HL Deb 04 February 2002 vol 631 cc461-79

3.6 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Williams of Mostyn.)

On Question, Motion agreed to. House in Committee accordingly.

[The CHAIRMAN of COMMITTEES in the Chair.]

Clause 1 [Extension of amnesty period]:

Lord Glentoran moved Amendment No. 1:

Page 1, line 7, leave out "2007" and insert "2005"

The noble Lord said: Amendment No. 1 is about the message that is being sent to the paramilitaries on decommissioning. In the other place an amendment was moved to bring the extension of the Bill forward for one year only. At Second Reading I made quite clear my views on the Government's handling of the decommissioning issue since they have been in power. They do not need repeating.

However, what is still open for discussion and debate—and should be—is the length of time that should be put in the Bill as an extension. It can be argued that one year under the present political system is perhaps not enough. Noble Lords on this side of the Committee are as anxious to keep the peace process going forward as I am sure the Government are. But there are messages to be sent. The message must be that the Government today are determined to see the decommissioning issue through; to tackle it; to do everything they can to make it happen; and to be clearly responsible for it.

My argument is that as the Bill is worded it carries the extension through to 2007 which is beyond the life of this Parliament and this Government. That shows a quite clear abdication of the problem by the present Government. I am sure that that is not their intention. But they should correct that situation. I sincerely hope that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal will take that matter away and give it serious consideration. I beg to move.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead

I have been happy to add my name to the amendment. I touched on the matter in general on another occasion and, as I am aware of the relation between this amendment and Amendment No. 2, I shall venture an opinion on a slightly different aspect. There must be greater priority and precision. We simply cannot let an issue as vital as this continue on and on without any clear determination or explanation at any time of for how long we shall put up with such a charade.

Lord Mayhew of Twysden

When one uses an imperative, it normally implies that one has authority and if that imperative is flouted, sanction is available and there is the will to exert that sanction. I support my noble friend's amendment because for a long time now Ministers have been saying that decommissioning should take place and that it must take place. Of course, Her Majesty's Government have authority to say that but, unfortunately, in circumstances with which we are all too familiar, they have failed to secure any but a single tranche of decommissioning from the IRA and one from one of the equally vile loyalist paramilitary organisations. On the other hand, no sanction has been exerted. On the contrary, it is hard to identify any objective of Sinn Fein that has not been yielded unto it.

The Bill now takes account of the envisaged possibility that five years may elapse with decommissioning still at least incomplete at the end of it. We must ask: does that matter? In my view, harm has already been done. First, the authority and credibility of the commission has surely been harmed. I do not believe that I was alone in reading an implication—an inference—into the statement From General de Chastelaine after the decommissioning in October that more was expected, and soon. That has not happened.

Secondly, the authority of Her Majesty's Government has undoubtedly been diminished by reason of nothing more having been yielded up by way of decommissioning and nothing having been done by way of sanction. Thirdly, it is right for us at least to note that the morale of Unionists—moderate Unionists—in Northern Ireland has been deeply harmed by that turn of events. When their morale declines to a dangerous lever—as it may well have done—the possible consequences are too dangerous to need enumerating.

If we passed my noble friend's amendment, that would at least show that this Parliament, while having the sponge all too readily at hand, was not prepared to chuck it in, as it will be seen to be doing if the Bill is left unamended. That would show that, even at this stage, this Parliament was prepared to envisage serving out its term with that imperative disobeyed.

3.15 p.m.

Viscount Brookeborough

I rise to support the amendment, but first I must declare an interest. Not only do I live in Northern Ireland, but I have recently become a member of the Northern Ireland policing board. However, my views on arms decommissioning have not changed as a result of that, and anything that I say is not with the authority of any other member of that board.

Decommissioning was originally set out to take place over two years. That was achieved by majority vote in the north and south of Ireland on the Belfast agreement. There are many occasions on which the Belfast agreement is thrown in our faces in Northern Ireland. People say, "This was agreed, therefore we do it." The Government have followed that line.

I wonder what gives the Government the authority to keep extending—frankly, it appears to us, in the hope that we forget about it—something that was approved by such a majority in both the north and south of Ireland. It is clearly the wish of everyone there to see arms taken out of the equation on all sides of the terrorist divide. It is sad that, if the Government do not accept the amendment, their integrity will be undermined.

People in Northern Ireland believe that the Government wish to see the end of this problem, but it does not do the Government a great deal of good to be seen to be bringing forward legislation that puts it all further and further back. The sooner that the problem is solved the better for everybody—not only in Northern Ireland but in the United Kingdom as a whole.

Lord Fitt

As I entered your Lordships' Chamber this afternoon, I ran into a mass exodus of the vast majority of noble Lords from the House. That indicated to me that there is no great concern in your Lordships' House about the Bill, which is of such concern to the people of Northern Ireland. I was not here for the Second Reading debate, but I read an intervention by the noble Lord, Lord Shutt of Greetland, from the Liberal Democrat Benches, who seemed to chide the House with the fact that only Unionist Members had spoken during the debate.

