HL Deb 04 October 2000 vol 616 cc1516-8

3 p.m.

Lord Dixon-Smith asked Her Majesty's Government:

When they next expect any of the three members of the de Chastelain Commission to visit or revisit IRA arms dumps.

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

My Lords, the inspection of arms dumps is not carried out by members of the international commission themselves but by the two distinguished inspectors, Maarti Ahtisaari and Cyril Ramaphosa. They reported to the commission on 25th June that they had completed their first successful inspection of a number of arms dumps and had concluded that it signalled a genuine effort by the IRA to advance the peace process.

The IRA's statement of 6th May gave a commitment that the dumps would be re-inspected regularly to ensure that the weapons had remained secure. The Governments very much hope that the IRA will shortly honour that commitment and enable the inspectors to submit a further encouraging report to General de Chastelain and his colleagues.

Lord Dixon-Smith

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for his response. Does he recognise the symbolism of the decommissioning process, not only for the non-republican community of Northern Ireland but for all communities of the United Kingdom? Decommissioning has been recognised as requiring to be a process but it appears to be a one-stop act. Are the Government taking steps to try to ensure that the process gives more the appearance of being continuous and less the appearance of being interrupted?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, of course I recognise the importance of the decommissioning process to the whole peace process. The House will recall that on 6th May 2000 the Provisional IRA issued a statement saying that it would initiate a process which would completely and verifiably put IRA arms beyond use. In the same statement it referred to the confidence-building measure of allowing the two distinguished persons to inspect the arms dumps. The arms dumps have been inspected once and the IRA contacted the international commission on decommissioning. Therefore, steps are being taken. The Government hope that a further inspection will take place soon and the process will continue.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the three dumps visited contained only obsolete weapons, already replaced by new weapons supplied from America where five members of the Provisional IRA have been convicted and imprisoned? Does the Minister share my hope that the American Government will not follow the practice of the Northern Ireland Office and release such prisoners within a matter of days?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I cannot comment on what the American Government may do. However, my knowledge of the contents of the arms dumps comes from the report of the inspection by President Ahtisaari and Mr Ramaphosa. They stated in their report to the international commission on decommissioning: We have now carried out our first inspection. We inspected a number of arms dumps. The arms dumps held a substantial amount of military material, including explosives and related equipment, as well as weapons and other material". They also stated that they believed that their inspection, which had been allowed by the IRA, was a genuine effort by them to advance the peace process".

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, how confidence building can the process be when neither of the eminent gentlemen is a soldier and when one very much doubts whether either would know a rocket launcher from a Hoover? Is there any possibility of insisting that on the next inspection someone should be included who would know such things? Frankly, it is totally unreasonable to describe the process as "confidence building".

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I take issue with the noble Baroness when she seeks to play down the significance of the arms inspection in June. The two gentlemen are distinguished politicians. One should not lose sight of the fact that opening up arms dumps for independent inspection is an unprecedented step for a terrorist organisation to take. I have no hesitation in stating that according to my knowledge the inspections were useful, meaningful and credible and provide an important confidence-building measure.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, would the noble and learned Lord accept that his statement does not answer the question put by my noble friend? No one disputes that weapons were demonstrated. What is at issue, and what has been widely reported, is that those weapons were obsolete and are known to have been replaced. Can the noble and learned Lord address himself to that question?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I was asked whether I knew that the dumps contained obsolete weapons? My knowledge of what was in the dumps when they were inspected comes from what the two distinguished gentlemen stated in their report. I understand that the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, based his question on what was reported in The Times and other newspapers yesterday. They were described as reports of senior intelligence officers or senior security sources. I am not in a position to comment in relation to them. All I can tell the House is what the two distinguished gentlemen stated.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, is my noble and learned friend in a position to comment on reports in the press that a second inspection is imminent and that it will include further arms dumps in addition to those previously inspected?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I am aware of reports in the press which attribute to the Sinn Fein leadership words to the effect that it is confident that the IRA will uphold the commitments it gave on 6th May. Like everyone else, I shall wait to see what happens.

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, will the Minister indicate what further steps the Government have in mind to enable the de Chastelain commission to be more proactive in facilitating the process of decommissioning on both the republican and paramilitary loyalist sides?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I agree with the premise underlying the question that it is also for the loyalists to decommission. However, it is for the de Chastelain commission to decide on the appropriate steps. As I indicated in answer to an earlier question, there are two strands to the issue; first, the confidence-building measure of inspecting the arms dumps—and I note what my noble friend Lord Dubs said in relation to that—and, secondly, the creation of a process which is a matter between the de Chastelain commission and the terrorist organisations.

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord have any idea of the percentage of arms held by the IRA in the three dumps?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I cannot answer that question. I have no idea.