HL Deb 08 May 2000 vol 612 cc1221-33

4.19 p.m.

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Lord Falconer of Thornton)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State. The Statement is as follows:

"I will, with permission, make a Statement about recent developments in Northern Ireland, and the declaration issued over the weekend by the Provisional IRA.

"On 11th February, I took the decision to suspend the political institutions which had been established barely 10 weeks earlier under the Good Friday agreement.

"I did so reluctantly, for reasons with which the House is familiar. If I had not done so, there would not only have been a collapse of the institutions, but a total collapse of confidence within unionism, from which the political process would not have been able to recover for a very long time.

"From that moment in February, we and the Irish Government have worked closely, at all levels, to restore the situation. As at so many crucial points in the past, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister and the Irish Taoiseach have committed time and energy on a scale that must be unprecedented for busy heads of government. I have kept in close touch with the Irish Foreign Minister. There have been intensive discussions with the parties, in the most constructive atmosphere. I would like to thank officials in both governments whose efforts have been tireless.

"Our aim has been to achieve the clarity about the IRA's intentions which was noticeably lacking in February; by doing so to rebuild unionist confidence; and thereby to re-establish the institutions.

"This could not be done quickly. Suspension was a bruising experience for all concerned. Unionists were disappointed that expectations raised during Senator Mitchell's review were not fulfilled. Republicans, and indeed many nationalists, saw great symbolic significance in a British Secretary of State acting to suspend local institutions as I did. People of good will on all sides were saddened that arrangements which had promised so much had proved impossible to sustain.

"If unionists need the confidence that the IRA is genuinely committed to the path of peace and willing to put its arms beyond use, republicans need to know that the vision which the agreement offers, of a just and equal society in which both traditions are respected, will actually be realised.

"We and the Irish Government therefore drew up an account of the remaining steps necessary to secure the full implementation of the agreement. Details were communicated to the parties on Saturday morning. I am placing a copy in the Library.

"The two governments believe that these steps can be achieved by June 2001. In a statement published on Friday evening, we have committed ourselves to that goal.

"The two governments also called on the paramilitaries to state clearly and urgently that they will put their arms beyond use.

"For our part, we the British Government indicated that such statements would constitute a clear reduction in the security threat. In response, subject to assessment of the threat at the time, further substantial measures to normalise security arrangements will be taken by June 2001.

"I am not yet able to say what initial measures will be taken. The Chief Constable is considering in consultation with the Army the situation in the light of the IRA statement with a view to what might be done now and in the period ahead if and when the threat reduces. I assure the House, as I have done before, that the security of the public will continue to be my highest priority. There is no question of trading essential security interests for political progress. But equally there is no doubt that the statements of the kind I have described impact positively on the assessment of the threat.

"As the House will know, the IRA made such a statement on Saturday afternoon. In the context of the governments implementing what they have agreed, the IRA committed itself to, 'a process that will completely and verifiably put arms beyond use'. "That is not maybe, not might, but will. It went on: 'We will do it in such a way as to avoid risk to the public and misappropriation by others and ensure maximum confidence'. "In the same context, the IRA committed itself to, 'pursue our respective political objectives peacefully'. "The statement further committed the IRA to resume contact with the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning, under General John de Chastelain. It noted that the IRA's arms are `silent and secure', and that there is no threat to the peace process from the IRA.

"In addition, the statement committed the IRA to put in place within weeks a confidence-building measure to confirm that its weapons remain secure. Independent inspectors will scrutinise a number of arms dumps and report to the de Chastelain commission. It will be an ongoing process, with regular re-inspections.

"It is important that we now hear, in similar terms, from the main loyalist organisations.

"Since the IRA made its statement, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach have announced that Mr Martti Ahtisaari, the former President of Finland, and Mr Cyril Ramaphosa, the former Secretary General of the African National Congress and now a prominent businessman in South Africa, both widely respected international figures, have agreed to head the inspections. I am pleased to be able to announce that they will pay their first visit to Belfast next Monday, and I am grateful to them for their speedy response at such short notice.

