HL Deb 30 January 1997 vol 577 cc1282-305

5.12 p.m.

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

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

Your Lordships will be familiar with the security backdrop to today's debate. Northern Ireland has continued to experience further serious terrorist incidents since the Bill was last debated in another place, reckless attacks which might all too easily have resulted in multiple deaths—and which have shown an indiscriminate disregard for both the safety and the wishes of the ordinary people of Northern Ireland.

The terrorists retain the capacity and, apparently, the will to inflict untold misery on innocent people, despite the fact that their methods will not shift the position of the Government one iota or break the will of the people of Northern Ireland. Planning and preparation of terrorist attacks and the uttering of threats are not the means by which one assures those whose trust one seeks of a commitment to peace and democracy.

Against this deteriorating security background, your Lordships may well ask what is the practical effect of the Bill before us today. What we are seeking to do is to lay the foundations upon which decommissioning could be built. A start must be made.

That terrorist groups possess an enormous quantity of sophisticated weaponry, explosives and equipment is not in doubt. The question of arms decommissioning has proved contentious and difficult throughout the current political process, but it is an issue which cannot be evaded or fudged. It embodies fundamental principles of democracy. No government can be content with the existence within their jurisdiction of illegal arms which are capable of being used to attack democratic institutions or for other criminal purposes, and which can, and do, result in the death of innocent people, indeed of children.

The Bill is therefore intended to allow the Government to put into effect the guidelines on modalities for the decommissioning of illegally held arms contained in the report of the international body chaired by Senator Mitchell. The body was established by the British and Irish Governments to provide an independent assessment of the decommissioning issue and to report on the arrangements necessary for the decommissioning of illegal arms. It subsequently published its report in January last year. The Government fully endorsed the conclusions of what has become known as the Mitchell Report, which said that decommissioning must be a principal objective of the political process in order to secure progress.

The Bill reflects paragraphs 39 to 50 of the international body's report and gives effect to the six principles which it set down. These were that the decommissioning process should: suggest neither victory nor defeat; take place to the satisfaction of an independent commission; result in the complete destruction of armaments in a manner which contributes to public safety; be fully verifiable; not expose individuals to prosecution; and be mutual.

Accordingly, the Bill now before the House, in parallel with similar proposed legislation which is currently before the Irish Parliament, is designed to provide the statutory foundation for decommissioning, and to enable it to take place as political negotiations move forward.

Perhaps I may now summarise the main provisions of the Bill. Clause 1 defines the term "decommissioning scheme" as a scheme, made by the Secretary of State to facilitate the decommissioning of firearms, ammunition and explosives in Northern Ireland". The decommissioning scheme itself will be non-statutory. This will allow for simplicity and flexibility.

To balance this, Clause 2 adds an important element of accountability to Parliament. This requires that the period during which arms may be dealt with in accordance with a decommissioning scheme must be set out in the scheme. Any scheme will expire one year after Royal Assent unless renewed by order, subject to affirmative resolution, up to a maximum of five years from the date the Act is passed.

Clause 3 requires a decommissioning scheme to make provision for one or more specified ways of dealing with firearms, ammunition and explosives, while allowing the scheme to make provision also for others.

Clause 4 and the schedule provide for an amnesty from prosecution for those who commit offences specified in the schedule when they act in accordance with a decommissioning scheme. The offences concerned are mainly those of a possessory character.

Clause 5 limits the use in evidence of information obtained as a result of the decommissioning scheme. It provides that in criminal proceedings neither a decommissioned article itself nor information derived from it shall be admissible in evidence.

The exemption does not apply where an offence is alleged to have been committed with an article which had already been decommissioned. Similarly, evidence may be adduced on behalf of an accused person.

Clause 6 prohibits forensic testing of decommissioned articles except for tests and procedures for safety and verification purposes. Tests or procedures in connection with the investigation of any offence alleged to have been committed after an article has been decommissioned are also excluded.

I want to make it clear that Clauses 4 to 6 do not constitute a general amnesty. Amnesty is only available in the tightly defined circumstances in which someone is acting strictly in accordance with a decommissioning scheme and only for offences which would be committed as a result. Similarly, evidence and testing are prohibited only in respect of decommissioned arms. Subject to this, there is no amnesty for the crimes committed with these weapons and no prohibition on the investigation of those crimes.

Clause 7 enables the Secretary of State to confer certain immunities and privileges on an independent commission to facilitate decommissioning. The commission will not itself be established by the Bill but by an international agreement between Her Majesty's Government and the Government of the Republic of Ireland.

Clause 8 makes provision for decommissioning schemes in respect of arms, ammunition and explosives in Great Britain. It provides, by order, that any scheme made by my right honourable friends the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Scotland in order to facilitate the decommissioning of firearms, ammunition and explosives in England and Wales or in Scotland, and which includes provisions satisfying the requirements of Clauses 2 and 3, shall be a decommissioning scheme for the purposes of the Bill, provided it is also made for purposes relating to the affairs of Northern Ireland. This secures that a decommissioning scheme shall not be capable of being used as an amnesty by those possessing illegal arms who are not genuinely involved with the decommissioning process.

The Secretary of State may also by order substitute for any offence under the law of Northern Ireland set out in the schedule to the Bill a similar offence under the law of England and Wales or Scotland. That gives my right honourable friends the power to secure the decommissioning of arms, ammunition and explosives in England and Wales, and in Scotland, if, in the light of progress with all-party talks and with the preparation of the Northern Ireland decommissioning scheme, such schemes prove to be desirable.

Clauses 9, 10 and 11 provide for expenses incurred in connection with decommissioning, for the interpretation of certain terms and for the Short Title of the Bill respectively.

In the context of Northern Ireland's affairs, the Government, in common with the vast majority of people in these islands, wish fervently to see an end to the illegal possession of arms. This would represent a very considerable step forward.

Indeed, each successive terrorist attack only serves to reaffirm the urgent need to dispose of the instruments of such destruction. Bombs and guns do not just devastate lives; they destroy hard-won trust and entrench bitterness between those charged with the already formidable responsibility of finding a way forward. The Mitchell Report has provided a template by which agreement on the means of decommissioning arms can be achieved. The Government hope that the political parties will as soon as possible arrive at such agreement and join in putting the report's recommendations into practice.

The process of decommissioning will not take place overnight. The mechanics of the process will be complex and difficult. But begin it must. Deeds must match words if the gun is truly to be removed from Irish politics. The message is simple: all violence must stop and stop for ever and the implements of violence must be removed, safely and visibly, for good. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Baroness Denton of Wakefield.)

5.23 p.m.

