HL Deb 14 February 2002 vol 631 cc1195-203

12.7 p.m.

Report received.

Clause 1 [Extension of amnesty period]:

Lord Glentoran moved the amendment:

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

The noble Lord said: My Lords, we have brought back this amendment on Report. I say at the outset that, unfamiliar as I am nowadays with having a half term, it does not seem to be an appropriate moment at which to hold a major debate or press for a Division in your Lordships' House. Therefore, we—at least, I—shall not divide on the amendment today.

I still believe that the message I attempted to give to the Government in Committee stands. Many parts of the Bill concern the message that we are sending out to Ireland. Since the Committee stage, many things have happened, as they always do, inside and outside Northern Ireland. But on this occasion it has been in the United States. Mr McGuinness has been speaking in the United States, as have most parties, about where they are going.

Sinn Fein/IRA is clearly looking for respectability—more respectability as they see it; I see it as some respectability—before the elections in the Irish Republic take place shortly. Mr McGuinness has even admitted publicly—not for the first time—that he was a terrorist. But he is now a respectable citizen; he is a Minister in one of Her Majesty's Governments.

That is all positive in the light of devolution of power and the continuation of the peace process. But, in my opinion, it is all for nothing if we cannot get law and order back into that little Province. One of the keys to doing so is to bring about decommissioning: to get the weapons and arms of all parties and all terrorists out of the system and out of the country. Seriously urgent measures need to be taken by Her Majesty's Government, and statements need to be made.

The way I read it, at present the American Government are stronger and harder on the Real IRA and various factions of the IRA—frankly, I do not believe that they are any different to one another—than Her Majesty's Government. I fail to understand why Her Majesty's Government cannot send a much tougher, stronger message stating: "This must happen. We shall make it happen by a certain time and within the power of this Government". I beg to move.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead

My Lords, those of us in this House who have pressed for confining the renewal of the disqualification Bill to a period of one year have been vindicated, to a great extent, by recent events. The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, has drawn attention to various visits paid by people from this part of the world to America. I believe that the most significant one was that of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Dr Reid. It has been reported by reputable bodies in the press that Dr Reid held talks with Robert Mueller, the Director of the FBI. That is significant. During those talks Dr Reid offered support to the United States for what they termed the next stages of the war against terrorism. That brings us some pleasure.

Both men would have been aware of the glaring contradictions inherent in Britain's firm attitude to terrorism abroad and British grovelling to a variety of terrorists in a part of the United Kingdom. It is significant that Dr Reid, with his responsibility for Northern Ireland, should be consulting with the head of the FBI on what they call "the next stages". Obviously, they both feel that there is more to come. It is prudent that they should be making determined efforts to have steps in place for when that comes.

This morning on the "Today" programme, the Secretary of State for Defence, Mr Hoon, made a statement which will presumably be repeated. That is the way it is nowadays. The Minister makes a statement at eight o'clock in the morning which is later repeated in both Houses of Parliament as an afterthought. However, we have become accustomed to that. Who am I to complain? His statement today dealt with what the Americans call "home base defence measures". Mr Hoon spoke about the possibility of using the Territorial Army and other defence organisations to deal with certain problems within the United Kingdom.

Another startling statement was made by the Ministry of Defence on the "Today" programme, which was, I suppose, an exclusive, in discussing the possibilities of utilising mercenary bodies to ease the strain and remove overstretch in the Armed Forces. Clearly consideration must be given to the implications of all that for decommissioning or, as I prefer to call it, the disarmament of all forces in possession of weapons.

Looking further ahead, the whole question of amnesty must be reconsidered in the light of the above announcements. Clearly, an amnesty must be all-embracing. It must extend, for example, to former RUC members, members of other Crown forces and, indeed, to Crown servants, if necessary. The joyful part of that for the British taxpayer must be the implied elimination of all public inquiries, which cost literally millions of pounds. Obviously, self-perpetuating commissions, ombudsmen and ombudswomen will be rendered obsolete by the introduction of what might be called, and were called in my time, "irregular forces". I firmly believe that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland must be given time to consider the impact of all the fresh thinking, both on his part, on that of the FBI and now by the Ministry of Defence, speaking from its position of authority. Although we may need to renew this legislation, such renewal should be restricted to one year, for the solid reasons provided by the Secretary of State for Defence and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, we on these Benches support the Bill. I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, is not pressing for a Division because we would not be able to support him. Perhaps I may say to the noble Lords, Lord Glentoran and Lord Molyneaux, that efforts to continue with decommissioning are really not affected by the order. As I said in Committee, the most effective force for good in decommissioning lies with the American administration rather than in London or Dublin. For that reason, we support the Bill unamended.

