HL Deb 21 January 2002 vol 630 cc1367-75

Second Reading debate resumed.

5.8 p.m.

Lord Cooke of Islandreagh

My Lords, if the Bill had provided for the extension of the amnesty for paramilitary decommissioning for one year, I could have understood it. To provide it for five years is, in the paramilitary world, almost light years away. So why should the paramilitaries bother to decommission this year or the next? They are getting on very well—in particular the IRA, which, figuratively speaking, has kept its arms under the negotiating table and is sticking it out. Therefore, I believe that we can now forget about decommissioning by any paramilitary organisation—loyalist or republican—for the reasonable future.

I accept that decommissioning by the IRA in October last year was significant and important. But it is now clear that that was done for many special reasons—largely to get the IRA out of trouble. Therefore, I do not consider that it is likely to recur.

It is today that members of Sinn Fein/IRA get into their offices in the other place and receive substantial allowances. Let us consider the access that that will allow to Westminster for their fellow travellers. All that is very disturbing for the pro-union people in Northern Ireland. We were led to believe that we had a peace process in which Sinn Fein/IRA would decommission and become democrats. It is now clear that it will not decommission, and massive electoral fraud has made it plain that its members are not democrats.

What on earth have the Government been thinking about? Do the Government believe that they are dealing with a child and that if they give him or her a sweet every week Sinn Fein/IRA will grow up and do what the Government want? The sweet every week to Sinn Fein/IRA has made the pro-union people in Northern Ireland feel distressed and threatened. Living and moving about there as I do, the feeling of what is an almost physical hurt is universal. People do not know what we are heading for when all the Government appear to do is give more to the IRA.

Nothing is being done to review the work of the Assembly and sectarian feeling is worse than it has ever been, promoted by paramilitaries on both sides. I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, that many brave people, including the leaders, in the community have been working very hard to try to make sense of what is going on. But it is clear that the paramilitaries are up to a game of their own and that politics is not their concern.

Nothing can excuse the paramilitary murders, shootings, bombings, organised rioting and much else in the areas that they control. It is all too obvious that a determined, concentrated police effort is urgently needed to regain control in those areas. But the police reserve is being disbanded, again to please the IRA. The Northern Ireland police service no longer has the numbers required to undertake this very difficult task. The Government must remember that they are responsible for security in Northern Ireland and at the moment we do not have security. Therefore, it is not surprising that the pro-union majority is very disenchanted with the peace process and this Bill is not helpful.

President Bush's special adviser on Northern Ireland, Mr Richard Haas, has been visiting the Province. He has said that he believes that the peace process will be unable to go forward unless a majority in both communities is supportive. He said, quite simply, what is needed is a warm house for all who live there". I can tell the House that it has become very chilly for pro-union people. I commend this advice to the Government and urge them to drop the Bill as a start to a revision of policy that will enable the peace process to go forward.

5.13 p.m.

Lord Mayhew of Twysden

My Lords, as is so often the case in relation to our debates on Northern Ireland, this debate has caused me anguish. Comfortably seated as we are 400, 500 or 600 miles away from the seat of the Troubles, such debates tend to bring before us so much frustration, so much pain and so much wickedness. However, I do not believe that this Bill is wholly without some positive signs. In a brief contribution, I want to try to re-establish, or a t least to remind myself of, a principle that we should bear in mind when considering this Bill: almost everyone agrees that in our democracy illegal armaments must be removed from any position in which they can influence the political process. Agreeing on that is the easy bit. It gets much harder when it is recognised that illegal though it is to hold armaments, the yielding up of them will be done only voluntarily. If it is not done voluntarily, it will not be done at all. Therefore, to secure the best prospect of the armaments being dealt with so that they are for ever out of harm's way, it is necessary to put in place a rather more sophisticated scheme than many would like. I believe that proposition to be sound.

In the circumstances, that is fortunate because I ventured to express that proposition on 9th December 1996 in another place when I moved the Second Reading of the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Bill in exactly those words. Out of interest, this afternoon I looked up those words. That Bill was enacted with all-party support, notwithstanding that at that time the IRA's ceasefire had not been restored after the incident at Canary Wharf; and in accordance with the earlier Mitchell report, an independent commission under General John de Chastelain was put in place. Mr Trimble has said, as we have been rightly reminded today, that the expectation was, and the requirement of the Mitchell report was, that decommissioning should be progressive and should not end before it was total.