"I regard the IRA statement as a very significant development.

"For the first time, there is a commitment to put weapons completely and verifiably beyond use, in a context which is realistic rather than simply aspirational. There is a real prospect of actually achieving decommissioning—no longer just talking about it, or setting conditions for it which make its realisation less likely.

"There is a more clear-cut assurance of the IRA's peaceful intentions than we have ever heard before. And, as an earnest of these intentions, there is an unprecedented willingness to allow independent third parties to inspect arms dumps containing weapons, explosives and detonators and vouch for their continuing security. An essential element of the scheme is that the process should be continuous, to provide reassurance that dumps have not been tampered with, and weapons have not been removed, between inspections.

"The right honourable Member for Upper Bann has acknowledged the significance of the IRA statement, and the fact that it appears to break new ground. Not surprisingly, he wishes to examine it carefully, and weigh its implications.

"That is entirely understandable. He will also want to be confident, as I will, that in moving forward with the agreement, the traditions and concerns of the unionist people will be respected and dealt with sensitively, just as much as the traditions and concerns of nationalists.

"I believe that all friends and supporters of responsible forward-looking unionism will conclude that the proposals I have outlined today, buttressed by the weekend's statement by the IRA, provide the conditions on which he can lead his party back into government.

"On the basis of such a positive response to these proposals, not only from his party but all the proagreement parties, I can confirm to the House that I will bring forward the necessary order to restore the Northern Ireland Assembly and its Executive by 22nd May.

"In this event, I feel hopeful and confident that the ultimate prize—stable, inclusive government in Northern Ireland and an unbreakable peace—will at long last be within our grasp".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.28 p.m.

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made by the Secretary of State in another place. I am particularly pleased at the possibility that once again we shall be able to restore democracy to Northern Ireland and that the Executive will be reinstated. It was suspended by the Secretary of State with the full agreement and support of my party. I believe that without that action we would not be where we are today with the kind of opportunities that are now ahead of us.

Although I welcome the IRA's commitment to, 'a process that will completely and verifiably put arms beyond use', I have to be a little cynical. However, this appears to be a step forward. It does indeed appear to go a step further than the IRA has ever gone before. That gives us hope. I should also like to make the point that the so-called loyalist paramilitaries are notably silent. I hope that they will come to the table soon.

However—rather cynically again, perhaps—I believe that we are observing a life-and-death game being played by some of the best spinners in the world on a very sticky wicket. As an Ulsterman, while sincerely hoping that we are watching the end game which will terminate in peace and good will for everyone, I do not believe that life in Northern Ireland is like that. I still need and have to ask for reassurances. I have a number of questions that I should like the Minister to answer.

While welcoming arms and Semtex being put beyond use, how can the Secretary of State guarantee that they will never be used again? That is a serious process. The Sinn Fein Statement refers only to a number of arms dumps being open for inspection. What percentage of the IRA's total armoury will this represent? What is the follow up for the remainder?

Can the Minister again reassure the House that, despite any agreements made recently between the Prime Minister and the Taioseach—I know that this is in the Secretary of State's statement—the process of security normalisation will continue to take into account the threat, as advised by the Chief Constable and the GOC, and that security reductions will not take place for political reasons?

What will constitute a default by the IRA? In the case of an IRA default, what action is the Secretary of State prepared to take? Will the Minister confirm that in the event of a default he will not hesitate to suspend the institutions once again?

The Unionist Party will require answers to these questions. It may not be clearly understood by all of the population of this country, but we are talking about confidence and trust that has been shattered, shattered and shattered again over the past number of years.

The IRA statement refers once again to this process being about removing the causes of conflict—by which it means partition and the British presence. Will the Minister confirm that the acceptance of the Good Friday agreement means accepting the legitimacy of Northern Ireland's position as part of the United Kingdom, and that there can be absolutely no question of that changing without the consent of the people?