12.15 p.m.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, I support the amendment, for the reasons that I have cited before but shall cite again, mercilessly. The issue here is that a message needs to be sent to the people in the little streets of Northern Ireland. For them, this is a simple issue: are the Government serious about protecting them?

There was a little decommissioning last October. However, as I remember the Belfast agreement, decommissioning was supposed to cover every aspect of violence, including the guns on the streets. Here we are talking only about what will happen to arms in dumps. Precious little has happened and I suspect that precious little will happen. However, there is another aspect. I come back to an issue which I have raised before in this House. The paramilitaries on all sides—not only the IRA—are becoming more and more overweening in their power to exile people from their own country, depriving them of a basic human right, and nothing is being done.

The committee which discussed relocation after intimidation received a response from the Government to its modest proposal that there might be some sort of focal point for organising help for such people when they arrive in this country, distressed, lost and frightened, with no money, no work and no house. Some local councils leave them on the streets and do nothing for them. They are treated worse than any asylum seeker. All that is being suggested is a focal point which understands their needs. In that response the Government state: The Government is satisfied that the support necessary for victims of intimidation resettling in Great Britain is in place". It is not, or that committee would not have made that recommendation. The Government make a remarkable comment, which I hope does not apply to their thinking on decommissioning generally: Formalising the development of policy and the co-ordination of support activities, as the Committee advocates, would risk sending a signal to paramilitaries that, by working to alleviate the consequences of their actions, the Government was tacitly allowing them to continue with impunity". That is the most extraordinarily cynical and disgraceful reason for saying that they will do nothing.

I return to the fact that people are becoming more and more anxious, beleaguered and unloved. No one seems to care about them. I think that a simple message would be better than nothing. It would show that we are concerned about them and about the continuation of violence. I strongly urge the Government to reconsider, not only in supporting the amendment in due course—I hope that we shall return to it again—but above all in realising that the Belfast agreement interlocked a number of issues. Each one was supposed to depend upon the other. However, it has become completely distorted. We have put in place largely the measures wanted by Sinn Fein. We have not put in place the balancing act which was implied, and which the Prime Minister implied in his speech of 14th April.

Lord Fitt

My Lords, I listen regularly to Radio Ulster. Last week I listened every morning, and every morning without fail Radio Ulster reported that another series of knee-cappings had been carried out by both loyalist and republican paramilitaries. That happened every single day. It was the same the week before that. No doubt next week it will be the same.

Paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland are using their arms to intimidate individuals, districts and communities and to bend them to their will. The message to them from this legislation is that they will be able to hold on to their arms until 2007. They shall be able to carry on knee-capping and all that goes with it and the Government will not do anything about it.

I have yet to hear of anyone being brought before the court charged with knee-capping or of a paramilitary being charged with the mutilation of an individual. They know that that will not happen because those people who are mutilated, who have been knee-capped and/or who have been intimidated out of their country—the exiles referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Park—will not say anything.

I have just attended a meeting at the other side of this building which concerned a barman in Derry who did not agree with one of the customers who was becoming very obstreperous. The barman ordered him out of the pub. The person ordered out was a member of or had friends in the republican movement. The next day masked men with balaclavas came to the barman's house and ordered him out of the country.

Does that not show the power that is now being wielded by some of the greatest thugs that have every walked the streets of Northern Ireland? This legislation is saying that they can continue to do that until 2007.

I asked last week—and I do not want to go into this again in any great detail—whether the Government have made any representations to those in control of paramilitary organisations. Again I do not restrict my remarks to the IRA; the loyalists are also exiling people from their homeland. The loyalists also carry out knee-capping and mutilations every day of the week. What can the Government do because those who are mutilated by the loyalists do not go to the police? The IRA argument, when challenged on this, is: "We have to do this. We are acting as policemen because there is not an acceptable police force in Northern Ireland". That is what they say. So they are asking permission to continue with these mutilations for another five years on the grounds that they are the only acceptable police force in those communities in Northern Ireland.

