HL Deb 17 November 1998 vol 594 cc1232-6

9.31 p.m.

Lord Dubs rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 16th November be approved.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, before we commence our consideration of this draft order, it may be for the convenience of your Lordships if I inform the House that it was considered earlier today by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. It was passed without comment and is detailed in Report No. 48, which is available from the Printed Paper Office.

The effect of the draft order is that the Loyalist Volunteer Force will no longer be specified as an organisation individuals affiliated to which are ineligible for the benefit of the Northern Ireland Sentences Act 1998. That benefit is the early release of prisoners convicted of terrorist-type offences. If an organisation is specified, members of that organisation do not qualify for early release.

The draft order shows that the organisations which remain specified are the Continuity IRA, the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) and the Real IRA. The draft order has come about as the result of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State keeping such organisations under continuous review. That review of our earlier judgment of the organisations to be specified has taken account of the ceasefires called by the LVF, the INLA and, more recently, the Real IRA.

While we have concluded that no additional organisations should be specified, that conclusion remains under that continuous review. For example, we are seriously concerned by the continuing levels of violent paramilitary assaults and intimidation. Such cruel, arbitrary and brutal attacks—such putting of people in fear—has no place in any peaceful society.

Once again, I call upon all political parties and all persons of influence to use that influence on the paramilitary organisations to bring to an end these unjustifiable activities once and for all. If we obtain evidence that such activities are being conducted by a paramilitary organisation which is currently not specified, then we will review that organisation's status. Obviously, if an organisation becomes specified, then prisoners who are affiliated to it become ineligible for the early release arrangements. Those already released on licence would be recalled if they became reinvolved in terrorist activity or remained supporters of the specified organisation.

As to the organisations which are now specified in this order, the Continuity IRA has not declared a ceasefire and so must, of course, remain specified; the Real IRA called a complete ceasefire on 7th September—a welcome development but the worth of that ceasefire will have to be proved in word and deed over a longer period of time. It is obviously too early to remove from the list the organisation responsible for the Omagh atrocity. There were 29 dead, and hundreds injured. I can assure the House that, even if the Real IRA were to be despecified, anyone convicted of offences committed after 10th April will not be eligible for early release under the sentences Act, which applies only to offences committed before that date.

The INLA, too, remains specified since we are not yet persuaded that its ceasefire is complete and unequivocal. The ceasefire was called on 22nd August and, like the Real IRA, the INLA needs to demonstrate by word and deed its commitment now and in the future to exclusively peaceful and democratic means to pursue its objectives.

That brings me to the LVF. We are now satisfied that it has established a complete and unequivocal ceasefire and over a significant period of time—since May of this year—has demonstrated that that ceasefire is being maintained. Our decision that it should no longer be specified also recognises the significant contacts which the LVF has made, via an intermediary, with the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning.

As I have said, these issues are kept under continuous review, taking into account all the evidence available and all the factors prescribed in the sentences Act. We are working to ensure that, as the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland have indicated, there is no future for violence; it must be consigned to the past. The future must lie in peace; in following the democratic path; and in acknowledging other people's rights. Arguments can and should be settled through discussion and consensus, through the rule of law, not through perpetual distrust and recourse to arbitrary and brutal violence. I commend the draft order to the House.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 16th November be approved.—(Lord Dubs.)

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, the Minister will recall that during the passage of the sentences Bill I was keen that the connection in the agreement between all its various parts should be spelt out more clearly in the Bill and carried out in practice. That did not happen in the Bill. It is not now happening in practice either, with the result that the prisoners have had no incentive to argue for decommissioning which seemed to me to be one of the main things that might cause it to happen.

The order appears to allow LVF prisoners to be released without the LVF decommissioning, although I heard what the Minister said about its talking to the decommissioning commission. If the Minister can tell us anything about actual decommissioning by the LVF, how likely that is and on what kind of timescale, that would encourage me to support the order.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

My Lords, we support the order. I think it is right to offer the prospect to paramilitary organisations that, if they desist from violence and change their ways, they will be despecified. I am glad that, in taking this action with regard to the LVF, the Government have concluded that it will not be possible to apply the same reasoning for a long time to the Continuity IRA. I am sure the Government are right.

Perhaps I may raise a point which was implicit in what the noble Lord, Lord Cope, said some minutes ago. The situation in Northern Ireland is now becoming very acute. Unless we see the first step on decommissioning being taken very soon by the IRA, the whole process in which we in this House and, far more importantly, the people of Northern Ireland have invested so much hope will come seriously adrift.