Lord Alderdice

My Lords, I welcome the arrival of the Bill presented so articulately by the Minister to your Lordships' House. Like her, I, and I am sure all those present, will regret deeply the fact that the Bill appears to be somewhat academic for the present because of the return of violence and attempts to kill to the streets of Northern Ireland. Indeed, the threat abides throughout these islands and further afield.

The name of the Bill is somewhat curious, for decommissioning is not the term that has generally been used in these matters. Often in the past it has been described as "disarmament". That is the term used in the international body's report to which the noble Baroness referred. In other places it is more stridently described as "the surrender of arms". But like so much in the process to try to attain peace in Northern Ireland, the term "decommissioning" was used in order to try to convey that there was no intent to achieve victory of one over another, but rather, to use a less definite term, "decommissioning", in order to make it easier for those who possessed illegal weapons voluntarily to bring them forth, to abandon them and move towards democratic politics.

That is what decommissioning is about. It is not about the normal and proper process by which the security forces gather information and then embark on searches and raids where they can obtain these materials. Decommissioning is about a process in which paramilitary organisations can give up illicit weapons.

There are a number of requirements. The first, most obviously, is for a ceasefire, not just a ceasefire but a permanent cessation of violence. No one will give up weapons unless he is determined never to use them again. Regrettably, we do not have that situation.

It is also important, if there is to be such a volunteering of materials, that those giving them up do not feel that they are likely to suffer the consequences of the law. They are, after all, holding illegal weapons. Therefore, for the Government to make clear that forensic evidence forthcoming from decommissioned weapons would not be used, is a regrettable but understandable requirement for any reasonable process of decommissioning. It is also important to recognise that, because those who would be called in to deal with such weapons would be dealing with illegal weapons, some protection will be required for members of any international commission and their agents. Therefore, it is a reasonable proposition.

One is asked at times why we should look at decommissioning at all. There are those who would say that in the past, when violence settled down in southern Ireland, there was no decommissioning of weapons. There are those too who say that if we look at peace processes in the rest of the world, decommissioning is not one of the primary requirements. I submit to your Lordships that this is a rather superficial reading, not only of the history of our island but also of the peace processes in other places.

In many cases, the peace processes fall under what I would call a realpolitik model. In it, those who oppose each other are in fact at war, whether it is a civil war or otherwise. The main components of the process in Northern Ireland are democratic politicians and democratic parties working under a democratic system. They represent the majority of people on both sides of the community in Northern Ireland and in the broad centre.

In many of the other situations where a peace process is adverted to, the majority of the population and sometimes the population as a whole is represented by those who are involved in the use of physical violence and the methods of war. If one looks carefully at those processes, it is interesting that one finds in such a context that once people move from war and the use of those materials to espouse the democratic process, there is almost inevitably a requirement that the weapons be put to the side in an organised and regularised fashion so that everyone is working on the same level playing field.

If one looks at the situation in South Africa, there are those who would claim that little was done in regard to weapons there. First, however, attempts were made to do something about it. Secondly, and most interestingly, when the former President de Klerk came to the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation in Dublin, we asked him whether there was anything that in retrospect he would do differently about resolving the problems of South Africa. He immediately responded by saying, "Yes. I would have done more about weapons". Why? Because South Africa is now plagued, thankfully less by political violence than was the case at one time, but by crime, organised and chaotic. It is doing terrible damage to that wonderful country and its people. Therefore, when Mr. de Klerk responded, he was quick to say that that was a lesson he had learnt in that respect. Surely we should learn lessons from others and not seek to learn them at our own expense.

It seems to me that decommissioning is important, but I venture to say to your Lordships that perhaps it has become too central a focus in the process in Northern Ireland. Why? First, it is because after 25 years—indeed longer—there is a deep lack of trust of one side by the other. That applies to both sides. One of the ways in which it had been hoped that such lack of trust could be resolved was to do what had been done in South Africa. Noble Lords will recall that there the two sides reached a memorandum of understanding and a set of principles by which they would all agree to abide: democratic, peaceful, reasonable and constructive principles on which a new constitution and a settlement could be based.

It had been hoped by Her Majesty's Government and the Government of the Republic of Ireland that when the Downing Street Declaration was signed, it was such a memorandum of understanding and such a set of principles by which we could all abide. Key was the commitment that physical force—the use of violence—would not apply. Key also was the commitment that everyone's human rights would be respected and also, in the context of Northern Ireland, fundamentally that what we call the principle of consent would be accepted and that the people of Northern Ireland would decide their own constitutional future.

If only Sinn Fein had found its way to accepting that principle of consent and if only it had been prepared to sign up to the Downing Street Declaration, as every other party throughout these islands had been prepared to do, I believe that the question of decommissioning, while remaining important, would not have achieved such a central focus. When Sinn Fein refused to accept that, they raised the concern in the minds of many in Northern Ireland that they were not about consent and democratic politics but about ratcheting the process forward in their favour and then returning to violence if they did not get their own way. Many people felt that in that context the only way to achieve a sense of trust and conviction of the bona fides of the Republican movement was the decommissioning of weapons.

In that setting the international body was called in to give its view. It came to an ultimately reasonable view. The Unionists required, and every reasonable person would have liked to have seen, weapons set to the side at the beginning of the process and then talks, whereas the Republican movement demanded that they be allowed to hold onto them until the end of the process—something entirely unacceptable to any reasonable politician. In that situation the obvious answer was some form of parallel decommissioning: it would go on during the process.

While Unionists still seem to have an enormous problem in accepting that and while Her Majesty's Government have accepted it, I must express a little regret at the way in which the Mitchell Commission Report was received at the time. I feel that perhaps it was fumbled a little—mishandled a little—and created an opportunity for the Republican movement to avoid answering the question that should have been posed so clearly to them: do you accept the Mitchell Report and all its works? They were able to slip away from that because of a little fumbling about the report.

Perhaps I may say a few words in regard to another report, on which a statement has been made in another place. I am concerned that the report of the North Commission has not perhaps been well handled either. Here there is a set of proposals which are ultimately reasonable. I would say so, of course, because my colleagues and I have been proposing them for many years. Indeed, after what we have come regrettably to refer to as Drumcree 1, we met with the Secretary of State and advised him to set up an independent tribunal for we knew that the Unionists would not accept the word of a Secretary of State and his advice on the matter, nor would they accept what the chief constable had to say. Therefore, an independent tribunal with determining powers was reasonable.

The Secretary of State initially showed an interest, but then became lukewarm. Then came Drumcree 2 and we came back with the proposal. It was clear to all reasonable people that an independent tribunal must be the only way. After all, Drumcree 2 amounted to the refusal of Unionists to accept what the chief constable had to say and there was never any reason to believe that they would find more to their taste what the Secretary of State would say.