Finally, the road to a Northern Ireland settlement has been long and hard. We are still moving—and we are still moving forward—thanks to a great deal of hard work and the patience of many, many people. But no one should be surprised if there are many, many more miles and late nights to go. However, we on this side sincerely hope that the statement from the IRA and this Statement from the Government mean that the future for Belfast and the people of Northern Ireland once again looks as though it might return to normality, and that the people there will be encouraged and morale raised.

4.33 p.m.

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, for repeating the Statement made by the Secretary of State earlier today in another place. I apologise for not being here at the beginning of his speech.

Potentially, the Statement provides the greatest cause for optimism since the Good Friday agreement itself that real progress can now be made in achieving a lasting peace in Northern Ireland. It offers a welcome reprieve from the two steps forward, one step back fandango that has exasperatingly characterised the process over the past two years. The prospects for agreement outlined in the Statement mean, it is to be hoped, that the iron law of history, which has scuppered hitherto all initiatives for peace, is itself about to be sundered. Let us hope and pray that such proves to be the case.

Much of the credit must go to the leaders of the pro-agreement parties. They have worked extremely well during the time since the suspension of the Assembly and the Executive. Most importantly, Sinn Fein has responded to the needs of the situation, which became very acute following the reimposition of direct rule. From all sides of your Lordships' House and beyond went the call for a positive move on arms by the IRA, and Sinn Fein appears to have achieved that. The IRA assurance that its ordnance is no longer to be used for violence and that its neutralising is to be regularly verified by respected international authorities is welcome, if overdue. We on these Benches salute the maturity and skill shown by the three largest pro-agreement political parties during the difficult period since the suspension of the Assembly.

We are grateful also for the efforts made by successive Secretaries of State, all of which have contributed to this apparent breakthrough. The present Secretary of State, Mr Peter Mandelson, has clearly brought his special expertise to the problems raised in the aftermath of suspending the fledgling Assembly. It was a fearful gamble which he has pulled off; he deserves our congratulations. We hope, too, that other paramilitary organisations will respond positively to this IRA statement. But much still needs to be done in the case of Northern Ireland. I hope that the rumours are wrong and that Mr Mandelson is not soon to be reshuffled.

While peace is a necessary prerequisite, the real goal is to see the establishment of authentic, democratic politics in Northern Ireland. The substance of the Statement makes that a real possibility, which all of those who have Northern Ireland's best interests at heart must pray for. The opportunity must be seized. We trust that the forthcoming meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council will support Mr Trimble in the stance that he has taken. I should like to ask the Minister whether he has any information in regard to other paramilitary organisations following suit.

4.37 p.m.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I am grateful for the general tone of the statements made by noble Lords from the two Opposition Front Benches; for their recognition of the potential significance of what has happened; and for echoing the remarks of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State in another place that it is important that we now hear in similar terms from the main loyalist organisations.

Perhaps I may deal with a number of the questions raised in the course of the noble Lords' remarks. How can we be sure that the weapons will never be used again? The significance of the Statement is that the IRA leadership has said that it will initiate a process that will completely and verifiably put IRA arms beyond use. So it is committing itself to putting IRA arms beyond use. How that will be done technically is a matter for discussion between the IRA and the decommissioning commission. The IRA also states in its statement that it will resume contact with the Independent International Commission on decommissioning and enter into further discussions with the commission on the basis of the IRA leadership's commitment to resolving the issue of arms. So how it will be done—the technicalities and modalities of it—is a matter to be discussed with the decommissioning commission. What percentage is envisaged? It is envisaged by the commitment that the IRA's arms will be put beyond use.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, wished me to emphasise that decisions about security are to be made on the basis of the threat that exists at any one moment and not on the basis of trading security measures against political process. I am happy to give him that assurance. As he rightly said, that assurance was given in my right honourable friend's Statement in another place. There is no question of trading essential security interests for political progress.

I was asked what the position would be if there was default by the IRA. Under the statement there is a commitment by the IRA to decommissioning coupled with a commitment to the confidence-building measure of allowing an independent inspection, repeated by regular verifying inspections, of arms dumps. That is the commitment that must be looked at. Let us hope that that is what the IRA does. It would be unwise to say what the consequences of not doing it would be. Let us look to the future. The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, asked me to reiterate that the Good Friday agreement depends on the principle of consent. Of course I reiterate that.

