§ 5 p.m.
§ Lord Falconer of Thoroton
rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 10th May be approved.—(Lord Falconer of Thoroton.)
The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, this order appoints 21st May 2001 as the date before which the amnesty period identified in a non-statutory decommissioning scheme must end. The amnesty period is the time during which firearms, ammunition and explosives can be decommissioned in accordance with the scheme, thereby attracting both the amnesty and prohibitions on evidential use and forensic testing of decommissioned items provided by the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997.
210 Section 2 of the 1997 Act requires that a scheme must set out the amnesty period and that it must end before 27th February 1998 unless the Secretary of State, by order, appoints a later day. Three such orders have already been made. Under that made in February this year, the amnesty period will expire at midnight on the 22nd of this month. The purpose of this order is to extend that period until midnight on 20th May next year.
When this order was last extended the political situation in Northern Ireland was very different to that which we see today. My noble friend Lady Farrington sought an extension of the amnesty period only three days after the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive Committee had been suspended due to a serious decline in confidence in the political institutions brought about by a lack of tangible progress on decommissioning. I am delighted to be before your Lordships today under much more positive circumstances.
The details of the recent progress in the political negotiations are now well known to noble Lords and I do not intend to go over them again in great depth. However, I wish to stress again the significance of the IRA statement issued last week. It has undertaken to put its arms completely and verifiably beyond use. It is making arms dumps available to outside inspectors and the first steps are already being taken.
The importance of those undertakings cannot be underestimated. The very real prospect of progress on decommissioning is now within sight. The extension of the amnesty period is crucial to progress on this front. Without the extension of this order decommissioning is simply not possible—whatever commitments are made by the IRA or any other paramilitary organisation.
In order to continue to fulfil our commitments under the agreement, it is essential that we extend, through this order, the period during which an amnesty is provided in respect of offences which might otherwise be committed in the course of decommissioning in accordance with a decommissioning scheme. The confidence-building measure announced by the IRA last week is the first step in a process which will lead to arms being placed completely and verifiably beyond use. The IRA will reengage with the International Decommissioning Commission to take this forward. Arms will be secured in separate dumps which will be inspected by independent third parties.
The Decommissioning Act requires arms to be destroyed or made permanently inaccessible or unusable. Precisely how and when that should take place is a matter for the IICD. The Government are most grateful to former President Martti Ahtisaari of Finland and former General Secretary of the ANC, Cyril Ramaphosa, who have agreed to act as independent inspectors of the arms dumps, reporting to the IICD. Theirs is a crucial task. The Government have every confidence that they will fulfil the role they have been given with the utmost professionalism. They have already visited London and Belfast for an initial 211 round of discussions. They met with the IICD while in Belfast to discuss how they will be taking their responsibilities forward. Their visit indicates the speed with which we are moving forward and demonstrates the very real nature of what has been offered by the IRA.
For the first time we have both words and deeds to demonstrate and underpin the IRA's statement that it will pursue its political aims through peaceful means. Those developments are hugely significant. This Government are committed to both devolution and decommissioning. This order is essential to ensure that the conditions exist to make decommissioning happen. I beg to move.
Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 10th May be approved.—(Lord Falconer of Thoroton.)
§ Baroness Seccombe
My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for his explanation. The second order before the House this afternoon continues for a further 12 months the provisions of the measure taken through another place by my noble friend Lord Mayhew of Twysden four years ago. On this side of the House we agree that the provision should be renewed. The order will last for a further year and we support it.
However, it is sad that it is necessary so to do. If decommissioning had taken place, your Lordships would not have to consider the issue. But we take particular note of the fact that the IRA has made a positive statement on decommissioning, though as yet there has been no such indication from the so-called loyalists. However, we wish the people of Northern Ireland well as they grapple with this difficult problem.
§ Lord Smith of Clifton
My Lords, we support the passing of this order. We realise it is necessary at this particular point in time otherwise there would be no possibility of decommissioning. Having the two independent assessors—Cyril Ramaphosa and Martti Ahtisaari—reporting to the IICD is good news. Of course, we all wish that this had happened in the past, but let us not be curmudgeonly; this is an important step forward. As the noble Lord, Lord Eames, the Archbishop of Armagh, said on the radio today, this is a significant time. He was indeed being reasonably optimistic, more optimistic in fact than we have heard over the past few years. We should follow his sentiments and give this order a fair wind.
§ Lord Tebbit
My Lords, I doubt if anyone would wish to oppose this order. But it worries me that the Minister seems to be living in an optimistic world and looking at this matter through rose-tinted spectacles.
So far as I can discover, the IRA statement gave no date for the commencement of decommissioning; it gave no date for the completion of decommissioning; and it laid down certain conditions which, if one understands IRA-speak, mean the end of the sovereignty of the United Kingdom over Northern Ireland before it has committed itself to do anything other than possibly allow two gentlemen—whose motives will be good——to look at some of their 212 armaments dumps (not all, but some), I doubt very much whether, in a year's time, we shall have any clear assurance that any arms have been rendered unusable. If the IRA had wanted to render its arms unusable, it could simply pour a few tonnes of ready-mixed concrete into the bunkers. But that is not what is proposed. It proposes that the bunkers should remain there and that the arms should remain there, ready for use and most certainly not decommissioned.