That is perfectly understandable. because it was Unionist Members who were subjected to a mass campaign of murder and mayhem by the activities of the IRA during the past 30 years. Not only Unionists were victims. I myself was a victim of terrorism in Northern Ireland by both sides—both the IRA and the so-called loyalist terrorists who murdered my closest friends.

The Bill and its ramifications are of tremendous concern to the people of Northern Ireland. I intervene in this debate to try to bring some reality to the Government Front Bench. It has repeatedly been said that the decommissioning of illegal arms in Northern Ireland by both sections—the' loyalists and the Republicans—was part of the Belfast agreement. Since then, concession after concession has been made in a most overt way to the Republicans, but also to the loyalist paramilitaries.

I should like to pose the Minister a question that I heard in Belfast all last week. Ordinary people in the streets—who know what the Bill is about and who know that further concessions have been made to the paramilitary organisations for another five years—have asked me, and I ask the Minister on the Front Bench, the following question. What would happen if a statement were issued next week by P. O'Neill, which is the IRA's pseudonym, which said: "We are not going to decommission any of our arms. We are telling you now in straightforward terms that we are not going to decommission any further arms"? What sanction do the Government have at their disposal against that statement? The answer is, "Absolutely none".

I read some of the speeches made at Second Reading. One speaker suggested that we should bring our influence to bear on other countries so that they might apply some pressure to the IRA and other organisations. That is not possible. There are many countries who support what the IRA and the loyalist organisations have been doing over the past 30 years. In effect, we are saying that other countries should apply pressure to the IRA on decommissioning. That is not a possibility; it will not help.

It may be that America will try to apply such pressure. It has itself been the victim of terrorism. It may be that American influence could be applied to

the IRA. However, I doubt that the vast majority of Irish-Americans, who have given active moral and financial support to the IRA over the years, will, all of a sudden, put sincere pressure on the IRA to bring about decommissioning.

I do not believe—I say this with great regret—that the IRA will decommission any more guns. It is a heartbreak to have to say that, but the fact is that the Government are letting the IRA off the hook by saying that they will give them another five years. The IRA must be laughing up their sleeves at the Government and at every concession that has been made in recent years in all the agreements and discussions that have taken place—particularly those at Weston Park. I believe that it was at Weston Park that they arrived at the conclusion that there would be an extension for another five years.

I listened to Radio 4 this morning. I heard clips from New York where many elected representatives from Northern Ireland are instead of being at Stormont and in Northern Ireland where the problem is. They are all in America. I do not know what they hope to achieve from those discussions. They would be better staying in Northern Ireland and trying to reach an accommodation.

My main reason for speaking in the debate—I repeat that I say this with great regret—is that the Government have made concession after concession until they have no more sanctions that can force the IRA or the loyalist paramilitaries to engage in further decommissioning of their arms. There is nothing with which the Government can threaten them. Those paramilitary organisations—loyalist and republican—can say to the Government, "You can talk as much as you like; we will hold onto our arms".

Lord Smith of Clifton

Everyone wants decommissioning, of course. The question is what priority one should put on it, as we move towards a more normal situation in Northern Ireland. Decommissioning became too much of an aspiration in the endless negotiations both prior to the conclusion of the Belfast agreement and subsequently. If memory serves me right, it was the noble Lord, Lord Eames, who made that comment some months ago in your Lordships' House.

I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, about who is likely to be able to bring the most persuasive pressure on the IRA and others, but we probably disagree about where it might come from, or the way in which it will come. Little further will be achieved by continuing to grandstand the republicans on the issue. Further decommissioning will come about in the near future only when and if the United States Administration deliver another ultimatum to Sinn Fein. That is the realpolitik of the situation.

We can stamp our feet and scream as much as we like, but it will have absolutely no effect on the IRA. We can all agree on that. Therefore, continuing to have decommissioning times that come and go is debilitating to the wider process. That is why, on these Benches, we think that we should go for a quinquennium, before the issue comes up again, in the great hope that the development of democracy in Northern Ireland overtakes the issue and that, if necessary, the United States Administration will use their good offices again to apply pressure for decommissioning.

At the moment—thank goodness—the republican guns are reasonably silent, as opposed to those of the loyalist paramilitaries whose current campaign of murder, bombing and mayhem is perhaps the biggest risk to security in Northern Ireland. For that reason, we do not support the amendment.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

I am one of the host—the vast majority—of Members of your Lordships' House who take little part in debates on the affairs of Northern Ireland. I speak now only because the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, made me feel ashamed of not having done so before.