I think that I have dealt with all of the questions raised by noble Lords on the Front Benches.

4.40 p.m.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead

My Lords, given that the Belfast agreement committed all of the participants to exclusively peaceful means, how do Her Majesty's Government regard this morning's announcement by Mr Adams that his IRA standing army will be retained in perpetuity? Why should a political party in government in Northern Ireland need a standing army? With that goes the fact that some of the IRA's weapons will be stored and protected. Only some, because the Statement itself says that only a number of the dumps will be inspected. Lastly, how do Her Majesty's Government justify that glaring betrayal of those who supported the Belfast agreement, not least Mr Trimble and his colleagues?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, the IRA statement contains two things: first, an unequivocal commitment to decommissioning; and, separately from that, there is a commitment to a confidence-building measure; namely, the inspection of the arms dumps by the independent observers, Mr Ahtisaari and Mr Ramaphosa. Those are two separate things. It is not being suggested that the inspection of the arms dumps is the decommissioning. That is a confidence-building measure. What is significant, apart from that confidence-building measure, is the commitment itself to decommissioning, something we have not heard before from the IRA, as was recognised by the noble Lords, Lord Glentoran and Lord Smith.

As to the statement made by Mr Adams, to which the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, referred, unfortunately, I do not know of that specific statement and so I am not in a position to make any comment on it. What is clear from the IRA's statement is that it will initiate a process that will completely and verifiably put IRA arms beyond use. That is a significant step forward.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I congratulate the Government on having got this far, even though there are still hurdles ahead, and I wish David Trimble and John Taylor good luck in the coming days. David Trimble will have to draw again on his reserves of courage and tenacity to see him through the next stage of this important process. Can my noble and learned friend say anything about paramilitary attacks, whether carried out by loyalists or republicans, which have been a scourge on Northern Ireland? I very much hope that the agreement, when implemented, will see an end to these deplorable attacks, which have caused so much pain and suffering to many people there.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his remarks about where we have reached. I share with him the recognition that there are many hurdles ahead. I deplore with him the paramilitary attacks. I very much hope that the effect of the statement and the developments over the weekend will lead to a reduction in the number of paramilitary attacks.

Lord Renton

My Lords, in recent years the Government of the Republic of Ireland have played a valuable part in helping the United Kingdom Government to achieve peace in Northern Ireland. Can the noble and learned Lord confirm that on this occasion too the Government of the Republic have played a valuable part?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I most certainly can. As the Statement made in another place revealed, it was the governments jointly setting out what they thought were the necessary steps to implement the Good Friday agreement that was the start of this recent stage in the peace process.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, will the noble and learned Lord accept that, as someone who for 25 years was involved in counter-terrorist operations on three different continents, no one wishes more than I do to see this peace process succeed? But will he also accept that it would be very unwise to place too much credence on the unequivocal assurances of terrorist organisations? That way may lie disaster.

Perhaps I may repeat three of the questions which have been raised in your Lordships' House today but which will need answers that will satisfy not only the unionists in Northern Ireland but most of the population of the country whose lives are at risk as much as anyone else's from the operations of the terrorists. First, do we know that all the IRA arms are in the dumps that are being opened to inspection, or are there other dumps with weapons in them that will not be seen? Secondly, is there any way in which it is intended that these weapons should be immobilised, by removing such things as firing pins and fuses, so that they could not be used even if they were removed from the dumps? Finally, how will the dumps be guarded so that if people change their minds about the unequivocal assurances they cannot descend on the dumps, remove the weapons and use them? I do not ask the noble and learned Lord to answer those questions today but can he at least give an assurance that the Government will demand unequivocal and satisfactory answers to those questions before they carry this process any further?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, perhaps I make clear what the effect of the IRA statement is. It is an unequivocal commitment verifiably to put beyond use the IRA's arms. That is the unequivocal commitment to decommissioning. Separately from that, as a confidence-building measure, is agreeing that the two independent observers should be given access to inspect weapons dumps and that they should thereafter be able to inspect them regularly. It is not being suggested that the inspection of the weapons dumps constitutes the decommissioning, but it is a measure designed to build confidence in the process. There are two separate things in this statement, both of which represent a significant way forward. In order to deal with the commitment to decommission, there has to be a verifiable way in which the arms are put beyond use. That is what the IRA committed itself to in the statement. How that is done is a matter to be determined between the IRA and the decommissioning commission.