There was also put in place a tightly defined and narrow amnesty which was, and is, available only to those who adhere to the strict terms of a decommissioning scheme, and only for offences that are committed technically in respect of anything done in accordance with such a scheme. They are mainly possessory offences in nature. So it is a tight, narrowly drawn and technical amnesty indeed.

That Bill was not so much an act of faith—that would have been too much—but it was an act of hope. Above all, I consider it an act of reason. It is perfectly true that it was introduced at a time when Mitchell had reported that all paramilitary organisations had committed themselves to the rightness of total decommissioning. Now we are within weeks of the time running out in which such an amnesty can be provided. I am in no doubt that it must be extended, although, together with my noble friend on the Front Bench and with others, I believe that it would be right that there should be an extension for 12 months, with no provision written into the Bill for further extension because of the points that have been made about the signal that a further extension power by order up to a total of five years harmfully sends.

The reason is that although we have had far too little decommissioning by the IRA, and by the loyalists, we have had some. That has taken place in the context of the positive developments that have already been listed and which need not be repeated. We want and demand much more. More importantly, the people of Northern Ireland demand much more. We know of no better method of gathering it in.

To close off this method and this route by removing the amnesty necessary—that is, as it were, to give safe conduct to people who deliver up arms—would achieve no good and very much harm. It would be the end of any prospect of the further decommissioning that is owed by the IRA and by the loyalists and it would be a self-inflicted end.

In my view, the Government are entitled to the Bill, or at least to the principle of the Bill. I shall return to the matter of duration. If the IRA's October tranche of decommissioning had been but a silly or a cynical token or a sham, it would be different. But having seen it himself, General de Chastelain, whom I have known well for many years now, and whom I trust implicitly both as to integrity and judgment, described it as significant. When this Bill was before another place, Mr Trimble said: I have no doubt that it was significant". Indeed, he believed that it was more than significant. He said: I think it was substantial".—[Official Report. Commons, 17/12/01, col. 74.] There is much in this progression, which we have had brought before us again this afternoon, that is maddening. There is no question about that. However, it is very important that we should not allow it to madden us. There is much about this progression—snail-like and erratic as it has been—that is sickening. I listened with mounting depression—but I could not fault it—to the list, to the progression of concessions and the cynical disregard of them from the republican side, that my noble friend Lady Park rehearsed in her powerful speech. There is much that is sickening.

It is so easy to appear soft and wimpish when one rejects an impulse inspired by fury rather than by reason. Yet to yield to such an impulse would bring only short-lived satisfaction and at a cost that others would have to pay over a long time.

Maintenance of object should be the first principle of any campaign. Our object must be to secure the removal from our democracy of all illegally held munitions and, with them, the influence that they continuously exert, even from their hiding places.

Appeasement will not achieve it. I agree with what has been said about the step taken today at the other end of this building in relation to offices for Sinn Fein notwithstanding those Members' refusal to take the oath that all other Members have taken. I am afraid that the Government missed a serious and valuable trick in continuing with the release of prisoners notwithstanding that violence continued, because that was the one lever that they had—and they threw it away. But there is plenty of pressure that can be brought to bear on the IRA. It must be sustained pressure and must come from as wide an area of the world as possible. We should call on every country engaged in the war against terrorism to exert that pressure. There is no justification for any armaments to be retained.

There is no justification for maintaining, uncorrected, the imbalance—it is a huge imbalance—between the concessions and the moves that have been made towards conciliation by unionists since the Good Friday agreement, and any movement since then on the part of Sinn Fein/IRA.

I listened with anguish to what my noble friend Lord Molyneaux of Killead said about the consequences electorally for those in the Ulster Unionist Party who supported the Good Friday agreement as they face the elections for the Assembly in May.

That imbalance is well recognised world-wide. So we must steel ourselves, yet again saying, "We are where we are", against very sincerely held views that we are being soft and wimpish. We have to grant this extension of this technical amnesty.

