HL Deb 25 February 1997 vol 578 cc1041-7

3.9 p.m.

Read a third time.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Baroness Denton of Wakefield)

My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill do now pass. Since the introduction of the Bill in another place last November, the security situation in Northern Ireland has provided little ground for optimism. On 12th February, Lance Bombardier Stephen Restorick was cold-bloodedly murdered by terrorists. This despicable and cowardly act is one of a series of terrorist actions clearly intended to kill and maim, and it is a tribute to the vigilance and professionalism of the security forces that there have not been many more fatalities.

This background of worsening violence might cause some to wonder about the justification for proceeding with the Bill. In fact, of course, it underlines the need to do all we possibly can to facilitate the decommissioning of paramilitary arsenals and remove the gun and bomb from Irish political life forever.

The Government's message, and the message which they share with all who seek to make progress free from the shadow of the gun, is simple: all violence must stop and stop for ever and the implements of violence must be removed safely, visibly, and for good. And to ensure lasting stability in Northern Ireland there needs to be political agreement, widely endorsed.

It is important to be clear that decommissioning in the context of the Bill is essentially a voluntary process. Any arrangements must therefore secure the confidence of those with arms to decommission. Without that confidence there will be no decommissioning.

But your Lordships may be assured that the Government's overriding aim is to decommission the terrorist arsenals. They do not seek to remove the guilt that terrorists bear for the misery they have inflicted upon the lives of the people of both Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom and the security forces will continue to seek and bring to justice those responsible for terrorist crimes. Some may well find it abhorrent that in this Bill we should be contemplating the decommissioning of the weapon which was used to murder Stephen Restorick. The necessary loss of evidence which decommissioning would entail must be weighed against the opportunity to ensure that the weapons will never be used to murder again. But I emphasise that there will be no decommissioning of the crime itself. Ultimately, the Bill is a question of balance, and I believe we have chosen the right one.

The possibility of a return to full-scale terrorist violence brings home the importance of the Bill, which opens up a different, better prospect for the people of Northern Ireland. Senator Mitchell referred in his report to the need for the decommissioning of minds in Northern Ireland. He concluded that all were agreed on the principle of arms decommissioning; differences could be distilled into the question of timing. That is profoundly true. The tragedy is that guns and bombs are once more being used as an expression of minds which appear for ever locked in the past.

The Bill represents a pledge of the Government's determination to pursue the goal of permanent peace and stability in Northern Ireland.

Moved, That the Bill do now pass.—(Baroness Denton of Wakefield.)

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the Minister rightly says that this is a very important Bill. When it becomes law it will need extremely careful scrutiny in practice. We have to bear in mind that it allows an effective amnesty in criminal proceedings. A decommissioned weapon of whatever seriousness or gravity, however many crimes it was used to commit, will be destroyed; evidence potentially available from it is ruled inadmissible in criminal proceedings; and forensic scientific tests are specifically prohibited.

I asked one or two questions at Second Reading on 30th January and the Minister was courteous enough, as always, to give me a very full reply in her letter of 11th February. That reply was placed in the Library and has also been provided to the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham. The Minister confirms that a weapon decommissioned in Northern Ireland may not be available for use in criminal proceedings in the rest of the United Kingdom. She confirms that in practice all decommissioned weapons will be destroyed, and says, so it will not he possible [with a decommissioned weapon] to tell where and when, if ever", that weapon was used for criminal purposes. The evidence which might have been available will not be available in civil proceedings. I have confirmation from her that there is a question at least about the position of co-accused where there is more than one defendant in criminal proceedings.

I gave the Minister notice of a question I wish to put about the circumstances relating to Lance Bombardier Restorick, killed recently for no other offence than doing his duty. The fact is that he was killed with a single shot from a high-velocity weapon unlawfully introduced into Northern Ireland from the United States. The further fact we need to bear in mind on this occasion is that if that weapon is handed in and decommissioned in Northern Ireland, it is likely to be the only probitive evidence against the murderer of Lance Bombardier Restorick. The effect of the Bill becoming part of our law is that that murder will go unprosecuted and the murderer unconvicted. That is why I have trespassed on your Lordships' patience for a moment or two to indicate the gravity of what we are doing.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

My Lords, I shall be equally brief. I subscribe to the question which the noble Lord, Lord Williams, asked rather than repeat it. At the time we last discussed this issue the noble Baroness was kind enough to take issues about the North Report. I would like to trespass on her time and that of the House to raise a question on the report and on parades. I am sure she agrees that we have 65 very dangerous days ahead of us between now and the putative date of the British general election. We have a deteriorating security situation in Northern Ireland.

I am sure that the Minister also agrees that it is the overwhelming duty of the Government to do everything they can to ensure stability at a difficult and precarious time. When we last discussed this matter three weeks' ago, the Government said that they needed to consult further on the issue of Dr. North's report on parades. I offered from these Benches—I believe my noble colleague did the same—that there would be every possible assistance for the Government from the Opposition parties and that they would be available for consultation to allow conclusions from the North recommendations to be brought forward so that they could be implemented during this year's marching season.