Some of us were a little concerned that maybe setting up the North Commission was only delaying the inevitable. Regrettably, the fact that the reasonable proposals announced today have not been fully and rapidly embraced but rather set on the singular timescale of two months seems to us a mishandling. I am very concerned that we may find ourselves arriving at Drumcree 3 without the mechanism in place to mitigate the circumstances there. I say no more than "mitigate". These proposals will not solve the problem. If there are those who will not accept what is right and good and accept the rule of law, they will continue to create difficulties. But I must express my concerns on that matter. How and when one does things are sometimes as important as what one does.

That leads me, perhaps in passing, to say that there is another current matter for concern at home, and that is that the Government have rightly used the opportunities available through television and other advertising means to get across a message that what Republicans are doing and indeed what Loyalists seem to be hedging towards is dangerous, damaging and ultimately destructive of the community. But how that is being done—portraying itself as a form of anti-Nazi propaganda—is very ill advised. It only shows the Government as though they were out of touch with how people feel in Northern Ireland. It appears to be so wide of the mark to many ordinary people that it becomes, as was a previous campaign, something ill advised rather than something that people grasp hold of, recognise as the right message and, when the opportunity comes up in the near future to make their point, do in an informed way.

So I welcome the Bill. Although we shall scrutinise it and ensure that it has the best structure and context in which we can move forward, I hope that it will not be long before we are in a position to see it implemented and the weapons of war taken out of the politics of Northern Ireland. I welcome that. But I also have to issue these words of caution and perhaps invite, if possible, a response from the noble Baroness when she comes to reply.

5.36 p.m.

Lord McConnell

My Lords, Senator Mitchell's Commission reported on 26th January last year. So there has been a year's delay in producing legislation to implement what he recommended. I should be interested to know what caused that delay. Was it because the Government of the Irish Republic were dragging their feet or was there some other reason?

I am delighted to know that the Irish Republican Government have now introduced legislation in their parliament on parallel lines to this Bill. It is absolutely essential that any scheme of this kind should operate in both countries. A large proportion of the armaments and ammunition concealed by Sinn Fein/IRA is in fact stored in the Irish Republic. Therefore, it is gratifying to know that both jurisdictions are prepared to make some move along these lines.

The Bill contains little detail. Therefore, it is hard to make any mature judgment before seeing the decommissioning scheme that is to be introduced by the Secretary of State. We shall have to wait until we see the scheme he produces before we can make a more detailed criticism, but it must provide that members of the commission set up under this Bill—or Act, as it will be then—will receive all the information that they require and that they will be able to go anywhere they wish and carry out any inspections that they consider necessary. Otherwise, it will be of little avail.

As the noble Baroness told us, and as we can see from the Bill, the amnesty is very limited but it needs great care. We are dealing with tricky people who, if they can find any loophole, will exploit it to the utmost. The same applies to the limitations on the use of forensic evidence. That is fair enough, if the provisions are strictly followed, but again there may well be attempts to get round them.

What are the prospects of decommissioning actually taking place? The vast majority of people in Northern Ireland, and certainly I myself, would be delighted for decommissioning to take place. I do not want to be too pessimistic, but I should not like to rely too much on the IRA coming forward and saying that it is prepared to hand over its weapons. The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, mentioned the use of weapons for organised crime. But the IRA is one of the greatest organisations of crime that one can envisage. If it states that it intends to give up violence, we must be sure that that is permanent.

There have been many ceasefires in the past from time to time, but most were used by the terrorists to give a respite for them to reorganise and start on another campaign. We must not be calmed therefore with talk of a ceasefire. We must be absolutely certain that it is genuine and will be permanent.

We must remember that as well as the use of weapons, other activities must cease. I refer to such things as punishment beatings. It is not only the IRA that carry those out; others do as well. Another activity is ethnic cleansing which is taking place in the west of Northern Ireland at the moment. People are being threatened by Sinn Fein that if they trade in Protestant shops they will be severely dealt with. The result has been that a number of Protestant shopkeepers have had to give up their business and leave the area. That should not be tolerated in any democratic society.

Let us hope that the Bill will be able to make some kind of progress. I wish the Government well in their attempts. However, I give the Bill a guarded welcome and wish the Government success in their endeavours. Before I sit down perhaps I can mention that, owing to travel difficulties, it is possible that I may have to leave before the conclusion of the debate. If that should be so, I offer my apologies to the House in advance.

5.43 p.m.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, I must begin with an apology both to my noble friend the Minister and to the House for my late arrival in this debate. It came about because I miscalculated how fast I could move from the Library—it was not as fast as I thought.

As has been said, this is an enabling Bill. It provides the mechanism for the collection of paramilitary arms and explosives. It does not attempt to say when the process should take place or at what point in the negotiations, only how it might be done in a way acceptable to all, verifiable and effective. It is not a triumphalist process but a practical proposition for the day when political decisions are taken. It also provides for amnesty. It is flexible on methods of disposal and even offers a choice of method.

It is difficult to see how Sinn Fein/IRA, still less any advocate of the peace process, could fault action designed to put a working machinery in place against the day, if it ever comes, when it becomes a live issue. The fact that the Irish Government are working upon similar statutory enabling instruments must surely be further proof that this is a wise move and a necessary one; tactical but calculated to increase confidence in the will of both Governments to make things work smoothly and well if and when the real ceasefire—as distinct from yet another tactical move in the IRA's unbroken course of hostilities—finally arrives.

We should leave no stone unturned to ensure that we are not again accused, as untruthfully as we were before, of inaction. There have been differences between us and Dublin, and no doubt there will be again, as to whether the decommissioning process should be in parallel with talks or follow them. But there is no difference between us on the manifest impossibility of expecting any of the parties to negotiate with someone with an Armalite under the table.

I hope that the Bill indicates that among the many concessions we have been persuaded to make we do not contemplate living willingly under the threat of renewed hostilities. Of course it will be said that the IRA can always re-arm. But that takes time and one of the most encouraging new features of life in Northern Ireland recently has been the apparent willingness, if we are to judge from recent ominous threats by the IRA against its own people, of the nationalist community to be not quite so willing to condone and tacitly support—as it has from time immemorial—renewed violence: the fish today have an even more shallow sea in which to swim.

The other side of that coin is the great importance of doing whatever can be done to reduce even the most traditional ceremonies—marches and parades—which could give the IRA the excuse (or indeed the reason) to fan the sectarian flame. I am sometimes accused of being blind to the violence of the Loyalist paramilitaries.

