HL Deb 19 March 1998 vol 587 cc879-88

7.45 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Lord Dubs) rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 2nd March be approved [25th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, we have placed copies of a draft decommissioning scheme in the Library and the Printed Paper Office and, I understand, copies have been circulated to various of your Lordships who take a special interest in Northern Ireland affairs. I hope that this will illustrate the practical side of decommissioning and assist your Lordships in discussing the draft order.

I shall first make a few introductory remarks to place what is a rather technical order in context. This Government believe that resolution of the decommissioning issue in a manner satisfactory to all sides is a key part of the process of negotiations.

We wish to see, as part of the ongoing efforts and to build confidence on all sites, the decommissioning of some paramilitary arms as progress is made in political talks. There is no doubt that the ultimate resolution of this issues will need to be addressed in framing the political settlement to which we are now moving ever closer. Of course, this is a matter which is being discussed elsewhere. But decommissioning, and the draft order we are discussing today, is an integral part of the process of negotiations.

That is why successive governments, both here and in the Irish Republic, have co-operated closely over the past two years to put in place arrangements to enable voluntary decommissioning to take place. We have always recognised that decommissioning on the lines envisaged is essentially a voluntary activity. We cannot force people voluntarily to decommission.

The repulsive sectarian attacks we have witnessed recently; the murder of two young men in Poyntzpass on 3rd March and the subsequent murder of one of the suspects for that crime; the no warning mortar attack on Armagh; and most recently another no warning bomb attacks on a youth club in Lame only renew our determination to find a settlement. Decommissioning must form part of this settlement.

I pay tribute to the vigilance of the security forces in preventing death and destruction at Armagh and for their work in seeking out those responsible for perpetrating these crimes. There will be no let up in this area. I should also commend the efforts of the Garda Siochana in recent weeks who have had numerous successes in preventing attacks and uncovering terrorist weapons.

The draft amnesty period order fixes the maximum duration of any amnesty period identified in a decommissioning scheme. During an amnesty period, a person who decommissions arms in accordance with a scheme benefits from an amnesty in respect of the offences set out in the schedule to the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997.

I emphasise that the order does nothing more than set the maximum duration of the statutory amnesty. It is the non-statutory scheme (which spells out the details of how arms are to be decommissioned) which will set the actual dates of the amnesty. We will do so once a paramilitary group has indicated a willingness to disarm. Sadly, no group has yet done so.

The order is needed because the 1997 Act requires any amnesty period to end before 27th February 1998. Without this order we could not presently set up a decommissioning scheme because, though non-statutory, the scheme is required by the 1997 Act to set out the amnesty period.

The effect of the order before us is that any amnesty period identified in a decommissioning scheme must end before 27th February 1999. It is important that the Government be in a position to implement any scheme without delay. That is why we are bringing forward the order now rather than waiting until there is a proposal for actual decommissioning.

The draft scheme circulated to your Lordships shows how decommissioning could take place. It gives effect to proposals for decommissioning schemes made by the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning. This commission is chaired by General John de Chastelain and has Ambassador Donald Johnson and Brigadier Tauno Nieminen as members. I welcome this opportunity to record the Government's appreciation of their work. The effective and efficient manner with which they carried out their remit and the process of consultation engaged in by the commission has resulted in proposals for decommissioning schemes which were endorsed by the participants in the Talks Liaison Sub-Committee and the two Governments.

As was the case at other stages of this process, there has been close and ongoing consultation between the British and Irish Governments. I hope the draft scheme helps to show some of the practicalities behind the short order we are debating.

In conclusion, as stated earlier, decommissioning of the kind envisaged in the arrangements before us today is a voluntary exercise. It is not in the Government's gift to say when decommissioning will occur. As soon as there are indications that a paramilitary organisation is prepared to commence decommissioning, we shall immediately give effect to an appropriate scheme. This order will enable us to do so without delay.

In the meantime the security forces will continue to search out illegal arms and bring before the courts those found in possession of them. We are determined to pursue every option open to us to rid our society of the large quantities of arms concealed in the community and whose presence poses such a threat to stability and public safety.