I very much regret the five-year duration. I have no doubt that we shall come back to this matter, but I am very clear that we must not make impossible what we should be exhorting countries all over the world to press for—that is, the total decommissioning of all illegally held arms.

5.24 p.m.

Lord Shutt of Greetland

My Lords, I rise to support the Bill. There is not an alternative.

Let us consider the alternative. The alternative of not having the Bill and not extending the time period for decommissioning would mean that people will believe that it is no longer required. Just think of what may happen—whether it be Republican or Loyalist—if the thinking is that decommissioning need no longer be pursued.

There has been a depth and diversity of comment in the debate about what is a short eight or nine-line Bill. Many of your Lordships have used the temptation to talk about the many and several ills in Northern Ireland at the present time. Indeed, the Leader of the House in opening the debate gave a list of forward-moving measures. But we still have the conflict of—it came from several of the speakers—the present unionist problem about unionist confidence. I suspect that we shall have to return to this matter.

However, as is the nature of matters in this House, the bulk of today's speakers have had a unionist handle to them. Indeed, if one takes the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Parks, the entire speech was stating clearly the ills of Sinn Fein and the IRA, but there were seven words: The Loyalists are just as bad but". The rest of it was about another group of people.

I am gratified that in the end, and particularly from the speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, speakers are not saying, "Please do not pass the Bill". Yes, an opportunity has been used to make many of the comments that have been made on many occasions, but there is an understanding that the way forward is to have the Bill.

I was thinking that if, during the passage of the Bill, a messenger appeared and a piece of paper was handed to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, with two choices on it—that General de Chastelain has announced that there is a little more decommissioning on the one hand, or, on the other hand, that peace has broken out in North Belfast—which would your Lordships sooner have? We need to put these matters into context. I must say that if a piece of paper were to come saying that peace had been found in North Belfast and that people had stopped knocking hell out of one another, many of us in this House would give that an incredible welcome and it would be a wonderful present for the day.

Reference has been made to the Bill having a long life. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, said that he would prefer just a short extension. I am far from certain that this constant business of having a buffer a few months away and then a crisis when we get up to it, is the best way to get progress in Northern Ireland. Although I understand the argument about giving a lot of rope, I believe that if we have a Bill which gives that greater opportunity for us not to be under this constant pressure on the subject area, that would he better.

Of course decommissioning must happen. It is part of the Good Friday agreement that was negotiated in Belfast. There should be decommissioning. People have signed up and agreed to it. We all want it to happen. It would be useful if the Minister in his reply could indicate whether there has been any further progress—people would like to know—since the measures in October. Three months have now passed.

With those few remarks, I should like to say that from these Benches we support the Bill. Nevertheless, we hope for speedy decommissioning.

5.29 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I have never been present when we have debated the continuing problems of Northern Ireland without benefiting from the speeches made. That has been the case today. Just before he sat down, the noble Lord, Lord Shutt of Greetland, asked me whether there had been any further progress. My answer to him is: yes, the Assembly still continues; yes, the Police Service for Northern Ireland has now been set up. Surprisingly—we shall discuss this in a little while—all parties with a legitimate interest agreed on a badge.

Much more importantly in the Northern Ireland context, if the noble Lord were to chide me by sending yet another messenger with another piece of paper saying, "Can you tell us about further progress on decommissioning?", I would have to say that I could not. However, I agree with the theme and implications of his earlier remarks: to focus unnaturally and solely on decommissioning is to do Northern Ireland's interests significant harm. Decommissioning is very important, but it is not the only aspect of importance.

In many ways the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, was brave and thoughtful. He, at least, could not be accused of not focusing on the paramilitaries—the accusation made by the noble Lord, Lord Shutt. His criticism of the loyalist paramilitaries was ringing and robust. He pulled no punches, as he never does. If I may say so, he was most even-handed—indeed, he was highly critical of the so-called loyalist paramilitaries. He was generous—I was grateful to hear this—in his commendation of the Assembly, which is now on the way to becoming a sound administration.

Of course it is right to say, as did my noble friend Lord Dubs, that it was not the British Government who installed the Assembly; it was not the British Government who installed elected members; it was voters, by the choice that they exercise at elections. The noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux of Killead, referred to the cold house and the chill house in the speech of my right honourable friend Dr Reid. I read that speech several times. It was an extremely thoughtful speech of considerable depth. The Secretary of State seemed to me to be reminding himself and all of us that we must bear in mind the susceptibilities of the Unionist community, to which the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, referred, as a most important part of Northern Ireland society.