I am not. But I submit that it is the IRA which is at war while the Loyalist paramilitaries are exercising still a considerable degree of restraint; it is not perfect but it is a considerable degree. They know and we know that if Sinn Fein/IRA succeed in provoking them to a serious response, it will be disastrous: we shall be back in the bad old days. Fortunately the Taoiseach, if no one else in the Irish Government, understands the danger and perhaps also the threat to the people of the Republic which could be the outcome of renewed war. He understands that the Unionists, too, feel vulnerable.

I well know that there is much anxiety about whether the talks can continue or whether they are now a hollow process. I do not agree that they are. The longer the parties talk, the nearer they will come to hammering out a modus vivendi. It is not true to say that the Nationalists are not represented there. Nor is it true to argue that if any Sinn Fein/IRA candidates are elected in the forthcoming elections they will have a right to join the talks merely by virtue of their election. The conditions for joining are clearly laid down in the Mitchell principles and Sinn Fein/IRA cannot be there while the IRA continues its campaign of violence. I think, too, that it is a real advantage; that the truth will out.

Gerry Adams is back in the army council, which he never left, and exposed for the liar that he is. The IRA blames us for the end of the ceasefire and accuses us of making preconditions on decommissioning long after the event, whereas it has been clearly demonstrated that Gerry Adams actually attacked the preconditions at the time after a statement by the Secretary of State on Irish radio. The fact that the preparations for the Canary Wharf bomb were taking place while Adams shook Clinton by the hand in Belfast is another telling proof of how the IRA re-writes history and, until recently, was believed.

One of the most encouraging developments in recent times has been that eyes are now open in both Washington and Dublin. The Irish Government have now refused to talk to Sinn Fein, accusing its members of bad faith. The SDLP rejected an electoral pact. Outlining Sinn Fein/IRA's electoral strategy, Martin McGuinness had the effrontery to say that, Sinn Fein/IRA would prefer to be entering the elections in a peaceful environment, but the reality is that we have been robbed of that opportunity". Mr. Adams too speaks with forked tongue, as ever. He said this week that, a negotiated peace settlement is a priority". I would say that only Sinn Fein/IRA can create the conditions for such a settlement, were it not a hollow mockery. The IRA negotiates only through the barrel of a gun. We shall do a great deal better to work through the parties now talking with one another. Let us not forget that they represent the majority. In any case it is impossible to see how the Sinn Fein/IRA agenda, so often clearly set out by Martin McGuinness—"Brits out and a united Ireland"—can ever be reconciled with the known wishes of the majority of the people in Northern Ireland.

Everyone draws the conclusion that the peace process is dead. But so long as the IRA only held a practical truce, it never truly had a life. Now, for the first time, the SDLP may turn away from Svengali Adams and, with others, represent Nationalists in the North who do not want to fight another war. And in the South, the so-called nationwide pan-nationalist bloc will be exposed for the hollow sham that it is. Meanwhile, with many a backward step, the process of talking in the North should go on.

The provisions of the Bill may yet be needed. It is only common sense to have the machinery ready even if it is never needed. It is worth remembering that, as Mr. Bruton told an American interviewer recently, Violence has failed. Decommissioning is not going to happen out of the blue, but we have to create trust. The first step in the creation of trust is an IRA ceasefire". Meanwhile, as he later said in discussing the degree of agreement between his government and HMG, Don't look at the one-eighth of disagreement, but at the seven-eighths of agreement". My Lords, let us build on that.

5.50 p.m.

Lord Fitt

My Lords, I intend severely to limit my remarks because I fear that by going on for longer I would succeed only in drowning the House in pessimism about both the decommissioning Bill and what has happened in relation to the publication of the North Report today.

Over many years of taking part in debates, both in this House and in another place, I have returned to Belfast only to be met by people representing both sections of the community who have said, "Gerry, do you not think it is a waste of time talking over there?" Sometimes they were right, and many times they were wrong, or the other way round. However, I fear that they may be right on this occasion.

Knowing Northern Ireland as I do, and having Northern Ireland blood running in my veins, I honestly do not believe that we shall ever see decommissioning in Northern Ireland. One has only to look at the debates that took place in another place, at Second Reading, Committee stage, Report and on Third Reading, to see the antagonisms that exist among the elected representatives in relation to the question of decommissioning of arms. One has only to read the press reports of what took place at Stormont the day before yesterday—where they are allegedly talking peace and trying to grapple with the problems that beset Northern Ireland—to see what happened there.

I have just heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Park, and I have read in the reports that the decommissioning Bill is a mechanism for bringing about decommissioning. I have always been disappointed with anything that has been designated as a mechanism. There are many Catholics in Northern Ireland and on the island of Ireland who believe that Confession is a mechanism for getting to Heaven. None of us has ever been able to prove that.

During the past three or four days I have spoken to many people on all sides of the House and have tried to tell them what the decommissioning Bill is all about. Yesterday, I was discussing the Bill with one of my friends in the House, the noble Earl, Lord Munster. I was discussing with him in the Library the contents of the decommissioning Bill and how it is meant to take arms out of the political equation in Northern Ireland. He listened to me with amazement and said, in the words of a well-known BBC television programme, "How do they do that?" That is a question everyone will have to answer. How do they do that?

It will not be an easy undertaking. Those who were elected quite recently in Northern Ireland had a mandate from the population. They are now sitting at Stormont trying to bring about peace. However, they were very nearly beating each other up the day before yesterday. I honestly cannot see decommissioning coming about. There are very real fears in the Northern Ireland community.

The noble Baroness who introduced the Bill has shown more sensitivity to the problems of Northern Ireland than many of her predecessors. I am sure she must realise the great suspicion, fear and mistrust that exist in Northern Ireland, particularly among the majority community. Not one of the spokesmen of the majority community to whom I have spoken believes for a single second that the IRA will be prepared to hand over weapons. Unless that happens, not only the decommissioning Bill but the whole peace process will fall into abeyance.

The noble Baroness, Lady Denton, skated very quickly over Clauses 3, 4, 5 and 6 of the Bill. Those clauses are sending the Unionist population in Northern Ireland to the Sea of Tranquillity. They believe that the clauses represent an amnesty for murderers. There is also the question of forensic tests. A gun may be found and it can be proved that the gun killed six or seven people in some of the awful crimes that have taken place in Northern Ireland over the years. It will be said, "We've got the gun. We may know who it is. But he has given us the gun so we will have to give him an amnesty". There are people in Northern Ireland who have lost their loved ones. They will never be prepared to accept that the murderers of their loved ones should go free. With all the fear, mistrust and suspicion that exists, it is a very inopportune time to try to introduce a Bill of this description.