I said to the Minister last week: "By the way, standing as I do in this House, having the experience which I have had in Northern Ireland, and having had my own home burned out in Northern Ireland by the so-called republican paramilitaries, I could quite easily sit here and say nothing. I could stay away from these debates because when I do take part in them I get a lot of anonymous threatening letters from paramilitary organisations". It is mostly from the republicans because I have questioned their activities in this House. "But I believe that when coming to this House and taking the Oath of Allegiance at the Dispatch Box I gave an oath that I would talk on all the issues that are relevant to the security of the United Kingdom". I am doing so now because Northern Ireland is a part of the United Kingdom.

Many of Northern Ireland's citizens are being brutally intimidated by paramilitary organisations—Mafia organisations. This legislation, as it stands, is saying to them that they can continue to do this until 2007. On the other hand, we know—and I refer to it again at the risk of repeating myself—that there will be an amnesty granted to republican prisoners who are on the run in the Republic of Ireland. The Government are going to grant them an amnesty so that they can come back to Northern Ireland. I was speaking to a policeman last week in Belfast. He told me that one of those who will gain from this amnesty he knew for a fact had killed three of his RUC colleagues. Just imagine how difficult it will be for that policeman to see the murderer of his colleagues granted an amnesty by the British Government because of some deal that they are doing with paramilitary organisations.

I have suggested that if we are to get anything out of this—and I do not believe that we are—the Government should say to the paramilitary organisations: "Before we let your people come back into Northern Ireland from the Republic, we insist that all those who have been exiled by paramilitary organisations are allowed to come back home and live in Northern Ireland". At least we should get something in return.

I refer again to the choreography. We were told that the Government make one move and Sinn Fein or the IRA or the loyalists make a move in the other direction. They have not. The amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, in effect says, "We realise that we cannot defeat the Government because they will get their way in the legislation, but at least restrict the activities of the paramilitary organisations to one year rather than to five years". I do not believe that that is an outlandish request to make.I appeal to the Government to take on board what has been said by noble Lords in this House about the existing situation in Northern Ireland where fear and intimidation exists to a large extent throughout communities and to tell those who they must be negotiating with in relation to this legislation that they will have to give something back in return.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville

My Lords, I intervened in Committee after the speech by the noble Lord, Lord Desai, when he told the House that the guns were silent. I cited the paramilitaries' actions against the rest of the community about which the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, has just been speaking. I emphasise that it is either side of the community; it is not the community simply on one side. I quoted data from the evidence section of the report by the Select Committee in another place in the last Parliament on the paramilitaries sending their fellow citizens into exile. That data reflected the increase in shootings after the second ceasefire by comparison with a fairly modest number of shootings after the first.

By unfortunate irony, the other place is debating that report in Westminster Hall at 2.30 this afternoon, once this debate is likely to have been concluded. The Government did not reply to that report published in May of last year until December. The Minister's reply to the debate this afternoon is therefore the first real opportunity for the Government to be cross-examined on their position on the issue and on the report.

The noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House will recall that my noble friend Lady Park's debate on this subject in this House coincided with the news of the decommissioning by the IRA. Therefore, he did not have excessive time on that occasion to respond to the specific points made by my noble friend. I make no criticism of that. The coincidence was one which in part determined the debate.

The Times on 8th February brought the figures up-to-date in terms of last year in an article which may have reflected the case mentioned a moment ago by the noble Lord. Lord Fitt. In that article the RUC' had reported that there were 331 punishment beatings and shootings in Northern Ireland last year, which is the highest figure in 30 years of conflict. The Times also cited statistics brought forward by Base Two, the body that underlies NIACRO, which also gave evidence as regards the report that I have alluded to. That indicated that there were 906 threats last year by paramilitaries to their fellow citizens in the community. I acknowledge immediately that the first 300 of those were by republicans and at least 500 were by loyalists. I am not suggesting in any way that it is all on one side of the community. However, those 906 threats included 50 death threats and 650 of what are perhaps not wholly felicitously referred to as 'exile orders".