One of the reasons why I have not spoken is that I do not know what I would like the Government to do. The difficulty is—I place no blame for it—that once one feels obliged to sit down and talk to men of violence, who will not hesitate to use violence and who have no scruples or any thought of remorse afterwards, it is difficult to get up again and resume a policy of strength. However, at least the amendment offers to people such as myself an opportunity to express—briefly—a sense of the failure of this country even to make a pretence of standing up to such people and saying that we cannot go any further until the business of decommissioning—which was a commitment—is taken to its end and fulfilled. We have not done so.

The noble Lords, Lord Molyneaux of Killead and Lord Fitt, referred to the people of Northern Ireland. I would find it difficult to explain to the people of Northern Ireland, at one and the same time, that we were giving further time for the fulfilment of a solemn obligation and that, in addition, we would publicly afford a welcome to the precincts of the Palace of Westminster, previously denied, to those who, although elected to Parliament, have not seen fit or felt able to take the traditional oath of loyalty to Her Majesty the Queen and to the things for which this country stands. Had either of those two tenants of rooms in the Palace of Westminster ever expressed any grain of remorse or pity towards those whom they have hurt, one might, I suppose, feel differently. As it is, the amendment offers us at least a chance of saying that enough is enough, and, even if it is not passed into law, of indicating the sickness and shame over concessions which many of us feel we have been forced into making to men who have so far shown themselves to be wicked and totally unwilling to forsake the ways of violence.

3.30 p.m.

Lord Desai

I did not speak in the Second Reading debate but I have contributed to Northern Ireland debates and scrupulously attended many of them.

As acknowledged even by people supporting Amendment No. 1, passing it will not make a jot of difference to anything which happens. It will simply make the Government look ridiculous. I am not speaking on behalf of the Government; I never do. But let me try and explain what I feel happened in Northern Ireland.

The IRA were not defeated, nor did they give in. Her Majesty's troops were not defeated, nor did they give in. 'Therefore there was a truce. As my noble friend Lord Fitt said, it is not within the power of Her Majesty's Government to implement any pre-emptive notice to the IRA saying, "If you do not do this, we will do X". Whatever that "X" was, it would simply harm the process which has been taking place.

This is a tricky situation in which we have not found ourselves before. Long ago, perhaps in colonies far away, it happened, but I do not want to repeat those stories. Because of the peculiar location of Northern Ireland and the jurisdiction, this is a process in which we will have to be patient. It will happen. Indeed, if we think about it, decommissioning is much further forward than it was two years ago. I know events move slowly, but we have progressed.

Patience is required because this is a tricky situation. It is important to remember that the guns are silent—that is, the guns on the Irish side. Other movements are sprouting up all over the place, but at least the Provisional IRA guns are silent. We must exercise a lot of patience and see this process through. It is no good doing things which only make us look more impotent. Therefore II urge the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, having moved this amendment and having heard the discussion, to withdraw it. It will not be helpful.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

I strongly support Amendment No. I for a number of reasons. The first is that we still have to demonstrate to the majority of people in Northern Ireland that we seriously wish to protect them against the gun. As already stated, the IRA have never given anything without getting enormous concessions in return. The time for concessions has to stop and the people must be reassured that the Government have at least enough belief in themselves not to appease. They may say, "Another year". We may have to do that. But they must not give the IRA another five years. To the ordinary people of Northern Ireland that would be a complete betrayal.

The Americans also will respect us more and do more if we are seen to stick to our guns—a rather unfortunate phrase—and not allow any more delay than is absolutely necessary. Anything else is appeasement. If the noble Lord will forgive me, it is not true to say that the gun is silent. It has stopped killing policemen and soldiers temporarily. It has not stopped killing their own communities and it has not stopped violence. The paramilitaries are reigning supreme.

Meanwhile, in the South, the Taoiseach, the Irish Government and the Irish parties are saying (whether or not they can stick to their guns over it) that if they ever have to form a government, they will never form it with Sinn Fein. If they can take that stand over the IRA, surely we, who are in Northern Ireland by rights because the majority chose to stay in the United Kingdom—let me remind the Committee of that—can say that enough is enough. It will not serve our relations with the people or create any trust in the people if we do not say enough is enough.

Unfortunately, the Government still have more concessions in their quiver. They can still give amnesty to the people on the run; they can withdraw more troops; they can destroy more observation towers; they can back down over all sorts of major issues in relation to the police; they can still destroy the Special Branch. All those are things the IRA still want. At the very least we ought to be getting something in return.

I accept that decommissioning is unreal because the IRA can simply go out and buy more arms. But that is not the issue. The issue is whether the people of Northern Ireland believe that the Government are prepared to stand up for their rights and insist that the bargain is kept. We do not have the right simply to say, "It is in the interests of the peace process". What peace process? When we look at the streets of Northern Ireland, what peace process do we see? The Government have no choice but to extend as far as the law allows. I accept that if the decommissioning Act lapsed, that would create a new situation. I suppose there will have to be an extension. But it should not be for longer than is absolutely necessary.