The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, referred to similar situations in South Africa and in other parts of the world. The South African situation was essentially about human rights and the dignity of man. It was a fierce fight against apartheid, with all the injustices that apartheid involved. In Northern Ireland there is one big difference. The constitution of Northern Ireland is at stake. The IRA is intent on taking Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom. That has been fiercely resisted by the people of Northern Ireland. That is the one big difference that sets it apart from South Africa. The one situation which may be similar is the conflict between the Greeks and the Turks in Cyprus. Again, there is the question of who are the rightful owners of the land. In Northern Ireland, the ethos, the culture and the identity of one community is pitted against the other. It is totally and absolutely tribal. It was said at the Committee stage of the Bill in another place that there is a pan-Nationalist front—meaning the Irish Government, the SDLP and Sinn Fein—and that, in contra-distinction to that, there is a pan-Unionist front, with all the Loyalist parties. The conflict is totally and absolutely tribal. In that situation it will be very difficult to build up any semblance of confidence between the two communities. So the forensic tests will be a huge hurdle to get over.

The Mitchell Report rightly lays down a basis on which there possibly could be some form of agreement on the handing over of arms. I sometimes become a little irritated when I hear all the talk of the arms that are held by the IRA being decommissioned. There are plenty of arms on the other side, with the Loyalists. Those arms have committed some terrible atrocities in Northern Ireland.

Rarely have I felt more incensed at an action of the Government than I do this evening. As regards the manner in which the North Report was dealt with by the Government in another place, I cannot express too strongly my objection to the way that it was presented and the attitude taken by the Minister in presenting it. The report has been put in abeyance for two months. The noble Baroness knows Northern Ireland far better than any of her predecessors. She must know that two months is far too long a gap in Northern Ireland, because we shall be into Easter and the whole marching ethos will once again have come to the fore.

I suggest that the commission should begin work tomorrow morning and work with all haste to try to do everything possible to prevent those marches and the confrontation that is liable to arise in a very short period. I say this to noble Lords on the Front Bench this evening: why was that Statement not made in this House? It is of such importance to Northern Ireland that it should have been made in this House. It should not have been restricted to the other end of this building. This House should have been allowed the opportunity to express its sentiments on the contents of the report. Was it offered to the Front Bench? Did the Government offer to have it debated in this House? Was it offered or was it refused? This House is part of the legislature of this country. We were entitled to express an opinion on the report. If the Statement was offered and refused, I say to the noble Lords on the Front Bench that they have been conned.

Would the present Government have taken the view, "This year is a hot potato; this is a very dangerous report; it is going to cause massive trouble when the marching season starts so we will defer it until after the next election and let the incoming government deal with it"? The Government may have thought that there will be a Labour government so they can deal with something that the present Government have been dealing with for 17 years. That is not the way to try to grapple with the problems of Northern Ireland.

I urge the Minister, even at this late stage, to make representations because they could mean life or death in Northern Ireland in the approach to the marching season. The Commission should go into action immediately and take whatever urgent steps are necessary to prevent another Drumcree which happened in July. There is March, April, May and June to get through. We have many sensitive situations to get through and the Government should begin to grapple with them with the urgency that is required.

6.3 p.m.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her introduction to the Bill and for a short but extremely valuable debate in your Lordships' House. This is clearly a very bad time in Northern Ireland. Anyone who follows affairs knows that tension is rising again and that we are sliding back towards the chasm which, a year or two ago, we thought we were emerging from at last. We have elections coming up in the United Kingdom shortly and in the Republic of Ireland in the autumn. Generally, elections are not good for progress towards peace.

I was very struck by what the noble Baroness, Lady Park, said. I believe it is true that Sinn Fein/IRA are isolated. It is striking that the American administration are now refusing visas to Gerry Adams for St. Patrick's Day. It is striking that the Taoiseach and the Irish Government have cut off all official contact with Sinn Fein/IRA. In my view they are still not as isolated as they should be as a result of the behaviour they have exhibited over the past year.

My noble friend Lord Alderdice referred to the wrong turning taken by the Government at the time of the Mitchell Report. It was at least very serious wrong emphasis by the Government at the time of that report; it was not what I call a "win-win strategy". In the context of Northern Ireland, "win-win" is the terrorists deciding that they are going to change their ways and join the peaceful parties in constitutional talks or being isolated outside the community of those who believe in peaceful and constitutional progress. We have not really quite achieved that. There is still ambiguity which results from the fact that the Mitchell principles were not totally and properly grasped at the right time by the Government.

It may be academic to discuss a decommissioning Bill at the moment. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, with his great knowledge and experience, probably believes that it is even futile. I do not take that view. The Bill is a reminder that there is a better way. Certainly, from these Benches, we shall support it. We are grateful for the work of Senator Mitchell and his colleagues. Let us hope that the Bill will be available if and when it becomes relevant and useful again. Although, as my noble friend says, we may have what I hope will be constructive and relatively minor amendments from these Benches, we shall be supporting the passage of the Bill through the House.

Incidentally, the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, talked about Northern Ireland being totally tribal. I do not think that he is being completely fair. That may be true of too much of the political leadership of Northern Ireland. However, if one considers the opinions of ordinary people in Northern Ireland and the role honourably played by the Alliance Party, I do not believe that it is possible to say that people are always and inevitably in one of two camps.

I have been encouraged by the noble Baroness to believe that she will take some observations and questions on the issue of the North Report, which several noble Lords have raised. Perhaps I may now refer to that. I too very much regret that we did not have a Statement in this House and a chance to discuss it. I have had an opportunity to skim through the report. It comprises three large volumes and is an extremely impressive report on a very complex matter; namely, the question of marches and parades.

The report is based on extremely wide consultation in a rather limited period of time. The commission had 93 meetings and received over 250 submissions from groups and individuals. It contains a very wise statement: [The] future doesn't just happen: people have to create it". The Government have received the report and their position on the central proposal, which is the crucial issue of the decision-making powers of the commission, appears to be that, first, the Government have no opinion either way and, secondly, they want to have consultation until the end of March, following consultation with 250 groups and individuals and 93 meetings.

The noble Baroness knows how consistently I and these Benches have supported the Government and her own efforts to create a lasting peace in Northern Ireland. But the Government's behaviour over the report is stretching goodwill too far. Is the Minister aware that the marching season starts in two months' time? Is she also aware that in the survey of public opinion which Dr. North and his colleagues carried out, where the option of local accommodation is not possible, by far the most popular option with Catholics and Protestants alike is an independent commission? That is the very proposal which Dr. North made and on which the Government say they have no view either way. I am sure that the noble Baroness is aware that the general election campaign in this country will start—if the Prime Minister's favourite date of 1st May is the one on which we vote—within about 24 hours of the end of the consultation period of two months which the Government are now proposing.