Under the Belfast agreement, decommissioning must be complete within 18 months from now. If republicanism in Northern Ireland is serious about a peaceful future, it must be in its interests that the first step on that 18-month journey is taken very soon. We in this House must make it absolutely clear to Sinn Fein and the IRA that, if the process is to survive, it is now time to demonstrate the good faith implicit in the agreement and to take the vital first steps which are so necessary to reassure public opinion in Northern Ireland.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead

My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Holme, who has got the matter exactly right. A united message must be sent to all terrorists, of whatever brand, that they must cease their activities and dismantle their capacity to continue terrorist acts.

It is not clear as yet whether the LVF, with which we are concerned this evening, intends to dismantle its command and control structure in addition to giving up arms and explosives. Were it to do so, it would set a very compelling example to other terrorist bodies. However, the IRA has excluded itself, most notably through the mouth of Mr. Martin McGuinness, who only last week stated with all the authority of his unique position that the IRA would not do it. The chilling finality of that decision cannot be ignored. Despite all the concessions and rewards of the past seven months, the IRA has no intention of complying even in the remaining 17 months with the specific undertaking given by it and all the terrorist organisations under the Good Friday agreement. Yet it seems to many that Her Majesty's Government persist in building unsound structures that will end up as mere memorials to the folly of believing that the IRA will ever relinquish its capacity to threaten, force or blackmail democratic governments into maintaining that precious conveyor belt of concessions on the scale to which it has been accustomed.

Surely, there must have been great disillusionment over the decision of Sinn Fein/IRA to force a nationalist Catholic football team to withdraw from a fixture to play a team from the Royal Ulster Constabulary. To their credit many young members of that Catholic team have bravely described how they were threatened by IRA gunmen. They were told that if they played in that league they would become victims of the knee-cap treatment which would mean that they would never play football again. What a signal to send to young sportsmen who are merely trying to improve the climate thought to be implicit in the Good Friday agreement.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, I should like to put two questions to the Minister. First, what is Noraid's current position in relation to the Continuity IRA? It was reported that the week after Omagh Mr. Galvin visited the Continuity IRA in Dundalk in order to discuss further funding. One wonders whether the Americans have taken that on board and done anything about it. The Americans have influence.

Secondly, has the conspiracy legislation passed in September enabled us to act with the Garda to seize arms dumps that are known to exist in the Irish Republic now that the Republic has a part to play under the agreement in very many of the decisions of Northern Ireland? Is the counterpart of that that action of that kind will be taken? If we cannot persuade the IRA to give up its arms, surely we can take away the arms.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I am grateful for the comments that have been made in this short debate. I deal first with the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Cope, and other noble Lords about decommissioning. Noble Lords will be aware that there is no direct linkage between decommissioning and the release of prisoners. However, we have made it clear that decommissioning is an integral part of the agreement. We look forward to the LVF making a start on decommissioning in the very near future. This applies to all terrorist organisations.

The Government see no reason why decommissioning should not start now. We have made it very clear that there must be decommissioning of paramilitary weapons. We are not in the business of setting new preconditions or barriers, as the Prime Minister said at Balmoral. The Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act, together with the Northern Ireland Bill, with which we have just dealt, provides for the implementation of the agreement as an overall package of which decommissioning is an essential part. We cannot rewrite the agreement by introducing new pre-conditions. What would stop the other parties to the agreement from making new linkages and setting new pre-conditions? The best way to achieve decommissioning—the only way to achieve it—is by the full implementation of the agreement by all parties concerned. As I stated a few moments ago in the debate on the Northern Ireland Bill, the Government have played their full part in implementing the agreement. We call on all other parties to the agreement to do likewise.

I was asked a question about Noraid. I am afraid that I am not able to give an answer as to whether Noraid is providing money for the purchase of arms by terrorist organisations.

As regards the question asked on the emergency legislation passed in September, I do not believe that that is directly related to arms dumps or finding arms. Indeed, I am satisfied that we have long had the necessary powers to find arms, as have the Garda in the Republic. In the past few months the Garda has made many significant arms finds in the Republic and in the border areas. Indeed, it was not that long ago that they intercepted a car carrying explosives about to be brought over to England. So I think that the Garda has had successes. I am sure that they will continue to be assiduous in trying to identify arms. I believe that that is not directly related to the legislation we passed in September, which had a different purpose.

On Question, Motion agreed to.