I feel strongly that, in the name of a totally illusory peace process, we do not have the right to give away any more than has been given already, particularly since the people of Northern Ireland must now be wondering whether they are going to be sold down the river in the future through the successes of the IRA in electoral fraud.

Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve

I too have riot spoken on Northern Ireland, though it is my part of the world. This amendment says something that is extremely important and I want to challenge only one suggestion—that it is realpolitik not to vote for the amendment. It is not. It is comfortable and cosy, but it is not realpolitik. Realpolitik has to take into account the real forces that are ranged for and against the amendment.

We know that it is extraordinarily difficult for moderate unionists to continue to support the amendment. A signal from this Chamber and from this Parliament would be extremely important. I can only agree with other Members of the Committee who have said that simply to push decommissioning away into the mid-distance or Never Never Land is to give the wrong signal at this time. I hope that the amendment will be accepted.

Lord Maginnis of Drumglass

When a number of years ago my noble friend Lord Molyneaux asked me to write a paper on decommissioning, I did so in the belief that the Government of the United Kingdom would at least understand the nature of what I had written. The example we had in years prior to that of NATO and the Warsaw pact countries holding each other at bay with a large range of weapons and then moving slowly but inexorably towards a disarmament process that allowed a more normal relationship to exist was an important example and one that should be applied on the micro-scale to our situation in Northern Ireland.

Many of us never believed that we could persuade the terrorist organisations that there was an option—terrorism or democracy—and that they should choose democracy unless we made it patently clear that we were prepared, whatever the sins of the past, whatever the atrocities of the past, to provide a vehicle whereby those who had been terrorists could move fully into the democratic structure. That has been a long and painful journey from 1994. It led to a situation which many of my tradition and many of the nationalist tradition in Northern Ireland failed to understand. We believed that before we achieved a foolproof example of terrorist organisations eschewing forever terrorism we could bring them, bit by bit, within the democratic process. That in itself was a contradiction, but many of us believed—sadly we have been proven wrong—that the Government could be depended upon to ensure that inexorable progress would be made.

Look at the situation today in terms of international terrorism and consider how the Government, along with our western allies, have adopted a most uncompromising approach to anyone or any organisation which indulges in terrorism, which has arms and explosives it is prepared to use against civilian populations, and then look at the way in which the Prime Minister has accommodated those who have not made any significant move towards disarmament.

We are told that one of the reasons we are so concerned with modern international terrorism is that there are stockpiles of poison gases and weapons, including nuclear weapons, that have to be dealt with before the bin Ladens can get their hands on them. On the microscale, it is no different for the civilian population in Northern Ireland. We have to see the detonators and explosives—the catalysts for the huge bombs that we have suffered from over the years—and the guns removed, whoever may succeed. Someone said that the guns are silent today, but who is to tell me that organisations which will use these weapons will not spring up in two years, five years or 10 years time? After 30 years, how can we build a democracy—a true, sharing democracy—on the uncertainty created by guns within our society?

There are many anomalies in what is happening to us within our own United Kingdom. I heard someone say that the IRA had not been defeated, nor had our forces been defeated. In fact, our forces are being asked to act as though they have been defeated. We see that in terms of what is happening to the police.

I do not want to infringe on the protocol of your Lordships' House by talking for too long on this subject. Suffice to say that within the leaderships accepted by the democratic process—particularly in terms of Sinn Fein—there are those who are within the leadership of the IRA. I do not put too fine a point on it if I say that Gerry Adams is, ex officio, a member of the IRA army council because he is the president of Sinn Fein. It is now accepted that Martin McGuinness was a Chief of Staff of the IRA. He is now, for better or for worse, the Minister for Education. Mr Doherty recently elected to another place—is also a member or an ex-member of the IRA army council.

For the Government to pretend that these people need to be subsidised by half-a-million pounds per year—year in, year out—in order to keep alive a peace process from which their tradition as well as mine could benefit, is unacceptable. For that reason I am pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, has brought forward the amendment. I hope that we will be able to put into the context of national and international politics what we are trying to achieve by the amendment.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville

I apologise to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal for being the third member of the Committee to pre-empt his speech as he was about to make it. I had not intended to speak, but a phrase used by the noble Lord, Lord Desai—reinforced by the subsequent reference made to it by my noble friend Lady Park of Monmouth—brings me to my feet.

Let me put my remarks in context. We all know the details and the terms of the Belfast agreement. There is an element of crying over spilt milk that the terms were as they were and that they were without sanctions, in particular in regard to the responsibility of parties to make "best endeavours" on decommissioning. None on these Benches was privy to the thinking of the Government when they negotiated the Belfast agreement on those particular terms—that will be a matter for historians.