Is the noble Baroness aware of the feeling in Northern Ireland after Drumcree about the betrayal of the rule of law and the triumph of what amounted to mob rule? Is she further aware that on Monday of this week all the quality newspapers carried reports, based on government briefing, indicating that the Government would not back Dr. North's recommendations? Clearly, the Minister is aware that that is what has now happened. Finally, is she aware that this is not unnaturally a matter of great concern today in the Republic of Ireland and that the Tanaiste has made a statement urging the Government to adopt the proposals immediately?

Instead of "creating the future", as Dr. North and his colleagues enjoined the Government to do, the Government seem to be abdicating responsibility at a crucial moment. Like other noble Lords, I am extremely concerned about that. Therefore, I should like to ask the noble Baroness specifically whether the so-called "consultation" can be speeded up? Incidentally, if the Minister is to rest on the argument used in another place that Dr. North said that the Government might want consultation, 1 must advise her that in the same passage he also said that it is urgent that we get on with this. So if there is to be consultation—I am still at a loss to understand why that should be—why could it not take place now, over the next two weeks or so? If we are talking about consultation with political parties, I can advise the Minister that my party will make itself available at any time and will give any help it can to the progressing of whatever measures are necessary to implement the recommendations of the North Report. However, I must also advise the Minister that if the Government do not shorten the timescale and do not get on with this, the impression will be almost universal—in Northern Ireland, in the Republic of Ireland and in the wider world—that they are trying to kick this issue into the long grass until after the general election. That would be an absolute tragedy.

6.11 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, one of the great milestones in the modern history of Northern Ireland was Senator Mitchell's report and its well-known six principles. I could not agree more fundamentally with the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, when he pointed out that a year has gone by and that many people who live in Northern Ireland feel—I am sorry to say that in my opinion this is a justified feeling—that the impending general election is allowing drift and inaction to stymie any sensible prospect for any further progress. I have to agree with the noble Lords, Lord Fitt, and Lord Holme of Cheltenham, that that is not fair behaviour; it is not responsible government behaviour; it is supine behaviour.

The Bill is welcome. Its introduction has been too long delayed. Senator Mitchell's report, which was of very great quality, pointed out that paramilitaries were unwilling to decommission before the talks started and that it was unacceptable to wait for decommissioning until the end of the talks. What he said—this is a useful quotation to recall and remember—was: As progress is made on political issues even modest neutral steps on decommissioning could help create the atmosphere needed for further steps in a progressive pattern of mounting trust and confidence". Many of those opportunities have now been lost. I do not think that anyone could say that the Labour Party has not been responsible in its approach to these matters. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Holme, pointed out, one cannot endlessly follow when one sees disaster looming. Dr. North's report is a first-rate document.

The noble Lord, Lord Fitt, asked why the Statement was not repeated in this House. That is a perfectly reasonable question and I hope to offer a straightforward answer. It was because we were going to have the opportunity to discuss the matter this evening. Indeed, we have more opportunity to do so this evening because none of us is time-limited in our questions. That was the decision that was taken and I hope that it will be regarded as an honourable decision. Statements offer very little opportunity for questions whereas we are not time-limited this evening.

The marching season starts on 31st March. It is wholly unacceptable for the Government to have adopted their present stance. The Government say—I quote from the Secretary of State's Statement: It would not in our view be right for government without further consultation to reach a decision on so fundamental a proposal". But why not? I would submit that it is not right for the Government not to reach a decision on so fundamental a proposal.

Paragraph 13 of the Secretary of State's Statement in another place states—this is the crystallised conclusion of the Government presently in power: It therefore expresses no opinion either way upon it". That is a monstrous dereliction. It is a complete abdication of one of the important functions for which the Government were elected. If it were a matter which applied and was relevant to England and Wales, there would not have been the long grass into which the Government feel invited to kick this particularly difficult ball.

I join other noble Lords in urging the Minister—she knows that I do not say this in any criticism of her, but she is the only Minister available to us—to ask the Secretary of State to consider again whether or not he has made the wrong decision. It is very important that the commission should start work at once. It is very important that the commissioners should be carefully chosen—and that they should be chosen from those with knowledge of Northern Ireland so that one does not have the well-known occurrence of people being drawn from outside Northern Ireland to deal with Northern Ireland matters. There should be wide consultation—I am sure that the Minister can assure us that there will be—among the trade unions, the political parties, the churches, the Law Society and the Bar Council. However, in our view it is wrong for further delay to be tolerated. What is the view of the government in Dublin about the delay? Were they consulted? What was their response?

I leave Dr. North and turn now to the Bill. As the Minister said—I am obliged to her for her explanation—Clause 1 does not set out in any detail how the scheme is to work. Has the Minister any further details to offer us? I am perfectly happy, as always on these occasions when focused questions are asked, to have the Minister's response in writing if that is more convenient, bearing in mind her responsibilities.

I see that Clause 7 specifically includes the Government of the Republic. We believe that to be a step in the right direction. Has there been any discussion with the government in Dublin about the commissioners with respect to the decommissioning process? Have there been any tentative thoughts about who the commissioners will be? What is their nationality to be? What are their qualifications to be?

Clause 2 extends the scheme for a maximum of five years. Can the Minister at some stage—not necessarily this evening—give us some indication of the Government's thinking on that? As I have said, I shall be happy to have those answers in writing and I know that the Minister, with her invariable courtesy, will circulate those answers to all noble Lords who have spoken this evening.

I turn now to Clause 3. What verification is there to be? I take it that the decommissioning scheme will make provision for the destruction of weapons in the Republic under the provisions of Clause 3(1)(a) and (b). I take it that that is right. Who are to be the commissioners who will carry out the verification in the Republic?

Clause 4 is an amnesty—let there be no doubt about that. I believe as a matter of principle that all amnesties need to be scrutinised with great care. This means that there is an amnesty for such serious offences as the handling of explosives (under the Explosives Act 1875); the hiding of weapons (under the Criminal Law (Northern Ireland) Act 1967); and the possession of a weapon at work—this is sinister enough—under the Health and Safety at Work (Northern Ireland) Order 1978. It includes offences as deeply serious as the direction of terrorist organisations and the possession of items intended for terrorist weapons (under the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions Act) 1996). It includes the very wide inchoate offences of aiding, abetting and inciting terrorist activity. We must not gloss over the fact that amnesties require careful scrutiny and are very wide in their consequences.