Lord Jopling

My Lords, will the noble and learned Lord explain what appears to be a contradiction in the Statement? He began by telling us that there was an unequivocal undertaking to put the arms beyond use. Then he went on to say that there would be continuing inspection of the arms dumps to ensure that none of the weapons was removed. If they are beyond use, what would be the purpose of removing them?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I obviously have not made my position adequately clear. The statement from the IRA is saying that it is giving two separate things. The first is an unequivocal assurance to put its arms beyond use; in effect, an unequivocal commitment to decommissioning. Separately from that, as a confidence-building measure, it is agreeing to the inspection of arms dumps by independent inspectors. It is not suggesting that that equals decommissioning. It is simply a confidence-building measure so that the process can begin and people can have confidence in it. We are not suggesting for one moment that the inspection process of the arms dumps equals decommissioning. It is being put forward as a confidence-building measure.

Lord Blease

My Lords, I am very pleased, indeed grateful, for the way in which the Opposition Benches have accepted the Statement. The approach is constructive and offers hope for the measures that lie ahead. I believe that the Statement makes it possible to achieve honest and effective working relationships in Northern Ireland and to promote measures to achieve honourable, just and lasting democratic political institutions which will bring about effective government in the Province.

I should like to comment on one reference in the Statement. It is most reassuring that the Secretary of State made this point; he was aware of how people would feel. He states, I assure the House, as I have done before, that the security of the public will continue to be my highest priority. There is no question of trading essential security interests for political progress'. Those are the most potent lines in the Statement. I look forward to enjoying the days ahead when people will work together to meet the need of the people in Northern Ireland for hospitals, work and the care of children. Those essential matters have been neglected for so long.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his support for the Statement. I thank him also for drawing attention to a very important part of it.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, the Minister has been extremely patient while being pushed on a particular point. However, the worry about the phrase "beyond use" is not merely semantic; it relates to the realities. Is it synonymous with being prepared to destroy the weapons or with being prepared, under whatever supervision, to destroy them or surrender them to some other body? Presumably, "beyond use" can equally mean one of those two things: either the weapons are surrendered, on whatever terms the IRA is prepared to accept, to some other body of its choice or to an agreed body; or alternatively, they are destroyed. The phrase "beyond use" worries a number of us. It seems to have some hidden definition, probably known only to the IRA and Ministers.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, as I have said, the IRA has made a clear and unequivocal commitment to put arms completely and verifiably beyond use. That is what the decommissioning Act required. The Act states that arms must be destroyed or made permanently inaccessible or unusable. The IRA has said that that is what it will do. I do not think that there is any sinister meaning as suggested by the noble Lord.

Lord Merlyn-Rees

My Lords, during the first 10 years of the 30-year problem in Northern Ireland, the Army were in charge of security; the RUC was swamped. From 1978, and increasingly, the Chief Constable and the RUC have been in charge of security. Given the announcement made by my noble friend about the role of the two prominent figures from outside the country, what role will the Chief Constable play? Will he be brought into all discussions? He is the one to decide whether he is satisfied with the security arrangements.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, as I hope the Statement makes clear, it is for the Chief Constable to make the security assessment. Perhaps I may repeat, because it is extremely important, that there is no question of trading essential security interests for political progress. The question of what level of security is required is to be made entirely on the basis of the threat. As has been made clear, if the situation changes in terms of the peace process, that might have an effect on security decisions; but ultimately., it is for the Chief Constable, in consultation with the security forces, to determine the level of threat and make appropriate arrangements.