Nor is it my part to defend the Government—I cannot tell whether or not I should give the Government the benefit of the doubt—but, as a bystander, I cannot help remarking that just as fatigue no doubt assaulted and assailed other parties to the agreement in the watches of the night on the morning of that Good Friday when the agreement was being finally determined, the Government and their advisers were not themselves immune to fatigue either, and the full implications of what they were doing may not have been clear to them in terms of what has subsequently developed.

None of us knows what endeavours—it is "best endeavours" that were meant to be made—the IRA or any of the other paramilitaries have made over recent years, although we know the fact of the decommissioning which occurred last autumn.

The phrase of the noble Lord, Lord Desai, which brought me to my feet—and to which my noble friend Lady Park referred—was "the guns are silent". It is in that context and in that atmosphere that we are debating these matters today. I have no emotional capital tied up in the report produced in the previous Parliament in another place by the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs on the behaviour of the paramilitaries towards those they were sending into exile, but it is worth mentioning the histograms drawn up on page 58 of Volume 2, which is devoted to evidence. They show that after the cease-fires in 1994 and 1998, there is no marked difference in the amount of punishments which have been administered. but there is a very marked difference in the use of the gun. There have been a great many more shooting incidents since the cease-fire in 1998 than there were after the cease-fire in 1994.

One is ineluctably drawn to the conclusion that the paramilitaries on either side are simply pushing their luck to see where are the limits in the use of the gun, but it would be quite wrong to say—although I understand the terms in which the noble Lord used the phrase—that the guns are silent. The guns are noisier than they were before the Belfast agreement and after the 1994 cease-fire in that regard.

I support the argument that we should maintain the pressure in this House. The nation as a whole attaches importance to the issue of "best endeavours"— they are not empty words and the horizon for decommissioning should not be unduly extended.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

Some harsh words have been used in the debate: "abdication of responsibility". "charade" and "integrity undermined". Then there was the rhetorical question from the noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth: "What peace process?". The noble Lord. Lord Peyton, spoke of failure.

I do not believe that it has been a story of unmitigated failure. The Assembly is working—not perfectly, but with a growing spirit of co-operation, and that is a remarkable achievement in terms of the centuries of history of which we know. It is truly irresponsible not to recognise that.

It is not responsible to overlook the fact that the historic constitutional claim of the Irish Republic has been given up, following a referendum. These are not perfect solutions to difficult questions. However, I suggest that the history of the past five years has not been one of entire gloom.

It is just as well to hear in mind what is being proposed; namely, the original Bill and what would be the consequence of the amendment were it to be passed. The original Act, introduced when the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew of Twysden, was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, set out a scheme that was not intended to be a time-frame for decommissioning. It was never put forward on that basis. It was put forward, as I understand it, on the basis that this was the usual period for time-limited Acts. It is important to remind ourselves that the original Act—and it would remain the case were it to be amended—is subject to annual renewal by Parliament on the affirmative procedure. That is the basis of the existing Act, which expires at the end of this month, and it would be the basis of any continuation if your Lordships allow it.

Therefore, we are not saying that this is a time-frame for decommissioning of five years—nor, indeed, as the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, said, of three years. What we are disputing is whether or not there should be an extension of the Act. I repeat the important point that the Act is subject to annual extension on the basis of the affirmative procedure.

My noble friend Lord Fitt asked what would be the sanctions if the IRA made the declaration of which he spoke. The answer is that there is the parliamentary sanction, because Parliament does not have to approve on the affirmative procedure what it does not seek to do.

The real difference here is not whether we should ever have engaged in discussions with the IRA or with other armed groups. That is not the question. The short question to which the amendment draws our minds is: should there be an extension of the order-making power for three years (as the noble Lord. Lord Glentoran, seeks) or should it be an extension of the ability of the Secretary of State, subject to parliamentary approval by the affirmative process, for five years? That is the difference between us. I respectfully suggest that the prudent course, subject to the constraints of parliamentary power, which has to be supreme, every year, is to go for the extension on the basis on which the original Act was introduced.

I very much hope that in three years' time, let alone in five years' time, this provision will not be required. Those who know Northern Ireland better than I do may be gloomier in that context. However, I revert to what I said on an earlier occasion. If the human mind and the human heart can change, whether it be the loyalist criminals or the Irish Republican Army criminals, do we need the mechanism provided by the Bill—described by the noble and learned Lord as a possessory amnesty? I believe that we do. If the noble Lord wishes to test the opinion of the Committee, I ask Members of the Committee—

Lord Maginnis of Drumglass

Will the Minister give way? Has any progress made since 1998 been the result of any initiative by the Government? Has it riot in fact resulted from an initiative by David Trimble, who moved the democratic process to the very edge of survival in order to force Sinn Fein-IRA to make some move towards that process? How often is David Trimble going to have to carry the burden without the tangible support of this Government?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