That was exactly the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran. There is a significant amount of loyalist violence. It is not simply armed violence but the sort of violence to which we are becoming far too accustomed—it is hardly an exaggeration to say that it has occurred every night during recent weeks.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew of Twysden, were both good enough to say that they accepted the integrity—and, perhaps more to the point, the judgment—of General de Chastelaine. I agree with what was said: decommissioning must continue. We must carefully consider the scheme of the Act. The initial Act was introduced by the noble and learned Lord when he was Secretary of State. I responded to it when the noble Baroness, Lady Denton, was taking it through this place. It is not a case of extending decommissioning for five years. As the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, pointed out, the provision is for up to five years and must be attended to annually. That is important and distinct.

I must take issue with the noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth. She described the act of decommissioning on 22nd October—I think—as an act of relative significance. That puts it far too low in the history of Ireland as I have read and come to know it. In fact, it was an act of dramatic significance—not sufficient, not entire, but extremely important. She said that the Government talk about transparency and yet some things are opaque. I agree—as did she in her former incarnation.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, I am sure that the noble and learned Lord would agree that there is not really a comparison between the conduct of secret and public affairs. My point was that the Act was announced as something to create public confidence. It failed to do so. Incidentally, I should like to take this opportunity to say that I have never challenged—and never would challenge—the integrity, honour and competence of General de Chastelaine; I greatly admire all three. I was talking about what the IRA managed to do, despite his integrity and professionalism.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the noble Baroness has mistaken me. I did not suggest for a second that she had challenged General de Chastelaine's qualities of integrity.

As I think that we both enjoy these occasions, I return to her challenge to me. Her former work—and the work on which the Government are presently engaged—are both to the public advantage. In that context of working to public advantage, not every aspect of every activity can conceivably be made known at the time in the public interest. So there is no real difference between us, and I hope to have rounded that circle—if not squared it.

The noble Baroness asked me some specific questions. I can answer one, which falls into the non-opaque category. The inspectors were not accompanied by technical advisers. They had been thoroughly briefed by arms experts before the inspections took place, so that they would be able to verify the viability of the material that they were shown.

The noble Baroness also asked me whether the Government had asked the commission to consider any proposals for decommissioning that would not involve the weapons concerned being put permanently and verifiably beyond use. I must remind her and your Lordships that destruction is described in the Act which the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, introduced. In Section 10 of that Act, destruction is described as follows: 'destruction' includes making permanently inaccessible or permanently unusable". So that is not a modern gloss or a contemporary fiction, it has always been in the Act.

The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, is right. He speaks with the authority of recent engagement with and continuing experience of Northern Ireland. He pointed out—as, more brutally, did the noble Lord. Lord Shutt—that we must continue to engage. The noble Lord, Lord Shutt, may well be expelled from his party, because he used the words that I have not heard since the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, was with us: there is no alternative.

The noble Lord, Lord Cooke of Islandreagh, wanted the Bill to be dropped. There is no prospect in this world of our doing so. That would be an act of gross irresponsibility. I take up and agree with the point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew: it is easy for us to have views when the consequences do not immediately impinge upon our lives so many hundreds of miles away.

There was no invitation to No. 10 to celebrate the Sinn Fein members being allowed to use parliamentary facilities. I understand—and I am pretty sure that I am right about this—that the appointment had been agreed weeks before. We can argue about whether Sinn Fein representatives, who have been voted in by their constituencies, ought or ought not to have been given parliamentary privileges. But that, as the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, said much more plainly than I could, has nothing to do with the Bill. So I shall not engage in that controversy, which was a matter for the other House. We are asking for a continuation of the opportunity to continue the possessory amnesty. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, was absolutely right about that. The amnesty is limited in legal terms but is of great significance in political and party terms. Let us assume—this may never come about—that some degree of human grace entered those who cruelly murdered the postal worker, Mr McColgan, on his way to work at 4.45 a.m. Do we not want a continuing possessory amnesty available for people who may actually think that they were wrong?

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.