in the end, have to make the decisions. I look forward to a permanent peace, which I hope that we can achieve, that is fair to all parties and all people in Northern Ireland.
My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord who of course speaks with obvious authority on these matters. Perhaps I may refer to the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Mason, a moment ago. It is interesting that, as an Ulster Unionist, the noble Lord approved of the twin-track approach. 591 I believe that I was right in hearing the security spokesman for the Ulster Unionists imply on television last night that they were one of the original begetters of the idea of a twin-track approach. So it is clear that the noble Lord's party is behind that particular initiative. I am grateful for the confirmation that the noble Lord has given us today.
I am also grateful to the noble Lord for his acknowledgement that the elected body could be a useful move. Indeed, that idea has been very much promoted by Mr. Trimble, the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party. There is no doubt that that is something that cannot be imposed. As I said earlier, it must be done by negotiation.
I should like to emphasise how very much I agree with what the noble Lord said about the continuing violence in the Province. Shootings have decreased as, thank God, have bombings, but we should be aware that, far from diminishing since the cease-fire, the problem of punishment beatings has worsened. I am told that, in total over the past 16 months, Republican attacks have been running at almost twice the level of the equivalent period last year—about 150 as against about 85—and that Loyalist attacks are still occurring also. Such attacks are clearly designed to assert the terrorist gangs' control over what they term "their" communities. Therefore, there is a distinctly political element to those attacks. The brave individuals who have risked reprisals by daring to criticise that practice deserve our most fervent admiration.
§ Lord Merlyn-Rees
My Lords, I too congratulate the Government on the steps that they have taken and wish them well. However, I am not yet clear on one point. Yesterday evening I was watching the news and I then watched "Newsnight" and in came reports about what was happening between the Taoiseach and the Prime Minister. Eventually it got to midnight and I listened to the midnight news. I asked myself and my wife, "What's new about all this?" because the twin-track approach has been going on for weeks. Even when I went to sleep I was not clear about what was new. Is it the preparatory talks as opposed to the multilateral talks? Indeed, are the parties going to turn up for those preparatory talks? Have we asked the parties whether they will participate in those preparatory talks? I am still not clear.
On the election, I discussed that proposition with a number of Irish TDs and British Members of Parliament on the Border the other evening when we were looking at policing there. I cannot speak for them but, speaking for myself, there is a worry. There were convention elections in 1975 and I think that the statute is still in the law books. That did not succeed because, when people vote for a convention, they are not voting for a Christmas tree being lit up in Belfast; they will vote along these lines: "We are going to vote for our people on the Loyalist side" and similarly on the Nationalist and Republican side. Let us not run away with the idea that an election will bring sweetness and light simply because everybody is pleased that Northern Ireland is quiet. Some of us have held the view that that might harden the situation.
592 I am glad that the international body is to be independent, but I hope that its members know something about Northern Ireland and that they will not confuse it with Bosnia or Palestine, because it is a different place. What might be appropriate in another place may well not be appropriate in Northern Ireland. I hope that we shall ask that body to consider the question of the shootings in recent weeks which have involved illegal arms. The noble Viscount has given us evidence of the great growth in the number of such shootings in recent weeks. If there are illegal arms that we want to decommission, it would be just as well to ask the IRA—or Sinn Fein, its political wing—or the UVF—or its political wing: who is doing all those shootings? Where are the arms being held? We must ask those questions because there was a continuation of violence in 1922 and the same thing happened in Europe at the end of the war when there were great problems in bringing in arms from the Maquis. It is not nice and easy. Therefore, when I congratulate the Government, it is because they are still talking. I have grave doubts—not about what the Government are doing, but about what will come out of it.
My Lords, certainty in politics is an oxymoron, and particularly so in Irish politics. I am sure that the noble Lord is right on that point. The noble Lord asked what was new about the twin-track approach. That phrase now seems rather old hat because it has been so extensively trailed in the past few months. The "twin-track" idea has been in the air and has been commented on in the press for some time. What we have not had so far has been an agreement about how to proceed with it. That is what is new. We now have an agreement about how to proceed and some pretty detailed thoughts about the process.
I wholly take the noble Lord's point about the three commissioners and whether they will know anything about Northern Ireland. That could be an advantage as well as a disadvantage. Coming from outside the British Isles gives the three commissioners some distance from the problem. To take the name that we know, Senator Mitchell, I think that his record stands for itself. He is extremely knowledgable about Irish politics. Indeed, the fact that he comes from the north-east of the United States underlines that point.
I am grateful to the noble Lord for what he said about punishment beatings. I think that we are all aware of what has happened. I take very much to heart the noble Lord's view that success is far from a certainty, but I accept wholly that he thinks that it is well worth making the effort.
§ Lord Monkswell
My Lords, I too thank the Lord Privy Seal for repeating the Statement. We all wish and hope that positive progress will result from the new initiative, if I may describe it like that. My question is whether a novel approach to the problem of the decommissioning of illegal weapons—I use those words advisedly—might be acceptable to all the parties involved. Although the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, pointed out that the situation in Northern Ireland is very different from that in Palestine or South Africa, I think that there are some similarities in the sense that people 593 with strongly held political convictions have felt it necessary to try to defend and to put forward those political principles by force of arms. As the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, also pointed out, the problems did not go away in 1922 with what appeared to be a political solution.
The novel solution that I wonder whether we might advance is to consider whether the word "illegal" might be regarded as the significant word rather than the word "decommissioning". Could we consider the possibility that those arms that are currently considered to be illegal, bearing in mind that a great number of arms are held legally, might in some way be converted into legal holdings? Obviously, strict conditions would need to be applied. The fundamental question is whether the new commission will be able to put forward novel solutions to the problem.
My Lords, the phrase used is:decisions taken last summer and autumn by those organisations that previously supported the use of arms for political purposes",
which implies illegal weapons.
§ Lord Dubs
My Lords, I very much welcome the Statement, which referred to the possibility of setting up a new elected body. Of course, I am not against that, but may I urge caution about the speed with which we proceed? There may well be groups in Northern Ireland which will need time to prepare themselves in order to enter a democratic election. Rushing at it too quickly might debar some of those groups from a fair opportunity.
My Lords, I am sure that everybody will have noted what the noble Lord has said. It is clear that such agreements can proceed only by consensus. I am sure that we are all aware of the very real difficulties that are attendant on that potential course of action.