As the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, has pointed out, we need to scrutinise in some detail the precise phraseology of these clauses. We wish the scheme to work and will offer only constructive amendments. However, in Clause 5 there is a disqualification of the reception of evidence from decommissioned articles, or information derived from them, in respect of criminal proceedings. Can such information be used in civil proceedings? That is quite an important question. If those who have lost their relatives or friends see that no criminal proceedings are launched in respect of the murders spoken of by the noble Lords, Lord McConnell and Lord Fitt, this clause will not disqualify them from suing. That matter must be looked at. The disqualification refers only to criminal proceedings.

How is Clause 5(3) to work? Subsections (1) and (2), which deal with non-admissibility, shall not apply to the admission of evidence adduced in criminal proceedings on behalf of the accused, but what happens if there are criminal proceedings in which there is more than one accused whose interests do not coincide? One defendant may want the admission of evidence because it exculpates him but inevitably implicates his co-accused. These are not idle questions but very important issues as to how the legislation will work, if it ever becomes law.

We also need to consider Clause 6. Subsection (l)(b) forbids absolutely any forensic testing of a weapon. One understands the necessity for ballistic tests on ammunition or weapons, but it specifically rules out the fingerprint examination of weapons. What happens if someone who is charged with an offence wishes fingerprint testing to be carried out by a forensic scientific laboratory to demonstrate innocence? That is not a fanciful question. It was for that reason that I began my remarks by suggesting that the Minister might wish to consider these matters because they were of some intricacy.

Clause 8 refers to England and Wales. What is the position in regard to a weapon or a terrorist artefact that has been used to commit relevant terrorist offences both in Northern Ireland and England and Wales? What will be the position in respect of evidence that is derived from those items? That needs some thought. For example, if a weapon had been used in an atrocity in Northern Ireland but had also been used in Canary Wharf, Warrington or Hammersmith in slightly different circumstances, would the evidence become non-admissible in respect of every location where that weapon was used? None of these questions is put in a partisan way, but the Bill is drafted so widely that one must be careful about its operation in practice. I am sorry that I have taken 12 minutes, but this Bill raises very important questions. I reiterate that the scheme is welcomed in principle. That such a scheme is required in practice is inevitable. We shall look at it very carefully in the spirit of helpfulness.

I must not sit down without referring to the noble Viscount, Lord Long, who has just joined us. He is always present on Irish occasions. It is his birthday today. It is only right that I should publicly offer him the present that I privately offered earlier today; namely, that if he wishes to vote against his own Government more than once a month he is perfectly welcome to do so.

6.24 p.m.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Williams, for his final comment. I believe that noble Lords on this side of the Chamber were trying to ignore that fact!

I am extremely grateful to noble Lords for their commitment to Northern Ireland and their input into the debate tonight on the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Bill. I repeat the comment of the noble Lord, Lord Williams, that it is very important that the people of Northern Ireland are involved in discussions in forming the future of Northern Ireland, as we see increasingly in your Lordships' House.

I should also like to confirm the statement of the noble Lord, Lord Williams, that there was discussion about not taking the Statement on the North Report in your Lordships' House on the basis that I was very happy to take all comments on this matter and it could be done in a more reasoned and thorough manner than a straightforward request for information, which is the governing factor in relation to Statements. I hope the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, believes that I would never allow this House to be placed outside the parliamentary process.

We have discussed two matters in the overall question of how to move towards a peaceful future for Northern Ireland. I shall try to answer many of the points that have been raised by noble Lords. The noble Lord, Lord Williams, very kindly drew my attention to the fact that I would have to come back to him in writing on the issues that he raised, many of which were legal points. But I believe that he made it clear in his questions that, however widely and all-encompassing this legislation was drawn so as not to leave out any opportunity, it was very important that the detail should be based on straightforward legislative facts. I look forward with some interest to the amendments that have been mentioned.

The noble Lord, Lord Williams, also answered the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord McConnell; namely, why there had been a delay in bringing forward this measure. The noble Lord, Lord Williams, drew attention to the enormous amount of detail that had to be looked at in bringing forward this matter. I can assure the noble Lord that there has been no delay. We have moved ahead with the drafting of this Bill alongside the Irish who have drafted theirs. I hasten to assure the noble Lord that there was no dragging of feet, whatever sounds he may have thought he heard. We had to ensure that we had similar provisions and that there was no hiding place for terrorists and their weapons.

The structure and layout may be different because of constitutional differences, but we want to ensure that the outcomes are the same. We agree with the Mitchell recommendation that decommissioning should occur during all-party talks. It is our firm intention that we should be ready to put the schemes in place as soon as it appears that there is a willingness by terrorist groups to decommission their weapons. From the legislative point of view, I am pleased to say that the bringing forward of this Bill at this time has not held up anything. I speak as a person who loves and lives in Northern Ireland. I am glad that your Lordships have not put me under intense pressure to bring forward this measure earlier. I suggest that one of the major causes of the delay is the inability of Sinn Fein to put itself in a position to sit at the table and join in the talks in a peaceful manner.

I should like to discuss the concerns that have been raised in relation to the North Report, which was published today, and the Government's Statement in another place. I begin by reminding your Lordships of the Government's response. The Government welcome the report. We will immediately establish a parades commission with a conciliation, mediation and educative role in time for this year's marching season.

The noble Lord, Lord Fitt, said that we should be ready to go ahead with the commission tomorrow. I assure him that we are ready to go ahead tomorrow in a search for the commission, but finding the right people who will be prepared to take part, even in Northern Ireland where people so willingly give up their time for the greater good, will not be achieved overnight. We shall move as fast as is practicable. I have no hesitation in assuring your Lordships that the Government are focused on moving as quickly as possible. We will immediately begin consultations on wider decision-making and the related powers recommended by the report. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Holme, for his confirmation that he and his colleagues will make their input on this available as soon as possible.

We are conscious that we have a heavy responsibility to take the report forward on the basis of the widest possible agreement within the community. The message noble Lords have given me this evening is that there must be agreement on the solution to the whole issue.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I urge upon her and her right honourable colleague the desirability of reading carefully the attitude survey which was commissioned, which shows clearly that if local people cannot reach an accommodation, which is of course by far the best option, easily the most popular option among the people of Northern Ireland, both Catholic and Protestant, is this decision-making independent commission. The Government should pay more attention to that than any other factor.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Holme. We have not ignored that. We have taken it into consideration. I stress that the setting up of such a body needs primary legislation. We are talking about giving it powers of adjudication. It will have to come through Parliament. As my right honourable friend said in another place, it will be put through as a Bill not an order because it is necessary to have full discussions. I shall ensure that the views expressed in this House tonight are drawn to my colleague's attention. That is always the case, but I shall convey noble Lords' strong feelings to my colleagues.