The two Governments have, with the invaluable help of the independent commission, played their part in ensuring that all the necessary practical arrangements to enable decommissioning are in place. This order is a vital part of those arrangements. I commend it to the House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 2nd March be approved [25th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Lord Dubs.)

7.53 p.m.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, as the Minister has made clear, this is a short, simple order with a limited purpose but about a topic of the very first importance. The decommissioning of weapons is at the core of the peace process. The Secretary of State called it the base line of the peace process not long before she became the Secretary of State. The Minister said this evening that it played a key part in that process. We all agree with that.

Without it, the talks process and, if it is to become one, the peace process will be essentially unstable at best and probably ineffective altogether. It is quite right that the Government, building on the Act which the previous government put before Parliament, should put in place the decommissioning scheme and should pass this order to enable that to happen when the moment comes. I entirely support the tribute which the Minister paid to those who have worked hard to put the scheme into the form in which it now is under General John de Chastelain.

Of course, what is really required is the political will to put it into practice. That can come only from the paramilitaries on both sides. The original idea was that decommissioning should start before the talks began. That was the original proposal. Then we were told that decommissioning would take place during the talks: it would be progressive and would get going during the talks. The talks are in the final stages and we are now told that there has been no decommissioning. This evening, by this order, we are extending the deadline of the proposed amnesty.

The so-called "loyalist" paramilitaries claim to be reactive only. If the PIRA did not exist, they would not exist. I am sure that we all believe that it depends on the settlement that is reached whether that doctrine holds, but as regards decommissioning, the loyalist groups would certainly have even less excuse for having weapons if PIRA did not. The whole purpose is to have a scheme for the mutual decommissioning of all terrorist weapons.

Sinn Fein still pretends that it is separate from PIRA. If one goes along with that for the sake of argument, whether the shooting and the bombings stop depends on PIRA and not Sinn Fein because PIRA has the weapons. The real question in all our minds at the moment is whether PIRA wants peace. Decommissioning is the test of that. To break down the question into its constituent parts: do PIRA bosses want peace and if so, can they deliver it; would their followers follow their lead? Even some token decommissioning would help to answer those questions in the affirmative. As it is, so far we must assume that the answer is no. I wonder sometimes whether the PIRA bosses realise how important even token decommissioning would be, or would have been, at the beginning of the process. Handing in a weapon or two or a pound or two of Semtex would have changed the atmosphere of the talks for the better. It would not have made much practical difference, as we all know, because they are known to have sufficient stocks of weapons in any event. However, it would have improved the atmosphere, but they were not even prepared to make such a gesture.

As it is, far from handing them in, PIRA weapons have been used very recently, as the Minister reminded us, particularly in the recent mortar attack, it seemed, where the technical details of the attack seem consistent only with PIRA weapons having been used. At present we cannot tell whether that attack was the work of a break-away group or some terrorists still under command. But either way, it was a vivid demonstration of the importance of decommissioning.

Like the Minister, I pay tribute to the RUC and the Garda Siochana for the work that they have done in enforced decommissioning; that is, the discovery of arms. That is another very effective way to remove them from the scene.

We are told that the talks process is coming to an end. The Minister said that none of the groups has been prepared so far to commence decommissioning. Can the Minister tell us, because it is a crucial part of our consideration on how the peace process is going, whether the groups are anywhere near being ready to implement it? Have there been any indications within the talks process that decommissioning will be part of any settlement? If it is not, I do not believe that that settlement would be satisfactory to anybody. But at the same time, we have so far had no indication that that is the way that this particular aspect of the talks process is moving.

Obviously, I support the order and I hope that the decommissioning scheme which has been worked on so carefully is able to be put into effect.

7.57 p.m.