The Minister, no doubt for good reasons, wants to believe that a great step forward has occurred. But I see no great step forward except by Her Majesty's Government along the road to ending the sovereignty of the United Kingdom over Northern Ireland.
§ Baroness Park of Monmouth
My Lords, I hate to be, as the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, said, curmudgeonly, but I, too, feel doubt about the efficacy of inspections of arms carried out by a Finnish and an African politician, neither of whom, so far as I know, has ever handled Semtex or held a gun. It may be difficult for them, looking at the interesting exhibits they will be shown, to reach any real conclusion. I am delighted that they will be allowed to do it, but I do not have much faith in the result.
I share the view of my noble friend Lord Tebbit that, until we know what has been promised to the IRA in return for this, in terms of what it wants in the criminal justice Bill, and a number of other issues of that sort, I shall not be happy that we have had a good deal. I shall watch with interest how far General de Chastelain is actually able to apply any serious "modalities of decommissioning", as they are described in the instrument.
§ Lord Monro of Langholm
My Lords, I certainly support the remarks made by my noble friend Lady Park. However, there is something that concerns both me and my noble friend Lord Tebbit about the two gentleman who are now going to look at the arms dumps. Indeed, can we go a little further in this respect? For example, are they going to inspect them every month, or every three months? Are they going to count the number of weapons inside these dumps to see whether there are 100 or 1,000 rifles, and so on, within—or, indeed, any semtex? Further, will any of these weapons be de-activated during the coming year? There is no point in starting off the process of inspection of umpteen arms dumps all over Northern Ireland if they are in exactly the same condition in 12 months' time. We want to see fewer weapons and de-activated weapons. This will ensure that they can never be used again in the future.
People in this country have gone through the strictest firearms legislation over recent years. Indeed, whether you want a shotgun certificate or a firearms certificate, you have to go through very complicated procedures, including getting a number of people to vouch that you are a reputable person and suitable to own a weapon. I suspect—and I am sure that this applies to everyone in practical terms—that there are a number of members of the IRA who do not keep their weapons in an underground dump but who keep them 213 under the bed or in a cupboard. Where do those people stand? Do they have firearms certificates? Will they have their weapons de-activated? Alternatively, will they be required to hand them in to the nearest dump to enable them to be inspected from time to time by the officials so that we know that such weapons are not in the hands of members of the IRA in, so to speak, open countryside?
Like my noble friend Lord Tebbit, I thought that the Minister seemed to be looking through rose-tinted spectacles when outlining how this was going to happen. We have been so near the brink year in year out about decommissioning, yet it never seems to happen. Therefore, we should not be too excited until we actually see some form of decommissioning—and I mean decommissioning, not just storing arms for another 12 months—or the de-activating of each individual weapon so that such weaponry can never be used again.
§ Lord Carver
My Lords, there can be no doubt that these proposals will not produce a really effective inspection system that will ensure that all IRA weapons are beyond use. However, we should welcome them as a further step in the whole business of dealing with the situation in Northern Ireland. One advances with little creeping steps, and sometimes one then takes steps backwards. I welcome what is proposed, although I have sympathy with the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, and the noble Baroness, Lady Park. As a professional soldier, I know perfectly well that this is not an effective inspection system; but it is a further slight step forward towards maintaining and bringing about a situation in which those arms will not actively be used again.
§ Lord Hylton
My Lords, I welcome what my noble and gallant friend just said. In the light of some earlier remarks this afternoon, I have just one comment to make. Since 1994, we have had cease-fires with, admittedly, a number of breaches. This has been an enormous benefit for the great majority of people living in Northern Ireland. It has led to a very marked economic improvement. Therefore, anyone who breaks the cease-fire and returns to the violence of the past will be most unpopular and held, I would say, in execration by many people. That is all I wish to say.
§ Lord Falconer of Thoroton
My Lords, again, I am grateful for the comments that have been made in this short debate. It is worth emphasising two points. In their statement of 6th May, the IRA's leadership said that they would,initiate a process that would completely and verifiably put IRA arms beyond use".They have never previously said such a thing. They also agreed to put in place within weeks a confidence-building measure,to confirm that our weapons remain secure",which was a reference to the inspection of some arms dumps. Again, that is something to which they have never previously agreed.
214 Of course one must be vigilant; of course one must be on one's guard; and of course one must not be too credulous. But the Government regard this as a significant step forward. The timing and modalities of the process of decommissioning are matters to be determined by General de Chastelain and the decommissioning commission. We believe that we have reached a significant moment and that we should capitalise on it. I am grateful for the support that has been expressed, especially from the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Front Benches, for the extension of the amnesty order, which is plainly a vital step in ensuring that decommissioning occurs. I commend the order to the House.
On Question, Motion agreed to.