The Liberal Democrats have not had any approach from the Government. I do not know whether the Labour Party has been approached for consultation. I would very much like to hear what progress the Government have made on urgently reviewing Dr. North's recommendations. I do not really apologise for raising these issues because we have so little chance to discuss general matters relating to Northern Ireland as regards decommissioning and a peaceful settlement. We read in the newspapers that there is a proposal to rush into the closing days of this Parliament a proposal for a Northern Ireland Grand Committee. That may or may not be a good thing—there are powerful arguments in favour of it—but I cannot believe that it is a good thing to do at this point. What sort of signal will it give in Northern Ireland to the minority community? Has it been discussed at all with the Irish Government? And is it the right way to proceed?

On both issues the noble Baroness will be well aware that I do not point a finger at the Northern Ireland Office which labours unceasingly in the vineyard of peace and political settlement. However, I do point a finger at the Whips of the party opposite who seem extremely concerned to secure the continuing support of the Unionists at a time when their first consideration ought to be the maintenance of peaceful progress in Northern Ireland.

Lord Alderdice

My Lords, it must be very unusual indeed for a Bill to come to this House from another place virtually uncontested yet with everyone fairly sure that the measure will not be implemented even though it has been passed, particularly on a matter which is so extraordinary—the disarmament of organisations within the United Kingdom.

The reason is not that it is just a practical matter: the passing of the Bill is not just a question of setting up a structure for decommissioning. It is a political matter. It has come to the fore because of a deep absence of trust, not just occasioned by 25 years of violence but also because when the peace process began the terms were set out and the most crucial term of all was acceptance of the principle of consent. When the republicans made clear that they would not accept that principle there was a search for other evidence of bone fides and the matter of decommissioning was turned to. It is a matter of some regret that that became such a leitmotiv, such a significant issue, rather than the issue of consent which is so fundamental.

However, it is to be welcomed that Mr. John Bruton, the Taoiseach of the Irish Republic, has made it very clear that he and his government will demand and require from republicans that they cease their violence for good and that he has emphasised the centrality of the principle of consent. Surely, it must also be welcomed that yesterday in Belfast Mr. Bertie Ahern, the leader of Fianna Fail and of the opposition in Dublin, also made it clear that the republican movement must come to the mountain of democracy—not the other way round. I hope that we can depend not only on the surety of Her Majesty's current Government, but on anyone else who may fill that position later this year, to ensure that there will be an absolute and steady requirement that the republicans accommodate themselves to the principles of democracy, and not any alternative.

These matters apply to us all. The rule of democracy is not something that can be applied to some, but not to others. When we see not only republicans returning to violence, but also those who gather outside the Catholic church at Harryville every Saturday evening now almost making it traditional to shout abuse and to intimidate Catholic worshippers as they proceed to worship their God; and when we see the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party proclaiming that he insists that Orangemen will walk down a particularly contentious route, not waiting for the advice of the police, despite all the difficulties of last year and the year before—we continue to remember that picture of him wagging his finger at the RUC—I trust that the current Government and any future government will insist that the rule of law is maintained and that the rights of all are protected. Without that, there is no future for our community or for the cause of peace.

I trust that no matter of political expediency or difficulty will press any government, current or otherwise, here or in the Irish Republic, to do anything but hold to those principles not only on the matter of the republicans, but also with regard to the Orangemen who have in their own way turned to the politics of political intimidation and street action.

Lord Fitt

My Lords, the Bill has now almost passed through both Houses with the minimum of difficulty, yet it contains all the elements that could cause great controversy among Members of this House, another place, and the people of Northern Ireland. The reason that it has not resulted in controversy is that no one in Ireland, north or south of the border—no one in any of the communities of Northern Ireland—believes that there is any possibility of it coming into force.

On Second Reading I said that there would be great opposition to the announcement that had been made—it has been reinforced today by the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn—that if weapons are handed in for decommissioning, no forensic tests will take place on them to determine whether those guns have been used to carry out murders. I cannot believe that that is right.

Both the Minister and the noble Lord, Lord Williams, mentioned the killing of the young Lance Bombadier only recently. The noble Lord questioned whether, if the weapon that killed that young man was handed in for decommissioning, it could be used to further a prosecution against the person who fired it. That is only one case among the hundreds of unsolved murders in Northern Ireland which have been carried out by both sides—by nationalist terrorists and unionist terrorists. The relatives are still alive. They will bitterly resent any legislation which states that if a gun is handed in, no forensic tests will be carried out on it. That gun might ultimately be the only evidence that could be used in court to convict a murderer, but that evidence will not be available. That means that scores of murderers in Northern Ireland will be told by this legislation, "If you hand in your gun, you will never be tried for the brutal and vile murders you have carried out." I cannot believe that that is right.