Lord Thomas of Gresford

My Lords, from these Benches, perhaps I may also express appreciation of the work of the international body—Senator Mitchell, Hari Holkeri and General de Chastelain—who have made a substantial contribution to political progress in the Province. It was their report in 1996 which initiated the approach to decommissioning and in August 1997, as a result of their work, the British and Irish Governments were able to assign the necessary independent International Commission on Decommissioning. In September, General de Chastelain was appointed chairman and Ambassador Johnson and Brigadier Tauno Nieminen were appointed members. They have refined even further the ideas which had been previously expressed. We congratulate them on achieving a major step in the peace process by producing the draft decommissioning scheme. It is not only impartial but it is seen to be impartial. That is largely due to their hard work and integrity in approaching their task.

As noble Lords have said, the purpose of the order is to renew the amnesty period set out in Section 2(2)(b) of the Act. The effect of an amnesty will be the statutory suspension of the criminal law. That is a major step. Such a step must not be taken in the mere hope that the process of decommissioning will take place.

There should be no advance in the suspension of the criminal law until there is a positive move by one or other of the paramilitary organisations. The Act is a framework only as is the draft decommissioning scheme now put forward. The real test will be whether the paramilitary organisations will demonstrate their willingness to get rid of their weapons and dismantle their organisations. I have to say that it is not encouraging that so far we are told that not a single paramilitary organisation has come forward.

We must hope and pray that the ongoing talks succeed. It is possible that the two governments and the active participants may be only weeks away from an historic settlement. Indeed, it will be historic because it will express the will of the vast majority of the people in Northern Ireland to bind up the wounds of what is an unhappy and divided society. Essential to the healing of those wounds is the issue of trust. The paramilitary organisations can express their own consent to a settlement by an act of trust by the surrender of their arms. It is crucial to a successful settlement in Northern Ireland that trust be re-established in the democratic process. As the forum for the resolution of dissension, discord and differences, trust rather than the gun must rule. But will the paramilitary organisations take that step or do they delight not in the building of a united society but in the infliction of death and pain for its own sake? This is an opportunity for those organisations to demonstrate that they mean what they say. They have their ideals before them—whatever they may be and whatever form of society they see—but let it be a democratic society. They should avoid their constant connection with the pain, death and suffering which have been inflicted for so long on the people of Northern Ireland.

Although the draft decommissioning scheme is still in draft, I should like to make one or two comments upon it. The notion of a "contact person" as set out in paragraph 4 of the scheme, and as described in later paragraphs, is commendable. The military structures of most paramilitary groups lend themselves to one individual being directly responsible for the decommissioning. If that should happen, it would help to establish responsibility on that person and his accountability to the commission.

I hope that there will be scope for informal discussions between such a "contact person" and the commission before the machinery of the scheme is set in motion by the giving of formal notice under paragraph 7. The conditions in the scheme are necessarily expressed in rather general terms; for example, paragraph 9 says that the contact person, shall provide the Commission with such information as it may require". The words are mandatory: the contact person "shall provide" information. But although the nature of the information to be provided is illustrated by some specific examples in the scheme, the final expression of those illustrations—namely, that the contact person "shall provide" any other "information" required by the commission—sounds to my mind somewhat heavy handed and may give rise to some suspicion. Informal discussions beforehand will allow clarification and will put an end to any fears which may arise about the information to be provided.

Confidentiality is referred to in paragraph 26 and is to be welcomed. We hope that the need for confidentiality will not hamper the release of good news. Above everything else, what Northern Ireland needs is good news. This legislation must not hinder publication of successes. If a single paramilitary organisation comes forward to start the process that will be a victory. It will not be a victory for one side or the other; it will be a victory for common sense, for agreement and for rational compromise over bigotry and extremism. This legislation must work and must be seen to work. The Government may he assured of wholehearted support from these Benches.

8.4 p.m.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead

My Lords, I am sure that we are all grateful to the Minister for the way that he presented the order this evening. We were sorry that, for understandable reasons, he was not able to be with us on Monday when the Statement on the prison murder was repeated in this House. However, it may console the noble Lord to know that he was very ably represented by the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, who now sits beside him. In fact, if I were in the noble Lord's position, I would start worrying about job security.