The aim is to press ahead with the necessary legislation. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, that we do not even have at the back of our minds the thought of there being a Labour government after the election. But it would be unrealistic of us not to recognise that the election and the timescale that noble Lords identified will complicate the issue. We shall take every opportunity to implement the recommendations as soon as possible.

I assure noble Lords that the consultation will not duplicate the already extensive consultation that has taken place. It is right that I pay tribute—I am sure noble Lords join me in this—to the people who so nobly took on this task, and produced a report which we all have yet to read in detail. It is obviously a report of great value and quality.

Were we casually to say, "This is what we shall be doing tomorrow", that would not reflect the important, difficult and complex nature of the problem that we are tackling. The noble Lord, Lord Fitt, rightly pointed out that matters have gone on year after year. He asked why we think decommissioning will work. I say to him that it is better not to work to the lowest common denominator of pessimism but to try always to move forward.

The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, drew my attention to his views on the report. I thank him for the gentle way in which he expressed his criticism of something about which he obviously feels strongly. That was courteous of him. I stress that if the conciliation, mediation and educative role does not start this evening, it will certainly start tomorrow morning. The consultation exercise will be precisely focused. To move decision-making to another source is a radical and far-reaching proposal.

The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, and my noble friend Lady Park rightly drew attention to the fact that Sinn Fein is sending no messages which would encourage people to have trust in them. Any ceasefire which would allow them back to the table has to be genuine. Their current activities give no one any confidence in their aims.

The noble Lord drew attention to the situation at Drumcree 1, as it has become known, and Drumcree 2. I believe he will agree that the activities last year at Drumcree were unprecedented in Northern Ireland. Therefore criticism that it was not foreseen is hard to make, because no one had expected that to be part of Northern Ireland's future. Again, we continue to press on with discussions and dialogue in the hope that answers will be found.

The noble Lord, Lord McConnell, is worried about whether the Government are as firm as he would wish in rejecting those who propose violence as an answer. I assure him that no one could be firmer. My noble friend Lady Park drew attention to the fact that we have seen significant changes in the attitude of the Americans and the Irish Government to Sinn Fein during the past year. I believe that those changes are the result of experiences which we have seen in Northern Ireland for many years. They have learnt the hard way that this is not a problem that can be solved merely by the hand of friendship. That has been rejected. The Government are grateful to the American and Irish governments for their support in attacking violence in the Province.

I am sorry to say that the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, was pessimistic. In bringing forward the Bill, the Government are trying to ensure that they do not hold up the process of finding a solution. I assure him that no one is suggesting that murderers should go free. With many offences now, no weapon is identified, but the convictions go through. There is no amnesty for criminals. There is a neef—the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, identified this—to be practical if decommissioning is to work. I am pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Holme, recognised that in many instances the chiefs were following the Indians in the desire to reach a compromise through dialogue and discussion. I wish that "compromise" were not a dirty word in Northern Ireland. It is essential that we recognise that it must be part of the solution.

The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, commented on the stories which are currently going around the Province about advertising from the NIO. The NIO has rightly requested and received information from the public. The campaign requesting that the public share their knowledge in order that we can win the battle against violence has had a tremendous response. Perhaps one of the chinks of sunlight in recent weeks has been the need for Sinn Fein to reaffirm its threats to those who are involved in violence. That means that the community must be sending out strong signals not only to us but to Sinn Fein that its way is unacceptable.

I assure your Lordships that a comparison of the situation with that in Nazi Germany before the war has not been discussed by Ministers and I must express concerns. It is not a message which paints the true picture of Northern Ireland. The Government and the majority of people work towards a harmonious atmosphere and achieve that in many areas. Unfortunately, the minority has the high profile.

The discussions of that issue at national level were not helpful to those in my team who are working so hard to bring investment and growth to Northern Ireland. As Minister for Tourism, it was with great regret that I opened my national newspapers to read another negative story about Northern Ireland. Of course we have problems, no one denies that, and of course we have so much to do. However, we must not spread the message of fear. It is not something one feels immediately one steps off the plane, although the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, was right to draw attention to the real core of fear that exists among some communities. We must not venture to extremism, but promote moderation and working together.

The noble Lord, Lord Williams, suggested that the lack of progress in talks was due to some weakness—I suspect that he would have used the word "wetness"—on the part of my Government. Those who sit at the talks recognise that there have been constant attempts to make progress. The negotiations have been complex and difficult and I pay tribute to the patience of those involved. The framework exists for advancing the process and we do everything in our power to make it possible.

The noble Lord also asked why the Bill does not set out details of the decommissioning scheme. At this stage, it is not possible to finalise detailed arrangements. The parties to the talks also have an interest. We shall have to fine tune the arrangements to take account of the views of those who hold the weapons. However, the parties to the talks will be heavily involved in defining the parameters within which a scheme must operate, provided that the requirements of Clause 3 are met whereby a scheme must include one or more of the four listed ways of decommissioning; transfer, depositing for collection, provision of information and destruction by persons in unlawful possession. If verification is not believable, verification will not work.

The noble Lord wondered why there was a five-year time limit. It is considered to be practical. The Bill sets aside certain criminal offences because any scheme will be non-statutory. The five-year limitation allied with the need for annual renewal, by order, beyond one year is a way of ensuring parliamentary scrutiny, which is very important. That does not underestimate the lengthy path on which we have embarked. Furthermore, the five-year limit does not mean that we expect the process to last five years, nor does it mean that we intend it to last five years. We would like to see progress and we would like to see that issue dealt with.

The Bill provides for an amnesty from prosecution in respect of certain mainly possession-related offences for those acting in accordance with the decommissioning scheme. The amnesty will be available only to those acting in accordance with the detailed arrangements specified in the decommissioning scheme. It is intended to protect those who commit offences through their participation in decommissioning.

We are trying to build a path down which people can travel and on which we can make progress. The noble Lord rightly drew attention to all the legal aspects involved and I will write to him in detail. We, alongside the Irish Government, will need to consider carefully who should comprise the independent commissioners. It is absolutely key that we do so. However, the Irish Government were not consulted on the North Report. No doubt they will form their own conclusions and make them clear to us.

Your Lordships covered many points of concern. However, I can always be certain that we in your Lordships' House are working towards a common aim; that of ensuring that there is a peaceful future somewhere on the horizon for Northern Ireland. The Irish Government share our determination to attain agreement on the Bill, which deals with a most difficult and complex issue.

Agreement on decommissioning would transform the prospects for political progress and I believe that in due course it is achievable. The opportunity is there and it must be taken. In bringing the Bill to the House, I am endeavouring to give us the ability to achieve that. I ask your Lordships to give the Bill a Second Reading.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.