At the moment it seems from her remarks that the Minister is living in hope, a hope perhaps destined to die in despair. Since the so-called peace talks began in Northern Ireland, the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, will be able to confirm that day after day, hour after hour, there has been controversy about decommissioning. Absolutely no agreement that would bring about decommissioning can be reached at the forum between the existing political parties. I do not think that any of them believes that it will ever come about. However, I reiterate what I said then and I fully support what has been said today by the noble Lord, Lord Williams. The Government will be taking a very retrograde step if they give an indication that the people who have used guns for murders and handed them in for decommissioning will never be charged with murder. That cannot be correct in Northern Ireland terms.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I know that on many occasions in your Lordships' House, the Motion, "That this Bill do now pass", is not spoken to, but I believe that those noble Lords who have spoken are rightly deserving of a reply. This is a very important Bill. I believe that it is necessary to have it on the statute book. I can report that the Republic of Ireland took its decommissioning Bill through its final stages last week. Both governments are committed to finding a peaceful future for Northern Ireland and, indeed, for the island of Ireland.

I understand some of the frustrations which the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, raised. The rest of us can never ourselves live the suffering of someone who has seen so much violence in Northern Ireland and seen friends and colleagues suffer from it. We sympathise with and understand the noble Lord's concerns.

However, there is a balance to be struck between looking to the future and making very difficult decisions. I emphasise the difficulty of those decisions. We must consider the balance of whether it is better to take a weapon out of commission—there must be confidence in decommissioning if it is to be viable—and thus to ensure that that weapon is never again used to murder as against the chances of pursuing the killers. I would not pretend that the decommissioning provisions will not make it more difficult for the police to pursue their investigations. However, I believe that, on balance, we must protect the future. All of us listened with pride to the Lance Bombardier's parents express their concern that their son's death should not result in more violence in Northern Ireland. I believe that this Bill works towards their wishes and that we should follow it through.

The police will not stop pursuing criminals. We are decommissioning no crimes whatever. As prosecutions are often mounted in the absence of the weapon used and as other evidence of involvement in a crime plays a more central role, we believe that other evidence unconnected with the decommissioning process can be used to support a prosecution. The important point to remember is that our aim is to persuade those in possession of unlawful armaments to decommission them. If they feel exposed they will not participate and arms will not be handed over in any other circumstances.

It is a great pleasure both to me and, I am sure, to your Lordships to hear Northern Ireland voices speaking on these matters. I welcome the commitment of the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, to finding a peaceful solution. It is important to stress that if the republican movement continues to reject the path of democratic dialogue in achieving a peaceful resolution of the problems of political instability in Northern Ireland that dialogue will continue without it. If the republican movement does not make it possible for Sinn Fein to be invited to join the talks process it is essential that the legislative foundations for a suitable decommissioning scheme are already in place. I believe that we would be doing less than our duty if we failed to bring forward this Bill.

The noble Lord, Lord Holme, raised two matters that perhaps fell slightly outside the scope of the Bill. But, as the noble Lord rightly points out, this House has very little opportunity to discuss Northern Ireland issues. It also has very little opportunity to discuss them with so many noble Lords in their places. I am sure that all of us who are involved in trying to find solutions gain a great deal of satisfaction from knowing that there are more people who recognise the needs of Northern Ireland and are working towards meeting them. As the noble Lord said, we have taken the opportunity, instead of making a Statement on the North Report, of discussing it at Second Reading of the Bill. I am sorry that the noble Lord has not been kept up to date with progress but I assure him that I am aware of considerable efforts on the part of my colleagues in moving forward this matter. We are all well aware that the clock is ticking and that these dates come very quickly. People are being consulted on the formation of the commission. There is no lack of urgency. I hope that this is a matter from which everyone learned a lesson last year. There can be no disguising the fact that there must be a sense of urgency.

The noble Lord, Lord Holme, referred to the Northern Ireland Grand Committee. The Government view the existing Northern Ireland Grand Committee as a way of making government in Northern Ireland more accountable and giving MPs from Northern Ireland greater responsibility. The Prime Minister has said that Northern Ireland MPs should be able to question Ministers and scrutinise government policy directly in Grand Committee, meeting sometimes in Northern Ireland. I welcome the opportunity to be directly responsible for answering matters that fall within my portfolio. The Government are likely to bring forward proposed changes in line with recent alterations to the Scottish and Welsh Grand Committees.

We in Northern Ireland work constantly to find movement. We believe that if people are not given responsibility it is difficult to ask them to behave responsibly. We are trying to make progress. It would be wrong to tell your Lordships that it is always easy. But I should like to reassure the House that this is a peace process because that is the way in which the two governments, with the support of the United States Administration, seek to take violence out of Northern Ireland and remove the arms, bullets and bombs. I am sure that if that day arrives everyone in your Lordships' House will celebrate.

On Question, Bill passed.