I take some responsibility for the idea of an international decommissioning body because I was leader of the Ulster Unionist Party when we submitted the idea and the proposal on how the process of disarmament and decommissioning should proceed. I suppose that I was personally influenced by my experiences in Europe at the end of the Second World War. The dangers in accepting surrenders were brought home to me most forcibly on that occasion, when my wing commander and I were ordered by the Supreme Commander, General Eisenhower, to impose his conditions on 9,400 Luftwaffe officers and men at an air base at Flensburg near the Danish frontier. One young German pilot, who was obviously very hysterical, stepped out of the surrender queue, drew his pistol and shot directly at the wing commander and myself. Fortunately the shot went between us. The young man was, unfortunately, shot dead by his own commandant.

which came as something of a relief to us, given the fact that we were in something of a minority at that gathering.

However, there were problems in a wider sphere. German servicemen were most reluctant to part with their firearms, which they wished to retain for the purpose of defending themselves against the Russians, although the war had in fact ended a few days earlier. Then, dyed-in-the-wool Nazis had their own reasons for defying the conditions of surrender and decommissioning. We also had to cope with various resistance movements in several countries, many of which had, unfortunately, set aside their noble aspirations and were determined to stake out their claims for a position of authority in the post-war world.

The average British and American serviceman was not trained in the arts of diplomacy. So, eventually, a control commission was established. That commission succeeded because the Supreme Commander insisted, first, that disarmament must precede all else; and, secondly, that the disarmament commission be broadly based.

When Ken Maginnis and I put those proposals to the last government, we expected—and still expect—those principles established in 1945 to become the necessary precondition for a lasting peace. In 1945 the Allied governments recognised that peace could not be firmly established until all the warmongers were disarmed. Again, in 1945, decommissioning the mines as opposed to the weapons—for example, of SS divisions—would not really have done much to establish real peace in Europe—neither will it neutralise modern thugs and murderers and prevent them inflicting much suffering on all of us at the moment.

Similarly, real democratic structures cannot take root in the absence of disarmament. I believe that there has been general agreement among us on that point this evening. That was also recognised by Mr. John Hume, the leader of the SDLP (the main nationalist party), when he declared that elected representatives cannot sit down with men who have guns on the table, guns under the table and guns outside the door. Therefore decommissioning cannot be what is called loosely a confidence building measure if there is no co-operation nor reciprocity.

If and when decommissioning takes place, there must be progress reports at intervals. I am at one with the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, that confidentiality is important. If there is a perception remaining that the operation is simply bogus, confidence in the ranks of the law-abiding people of Northern Ireland will be nil. If the general public are to have confidence in the scheme, there is everything to gain from the disclosure—as the noble Lord has said—of the amount of hardware and munitions surrendered. I say sincerely that in the next six weeks the Government will have to be clear and honest with the electorate. I should be grateful if the Minister can provide some guidance on this aspect of confidentiality.

I am sorry to have to say that there can be no justification for the current hype about there being an agreement within our grasp. That is the phrase that is tossed around rather unthinkingly. It simply is not true. It may sound good at Washington receptions but realities are not being faced and that is the simple truth. Ten days ago it might have been possible to persuade people to the contrary, and (even in the absence of proof) that a miracle might have happened. That hope of an agreed lasting solution was demolished by Mr. Adams only last week when he announced that Sinn Fein/IRA regards the present talks and the referendum as a mere phase in an ongoing process which will deliver an all Ireland republic.

It was always the understanding of all of us who supported the talks from the beginning, and it was the clear understanding of all who bravely participated in those talks, that there was an aim to achieve—and the hope that this would be achieved—a lasting settlement. We are now told on the highest authority of Mr. Adams that that is not so. We are told that the talks and a referendum on the outcome are a first phase and simply the beginning of a longer and far more dangerous process. He will no doubt accept and pocket any concessions made during what he calls phase one and then drive on to his subsequent phases using the muscle power of the IRA and/or one of its many subcontractors.

Her Majesty's Government and Parliament may soon be forced by paramilitaries to understand the damaging effect of Mr. Adams's phased strategy, particularly—as noble Lords have said—with no decommissioning in sight and no decommissioning at the conclusion of the current talks in perhaps four to six weeks' time.