I do not believe that the question put is a true question. Mr Trimble has been extraordinarily courageous. He has looked for the support of the British Government and he has received it. It is no coincidence in my opinion—and I was talking to Mr Trimble and Mr Durkan only in the past few days, having had the privilege of meeting them in their office in the Assembly. David Trimble is a very courageous and considerable public servant. He is entitled to look for support from the British Government. However, I believe that this enabling legislation in part—I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, that is it not the total answer—offers the opportunity for progress. I do not believe that we should truly respect and honour the work of David Trimble were we not full-hearted in our support of what he, Mark Durkan and others have been able to do in the Assembly—and Seamus Mallon previously. This is an enabling measure which offers part of the answer to a problem that has beset us all for centuries.

Lord Glentoran

I thank the Minister for that response. I also thank all my noble friends and other Members of the Committee who have contributed to this extremely thoughtful debate, as I hope the Committee will agree. In particular, I welcome the noble Baroness, Lady O'Neill, to our discussions on Northern Ireland matters.

We have heard the noble Lord, Lord Desai, and to a lesser degree the noble Lord, Lord Smith, suggest that decommissioning should be part—it is not a necessary part—of the process. I hope that I am not going overboard in saying that. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Smith, that a diktat from the United States, from the White House, could have a significant impact on the situation.

As I said in my opening remarks, the amendment and the debate that we have had are about messages. They are about sending to the paramilitaries another message from the Government that they will not put decommissioning on a long pole; that they are determined to make something happen one way or another.

The Minister remarked that the Assembly is working. I have complimented the Government previously on that point from this Dispatch Box. But I must also ask him: how long for? I have just returned from Northern Ireland, having spent what has been for me one of the more depressing weekends there. I spoke to people from several quarters, including members of the judiciary and the construction industry, and drivers. I have never felt the people of Northern Ireland, particularly of the Unionist persuasion, to be so deflated and demoralised—to say nothing of the figures for absenteeism in the Northern Ireland Police Service about which I heard.

The amendment is about sending a message to the paramilitaries and to a part of the United Kingdom whose people feel deserted, knocked about and not loved. It has an Assembly which is working, but which is coming up for re-election in the not-too-distant future. I hope that all Members of the Committee, and the Government, will agree with me that the best outcome of another election for the Assembly will be for the centre parties to remain in basic control of that Assembly. I hope that none of us wants polarisation outwards to the extremes of the political spectrum in Northern Ireland.

I firmly believe that this is an important amendment. Today may not be the day to press it. In the light of what the noble and learned Lord has said and other debates that we are going to have, for this afternoon I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 1 agreed to.

4 p.m.

Lord Glentoran moved Amendment No. 2:

After Clause 1. insert the following new clause— "COMMENCEMENT This Act shall not come into force until after the Commission established under section 7 of the 1997 Act shall have laid a report before both Houses of Parliament on progress made in decommissioning since the coming into effect of the 1997 Act."

The noble Lord said: This amendment is on the same lines as the previous one, although it may not appear so. It is again about the morale and understanding of the people of Northern Ireland. All the people of Northern Ireland deserve to know what Sinn Fein/IRA and other paramilitaries are doing with regard to decommissioning to take the violence out of Northern Irish politics. The amendment would require the commission that was established by the 1997 Act to lay a report before Parliament on the progress of decommissioning before the commencement of the Act. We do not want to delay the decommissioning process—indeed, we wish to speed it up. However, we want to see tangible progress and we would like to see independent verification of that progress.

The people of Northern Ireland deserve something. I believe that there has been significant decommissioning and so does David Trimble, but the people of Northern Ireland do not. There is no question of that.

My original thoughts when drafting the amendment went considerably wider—so wide that the Clerks would not allow me my way. The people of Northern Ireland deserve a list of the organisations and groups in contract today with the decommissioning commission in relation to decommissioning, together with details of the number of visits carried out by or on behalf of the commission in relation to decommissioning, a report into the extent to which the commission believes that the decommissioning scheme has been a success and other matters in relation to the decommissioning of firearms, ammunition and explosives. In short, the amendment is about attempting again to get an encouraging message across to the people of Northern Ireland that decommissioning is real and is happening and that the whole process is a long way from being one-sided. I beg to move.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead

I indicated earlier that I might want to say a few words about this amendment. As the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, has said, we have been performing a real service in concentrating our attention on the imperative of making disarmament real and not a mere fiction. There must be some finality—we cannot go on drifting. Idle chatter about putting weapons beyond use, identifying unnamed bunkers, letters signed by the mythical P O'Neill and other meaningless phrases have devalued the word "decommissioning". When one seeks to cut through such verbiage, one is accused of demanding ceremonial surrender—which accusation is entirely without foundation.