I understood the response of the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House to my noble friend's amendment in Committee, which was of a similar nature to the one he is moving today. It meant that, beyond peradventure, the letter of the law in terms of what the noble and learned Lord said is on the side of the Government. But there are occasions when the spirit of the law requires reinforcement in order to send a message from Parliament in instances of this sort. Therefore I continue unreservedly to support my noble friend's amendment.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, of course the level of paramilitary violence, kneecappings and so on is quite unacceptable. Of course decommissioning must happen; but frankly I am not persuaded that the difference between 2005 and 2007 will make the paramilitaries say, "Ho, Ho! Parliament is more determined than we thought it was". I do not believe that the difference between the two is the real issue, in terms of whether the paramilitaries will respond or not.

In any case, as I understand it, the provisions have to be renewed a year at a time so that there is still the possibility—the inevitability—that Parliament will from year to year pronounce on the continuation of these measures. Even if the IRA were to decommission today we would still need this legislation on the statute book until 2007, I believe, because both the Real IRA and some of the loyalist organisations have not been disposed even to consider decommissioning up to now.

At least from the IRA we have had one major act of decommissioning—not a minor one—which I believe to be of enormous significance. I hope that I may, just for the record, disagree with the noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth. She suggested, as she does every time she speaks, that all the concessions are one-way and that Sinn Fein/IRA have made no concessions at all. I have no truck with violence from anyone, but perhaps I might remind her that Sinn Fein are members of a devolved parliamentary institution within the United Kingdom, that two of them are Ministers and that they have accepted the principle of consent that there will be no change in the constitutional position of Northern Ireland without the will of the majority of its people.

That is an enormous concession by them, given their previous position. I think that it should be remembered, before we believe that the Government are simply making concessions to one side and not to the other. Of course decommissioning has to happen but I believe that it will happen through argument, pressure and persuasion, not by means of a technicality on our statute book.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I know that everyone who has spoken is motivated by a genuine desire for improvement in Northern Ireland. and I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, as always. He took the view, which I entirely respect, that a Thursday morning with a small House is not the moment to test the opinion of the House. He was scrupulous in discussing this with me before we began.

I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, for what he said about Dr Reid. On his visit to the United States he made the important point that if there is to be financial and other assistance from the United States community it ought to go evenhandedly also to the Protestant sections of the Northern Ireland population. It seems to me—and I do not say this because I am a Member of the same Government—that he is showing himself, as every week passes, to be a very considerable Secretary of State indeed.

I am grateful for the scrupulous support of the Liberal Democrats, as always in the context of Northern Ireland, and I am grateful for the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton. The noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, has referred on a number of occasions to those who are sent away from their homes. She never exaggerates the problem and, without commitment, I shall look again in detail at what she said.

The noble Lords, Lord Fitt and Lord Brooke, have recent facts behind them. The citation given by the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, is quite right: 331 people were the victims of paramilitary shootings and assaults in 2001; 17 persons were murdered. There were 344 bombings and 350 shootings. Of course it is not right to say that the authorities are powerless. Later this morning I shall ask your Lordships to extend the additional powers in the context of Northern Ireland which are required for a further year. In the context of what was said by the noble Lords, Lord Brooke and Lord Fitt, 635 people were arrested in 2001 either for terrorist activity or serious public disorder offences. I do not think that it is right for me not to include those figures in a tribute to the continuing work of the police service in Northern Ireland.

The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, is quite right. What this Bill does is to extend what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, called, attractively and accurately, the possessory immunity provisions for one year. It extends the provisions for one year, and there is the possibility—but no more—of further extensions, subject to the annual positive approval of this House. Therefore the difference between us is whether or not a possible further series of extensions should run for two years or for five years. For the reasons already set out by the noble Lords, Lord Smith of Clifton and Lord Dubs, I think that five years is appropriate.

That does not mean that there is no obligation on people to surrender arms before that. Indeed, if anyone is arrested in possession of arms in Northern Ireland, as in any other part of the United Kingdom, and they are not able to bring themselves within this possessory immunity, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, called it, they are committing criminal offences and are liable to be charged, are capable of being charged, and are charged with serious offences.

I appreciate that the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, does not wish to put the matter to the vote on this occasion although he may well revert to that when we meet on Third Reading. I believe that we are right to set this five-year period. As the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, said, that was the letter of the law on the first scheme and it is suitable—though perhaps regrettable—as an aspect of this further extension.

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have joined in this debate again. I believe that it is right for us to continue to pressurise Her Majesty's Government to do all they can to attain decommissioning, and there are different ways of doing that. I thank the noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal for his reasoned and careful response, and I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.