I hope that I can bring some cheer to noble Lords when I say sincerely that together our Government and all right thinking people and all of us in Parliament will be wise from this moment to do something to lower expectations and abandon what I have called the high wire act of negotiation, which has never succeeded in all the attempts made during the past 38 or so years, and seldom succeeds anywhere else whether in Israel or some other part of the world. Having, I hope, reduced the temperature by so doing, we can then begin the ongoing progress which will stop the unelected continuing to usurp the role of the elected.

8.14 p.m.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I thank noble Lords who have contributed to the debate. I shall try to deal with the specific points that have been made. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Cope, for his support for this measure and generally for the positive comments that he made. He asked whether there had been any indications that decommissioning was likely in the near future, or that some of the paramilitaries were about to embark on a decommissioning process. We very much hope that the paramilitary organisations and their counterparts in the talks process will see the benefits of decommissioning. Certainly the Government hope that some decommissioning will take place. However, I must repeat what I said earlier; namely, we cannot force anyone to decommission; we cannot insist. We must leave it to the paramilitary groups voluntarily to decommission their arms. In that way we shall know that those people have truly accepted the democratic path. Sadly, there is no indication that they are willing to do so at the present time.

I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, for the supportive comments that he made. He asked one or two specific questions based on what I think he called the heavy handed requirement for information by the decommissioning body. The scheme requires that information will be given to the commission because there is an overriding need for the commission to ensure public safety. We cannot have a situation where paramilitaries are destroying their weapons in such a way that that process itself endangers public safety. There are also considerations of verification that decommissioning is actually taking place as opposed to a claim that it has happened.

We have to make the provision of information mandatory because the commission must be satisfied that the "contact person" genuinely wants to decommission. Otherwise there would be the possibility of abuse of the provisions of the 1997 Act, in particular the amnesty and exemption from forensic testing. Therefore the commission must he able to insist on certain information being provided. On the other hand the commission—the noble Lord paid tribute to its members—understands the realities of this all too well. I am confident that in this situation the commission will achieve the right balance between information that it needs and not being too heavy handed or bureaucratic in its approach. I assure the noble Lord that we have confidence in the way the commission will carry out its task and proceed without falling into the trap that he has indicated.

The noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, indicated that he has experience of decommissioning and knows how it works based upon his responsibilities in the immediate post-war period. I welcome the positive contribution he made to this debate by giving us examples of the difficulties that may arise for the commission. He asked about confidentiality. It is important that information be protected if paramilitary groups are to have confidence that decommissioning will not result in their prosecution. This was one of the recommendations of the Mitchell Report, upon which we have based our approach to decommissioning. However, we must also ensure that verification is made clear and unambiguous. The noble Lord also referred to a comment made by Gerry Adams. A number of participants in the talks have made comments from time to time which have not been all that positive and have given other people doubts as to whether we shall achieve a successful outcome.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. I think the point that was also made by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, was that there needed to be some release of information as regards the scale of the surrender, decommissioning, or whatever we may call it. Otherwise, there will be no public confidence in the procedure and there will be no perception that it is working. That is the point that is being made.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I understand what the noble Lord says and I appreciate the importance of it. I think that is a point that the commission will have to take on board: it will have to make sure that as part of the process the participants in the talks and the general public are kept in the picture as to what is happening. I take the point that, if it is happening secretly and no one knows that decommissioning is taking place, there will he a lack of confidence in the process.

I was talking about comments made by some of the participants in the talks to which the noble Lord referred. Reference has been made to the way Gerry Adams views the process. Frankly that is not the way that we see it. We have as our ultimate aim peace, prosperity and reconciliation in Northern Ireland. That has to be our aim. It is the outcome that we seek in the talks.

I conclude by again thanking noble Lords for their helpful and positive comments, which the Government will bear in mind as we proceed with these matters. I am sure that the commission will also hear them in mind in regard to its responsibilities.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until 8.45 p.m.

Moved, That the House do adjourn during pleasure until 8.45 p.m.—(Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton.)

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 8.20 to 8.45 p.m.]