My noble friend Lord Maginnis has triggered my memory and taken me back to a not unimportant discussion that he and I had in my room close on midnight a good many years ago. We were thinking about disarmament following conflict. He may remember my explanation of what happened to me 57 years ago. As the Second World War was drawing to an end, our small Royal Air Force unit was ordered to a place called Flensburg on the Danish frontier, about 120 miles behind the German lines. Your Lordships might ask what I was doing there. Our object was to grab a Luftwaffe base to which had been flown a large selection of German experimental rocket aircraft from the Peenemunde experimental station, which was being overrun by the Russians. The Air Vice-Marshal commanding 83 Group felt that it was important to prevent them falling into the hands of the Russians. I do not know whether he was also nervous about certain other people getting hold of them, but it would not have been tactful to have said so at the time.

When we got there, nearly 9,000 German officers and men insisted—there is a certain parallel here with what we are speaking about today—first on retaining their arms to defend themselves from the Russian armies, which were then moving westward, because the war had not finished. When we refused to fall for that one, they then wanted to assist us—if you please—in halting the westward march of the Russian divisions. As allies of a sort, we could not possibly fall for that one. The next demand was from the officers, who insisted on retaining their arms to preserve discipline over their own ranks. Another ploy was to negotiate honourable terms so that they would not lose face and appear defeated to their own supporters. Finally, they said that they would surrender only to British forces and not to the allied forces.

My commanding officer, who was a very impressive character, bluntly informed all present that we would only accept unconditional surrender on behalf of the supreme commander, General Eisenhower. Oddly enough, we achieved that within hours, two days before the war ended, although two of us got shot in the process.

The allied disarmament commission then swung into action. This is where we can derive a lesson from those events. Within five days it was operating. Over the years I have become convinced that if we had not been rock solid in those early days in carrying out the decisions that had been made by the big three at the Yalta conference some months before and if we, the allies, had embarked on an untidy, endless series of parleys, Britain and America could not possibly have resisted the subsequent years of Russian aggression. The occasional statement by Herr P O'Neill would have thrown the NATO organisation into confusion.

It is possible that some will try to persuade your Lordships that the surrender of terrorist weapons would be inappropriate because the republican terrorists were not defeated. Others have illustrated that that is not quite accurate. We must face the solid fact that when the IRA announced a cessation of military activities—and that is all that they have said thus far, after all the years—they were losing the struggle and well they knew it. For two years before they had been forced to accept almost 80 per cent of their atrocities being aborted as a result of penetration by the intelligence services. Secondly—and very regrettably—the so-called loyalist terrorists had been inflicting heavier casualties on the IRA than they themselves were inflicting. The IRA were forced to try a more productive ploy. As they look at the steady stream of concessions that have been referred to several times in the debate, they must feel well satisfied with the bargain that they made.

It is for all of us in both Houses of Parliament to decide whether we should continue to play with that loaded dice.

Lord Fitt

I believe that it is a reasonable amendment. All that it asks of Government is that the commission set up by the government to inquire into the decommissioning of illegal arms should place its findings before the House. The House could then see at first hand the position of the IRA in relation to its ongoing discussions with the commission.

I and many people in Northern Ireland will be asking these questions. What now is the function of the commission? How many times does it meet? Does it meet once a week, twice a week, every month, every three months or only, as it appears to be, when there is some crisis and P O'Neill issues a statement to General de Chastelain? It is only right and fair that the people of Northern Ireland, through their representatives in the House of Commons and here, should know how the commission functions in between statements from P O'Neill, the spokesman for the IRA. The amendment provides that we should not agree with the Bill unless we are made aware of the thinking underlying the commission.

I asked what sanction the Government had if P O'Neill issued a statement to the effect that the IRA were not going to decommission its arms. I was disappointed with the Minister's reply. He said that the sanction is that we may not pass an affirmative order next year or the year after in relation to the Bill. Does the Minister think that that will scare the living daylights out of the IRA? What does it mean if the House says, "We shall not pass that affirmative order"? The IRA will laugh at it.

My noble friend Lord Desai takes an interest in Northern Ireland. The previous amendment asked for a reduction in the time limit from five to three years. In his opening remarks, my noble friend said that if that amendment were passed it would make us look ridiculous. I use his exact words. We look extremely ridiculous in the eyes of the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland if we continue to make concession after concession to the IRA.

Last year I got fed up with listening to the new word coined with regard to Northern I reland"choreography". Everyone, including the biggest dunderhead in Northern Ireland, ran around talking about choreography. It was supposed to mean that if the Government moved on a particular aspect of the peace process the IRA would make a move in their direction. I have seen no choreography coming from the IRA or Sinn Fein. The happenings since the Belfast agreement are regarded as a big "plus". Stormont was set up. Let me tell the Government that the setting up of Stormont was no great concession by the Government. The IRA and Sinn Fein wanted Stormont set up; they wanted their Government Ministers there. So no great concession was being made. The IRA wanted inter-government. It wanted to see Stormont brought back on its terms.