Perhaps I may take up the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Marsh. I am told that the phrase used in the decommissioning Act is "beyond use", the same as that used in the IRA statement.

Lord Redesdale

My Lords, the fact that the statement made by the IRA is one of the clearest that it has made for a number of years has to be seen as a good sign. IRA statements in the past have been criticised for the nature of the semantics used; that is why this statement has to be seen as a good sign.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his comment. There is no doubt that this statement is very significant indeed.

Lord Fitt

My Lords, in the negotiations that took place behind the scenes before the issuing of this statement, was any pressure used on the IRA as an organisation to show its bona fides in this area? From now until June next year, will it stop the knee-capping and the murderous attacks on individuals? The IRA has said in its statement that its arms are silent and secure. Tell that to young people in Northern Ireland among whom there are almost daily knee-cappings. The IRA has said that it wants to build confidence. Will the Minister suggest to it that the best way to build confidence in Northern Ireland is to take steps to prevent such murderous attacks? Will the Minister put a suggestion to the IRA? If it intends finally to decommission by June next year, in the run-up between now and then are we to accept that the IRA and loyalist paramilitaries will be able to carry out such attacks on civilians? Would it be possible after 22nd May, when the institutions are brought back into being, for the IRA to reciprocate by, for example, putting Semtex out of its control? That would build confidence within the unionist community that the IRA means what it says.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, as I said in answer to my noble friend Lord Dubs, we deplore all paramilitary attacks of whatever sort. We very much hope that they will be reduced as a result of what has happened in the past few weeks.

As I have indicated, the commitment made in the IRA statement is unequivocally to put weapons beyond use. How precisely it is to be done is a matter for discussion between the IRA and the decommissioning commission.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord has emphasised two different points over and again: first, the confidence-building measure—namely, the inspections; and secondly, decommissioning. As I understand the timetable announced in the Statement, the date given being 22nd May, it is unlikely, to say the least, that any decommissioning per se will happen before that date.

Confidence-building measures would have to include inspections over the border in the Irish Republic as well as in the North. Otherwise, I doubt that they will provide the confidence that the noble and learned Lord and indeed I would like.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, the commitment in relation to the confidence-building measure is in respect of inspection by the two named people of existing arms dumps. Where that inspection takes place depends on where the dumps are. I should have thought that they are most likely to be in the South.

Lord Laird

My Lords, I am one of those who believe that there has been a limited move forward in the exercise over the weekend. However, I endorse much of what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, and others. I am one of those who, together with a number of other Members of this House, will be making the decision, as part of the Ulster Unionist Council, about Ulster Unionist participation in the Executive. I should like the Minister to be aware that there is not yet sufficient clarification. The answers given today have not clarified much. I should like the Minister to explain what exactly is meant by the word "some"—the phrase "some dumps" is used. We have not received clarification on that extremely important point.

There also seems to be confusion over part of the Statement and the answers given as to whether this is a question of "beyond use" or "decommissioning". The point requires clarification. These are the kinds of issues that we must sort out. Last year the Ulster Unionists bought a second-hand car which did not start. We shall be much more careful next time we buy a second-hand car from the same dealer. I believe that people expect us to do nothing less.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, we understand that the confidence-building measure will involve arms in three dumps which most likely will be in the South. The dumps will contain a substantial amount of weapons, explosives and detonators. There is no suggestion that these are all the dumps, because this is a confidence-building measure. Those dumps will be inspected by the named independent third parties who will then report to the commission on decommissioning.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, I speak as an unrepentant, unqualified admirer of the Government's initiative in the peace process. I also congratulate Mr Mandelson in particular on this occasion. Does the noble and learned Lord agree it is inconceivable that the IRA will give up all of its arms without any response from the Protestant paramilitaries? What steps are being taken to ensure that there is some response on that side?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I reiterate what has been said on all sides. In the light of what has been said by the IRA, it is important that we now hear in similar terms from the main loyalist organisations. The peace process depends as much on that as anything else.

Forward to