As to choreography, what did we get from Weston Park with regard to arms? The IRA demanded and obtained the dismantling of the watch-towers and army establishments all around the border in Northern Ireland. People could see what was happening. They saw it on television. They saw the British Army dismantling those army outposts. So that was disarming, demobilisation or decommissioning on the British side; but how do we know what happened on the Irish side? General de Chastelain stated that he saw some arms—we do not know how many or how few. The people of Northern Ireland were able to see the decommissioning by the British Army and security forces, but they did not see the decommissioning of the illegal weapons held by the IRA.

I want to make clear that I do not concentrate on the IRA. My remarks include the illegal arms which are still being used by the so-called loyalist paramilitaries. Those who watched last night a Channel 4 television programme on the activities of the UDA cannot but be frightened by the continuing holding of arms by that organisation. Anything I say about decommissioning is not directed at the IRA but at all such organisations.

The Minister said that the sanction against the IRA's refusal to decommission is that the Government will not pass an affirmative order. What effect will that have on the loyalist paramilitaries who daily are beating up and knee-capping people in Northern Ireland? Will they be worried about an affirmative order? I again ask the Minister: what will be the effect if this House refuses an affirmative order to carry out this legislation? What can we do? There are no further sanctions that the Government are prepared to make.

I believe that another concession is in the offing. We await an amnesty for IRA republican prisoners who are on the run in the Republic of Ireland. I have no doubt that the Government will make that concession. Although I totally disagree with such an amnesty, would not it be possible for the Government to say, "We shall not grant this amnesty unless you engage actively in decommissioning your illegal arms"? I do not think that the Government are going to say that; I wish that they would.

The sanction referred to by the Minister is that the Government will refuse to pass an affirmative order. The fact is—the noble Lord on the Liberal Benches agreed with me and we have disagreed more often than we have agreed—that we are asking the Americans to apply sanctions to stop the IRA. The biggest sanction against the illegal arms of the IRA could be brought by the Americans. The Americans can refuse Sinn Fein their visas. They can stop money being taken out of America to fill the IRA coffers. But, in effect, we at the heart of Government in the United Kingdom are saying, "We cannot stop the IRA from holding on to their arms but, please Mr and Mrs America, will you do the job for us?" That is a very sad reflection on the Government of this country.

4.15 p.m.

Lord Monson

In introducing the amendment, the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, informed us that whatever the establishment might believe, the ordinary people of Northern Ireland do not believe that any significant decommissioning has taken place. If the ordinary people of Northern Ireland continue to think the way they do, the electoral consequences in Northern Ireland in the near and medium-term future will not be to the Government's—or to most other people's—liking. That surely is yet another reason for accepting the amendment.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

The amendment would not have any effect of any practical virtue. The effect would be only to give the commission a power to lay a report before Parliament, imposing on it no obligation to do so. Indeed, the report could say nothing more than is already in the public domain; it could be of any quality, satisfactory or not to Parliament. I understand the purpose of the noble Lord's amendment but it would not have the slightest legal or practical effect.

There are other questions. The commission was set up following the report of the international body. That report was accepted by the then Conservative Government in this country and the Government in the Irish Republic. Section 7 of the subsequent Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997 sets up, an independent organisation established by an agreement, made in connection with the affairs of Northern Ireland between Her Majesty's Government in the UK and the Government of the Republic of Ireland". In historic terms, just to complete the narrative, there was also the treaty agreement between Her Majesty's Government and the Government of the Republic. As I think your Lordships know, Article 4 of that treaty put upon the commission the duty "to report periodically", not to the Dail in Dublin or to Parliament at Westminster, but. to both Governments and, through whatever mechanisms they may establish for that purpose, the other participants in political negotiations in Northern Ireland". I understand and do not disrespect the purpose that the noble Lord. Lord Glentoran, seeks. I understand it perfectly because he explained it with admirably clarity. However, Amendment No. 2 would not achieve the conclusion he desires. In fact, such provision would effectively give the commission the determining view on when the legislation should come into effect. If the commission did not report before the end of this month, the possessory amnesty—to which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew of Twysden referred—would fall.

Lord Glentoran

I thank the noble and learned Lord for that. He is also quite right; I understand what the non-effect of passing this amendment would be. I know and believe him when he says that he understands my purposes in moving the amendment. Most of us in this place know that the decommissioning that has taken place is being kept secret at the request of the republican movement.

I have even been told that those in that movement might be embarrassed if the information were to get out to their own people.

However, that being as it may, there is a real message. I believe that the Government have heard what has been said on almost all sides by your Lordships about the message to the people of Northern Ireland. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 2 agreed to.

House resumed: Bill reported without amendment.