HL Deb 22 October 2003 vol 653 cc1615-25

3.9 p.m.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to repeat a Statement made earlier today in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. The Statement is as follows:

"1 should like to make a Statement about political developments in Northern Ireland. The House will be aware that yesterday, although a day of great progress, ended in disappointment. We had high hopes that a sequence of actions involving political parties, the IRA, the Independent International Commission for Decommissioning and the governments would result in a positive new atmosphere of trust at the beginning of the election campaign.

"I believe that we were close to achieving that result. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach devoted much effort to the task both yesterday and in the preceding weeks. But the significant feature of this recent phase of the process was the direct engagement between the leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party and of Sinn Fein.

"These discussions and related developments have, in my view, brought us a good deal further than the position we reached in April. Let us be clear what has now been achieved.

"First, we have concluded that an election should now be held in Northern Ireland. The date, Wednesday, 26th November, was announced yesterday.

"Secondly, we have an important statement from the leader of Sinn Fein which was endorsed by the IRA. When Mr Adams says that there will be full and final closure of the conflict and his remarks are endorsed by the IRA, I regard that as a significant and welcome step forward.

"Thirdly, with the Irish Government, we have established the Independent Monitoring Commission to ensure that the promise of the full and final closure of the conflict is a reality.

"Fourthly, the IRA authorised its representatives to re-engage with the IICD with a view to putting arms beyond use at the earliest opportunity.

"Fifthly, there was an important act of decommissioning about which General de Chastelain reported to the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach. He confirmed that the arms dealt with included light, medium and heavy ordnance and associated munitions, and that the quantity involved was considerably larger than that dealt with in the previous event. His colleague, Mr Andrew Sens, made the point that the material involved could have caused death or destruction on a huge scale if it had been used.

"It is, of course, a matter of great disappointment that the IICD, constrained by the confidentiality insisted upon by the IRA, was unable to report all this in a manner sufficiently detailed to enable the right honourable Member for Upper Bann to make a positive statement about his party's willingness to re-enter a devolved administration following an election. He did, however, say that there were good things in Mr Adam’s speech which were encouraging.

"The two governments have made clear in the Joint Declaration that arms need to be put beyond use in a manner that is conducive to creating public confidence. This has not so far been achieved.

"As my right honourable friend the Prime Minister indicated at Hillsborough yesterday, we shall continue to try to find a way through this difficulty. Further discussions between the parties are obviously essential. The IICD will need to be involved and the British and Irish Governments will do all they can to resolve this problem quickly.

"In the mean time, the necessary legal steps need to be taken so that the election announced yesterday can take place. Accordingly, I have made an order to enable fresh elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly to be held on Wednesday, 26th November.

"I have also made an associated order to defer the publication of the new electoral register due on 1st December because the necessary work cannot be carried out during preparations for an election. And I am putting forward a further order permitting the Electoral Commission access to polling stations.

"I cannot hide my disappointment at yesterday's turn of events. I hope and believe that agreement can be reached so that the comprehensive acts of completion which the Prime Minister called for last October can be achieved, and we can move towards a stable, devolved government in Northern Ireland.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.13 p.m.

Lord Glentoran

I thank the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement made by the Secretary of State in another place. Members on this side of the House are also very disappointed at the outcome of yesterday.

I agree with the noble Baroness that things have certainly moved forward over recent weeks in the attempts to maintain the momentum of the Belfast agreement, and we support the Government's decision to hold elections. However, I must ask the noble Baroness a few questions as to how yesterday ended in such a complete shambles.

First, did the Prime Minister or anyone else know that General de Chastelain had been confined to strict confidentiality by the IRA as to what he could reveal before he went public? Secondly, had the Government not verified with Mr Adams and Mr Trimble exactly what each thought the deal was, and as it is the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach who have made clear in the Joint Declaration the need for "creating public confidence", had they not assured themselves that sufficient had been delivered and in such a way as to achieve that objective? If not, does the noble Baroness agree that to have run the government spin machine, seriously over-hyped the possible outcome of yesterday's events and brought the Prime Minister almost from his sick bed, was a huge mistake?

Furthermore, does she agree that the over-spinning of the outcome could have been misinterpreted by republicans as triumphalism on the part of the Government—hence having a negative effect on the process?

The noble Baroness spoke about a number of positive developments that have taken place, such as the speech made yesterday by Mr. Adams, subsequently endorsed, as we understand and the noble Baroness has just confirmed, by the IRA. The Prime Minister said earlier today that Mr Adam’s speech satisfied his demand—made in April—that all IRA paramilitary activity would end and that the IRA would cease to exist as an effective paramilitary force. Perhaps for the record and for the sake of clarity, the noble Baroness will tell the House exactly where in Mr Adam’s speech this has been stated in those terms.

Moreover, if it is the Government's belief that the speech made by Mr Adams means that paramilitary activity will end, why can Mr Adams still not bring himself to use precisely those words?

Another development to which the noble Baroness referred was the third act of IRA decommissioning that took place yesterday, as witnessed by General de Chastelain. Obviously we welcome that act in so far as we know what it actually entails. But do not the events following the general's statement yesterday afternoon underline the need for a much greater transparency on the whole issue of decommissioning, and on whether the so-called war is over?

I shall quote from what my leader Iain Duncan Smith said to the Prime Minister today in another place:

Last night, the media reported that British officials had spoken in briefings about the kinds of weapons that had been decommissioned. Yesterday, the Prime Minister said that if the people of Northern Ireland knew what he knew, they would be satisfied". Surely the time has come to end the secrecy over this act of decommissioning and put the full details into the public domain so that the people of Northern Ireland can judge for themselves what has been done.

Surely there is now an urgent need for the Government to give us the details of what has been agreed about an ongoing process of decommissioning that will lead to all illegal weapons finally being put beyond use. Only then will the necessary trust and confidence be established so that, once the elections are out of the way, there is a chance of reforming the executive and of moving this process to the successful conclusion that we all want.

3.18 p.m.

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement made by the Secretary of State in another place. Yesterday marked a disappointing but hardly surprising turn of events. At least there is now to be an election for a new Assembly which noble Lords on these Benches have been calling for long since. I correctly forecast last October that the suspension of the Assembly was likely to be very prolonged. In May and June I argued that a new Assembly be elected so that negotiations about the formation of a new executive could take place between the pro-agreement parties within the Assembly whose mandates would have been renewed. That, six months later, is what will now happen.

In pursuing the course of actions adopted., the Government wasted six months. But worse than that delay has been the huge collateral damage inflicted on those political parties which have effectively been excluded from the negotiations. By confining negotiations to Sinn Fein and the UUP, the Government, with Dublin's compliance, has sidelined the SDLP, the Alliance, the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition and the PUP to all intents and purposes. This will have severely impaired them in the forthcoming election. It will not be held on a level playing field.

Practising the black arts in smoke-filled rooms—I speak metaphorically now that Dr John Reid is no longer Secretary of State for Northern Ireland—with an attempt to exercise rigid control on the part of No. 10, has proved not to be the best way to resume democratic devolution. As we saw yesterday—and as could have been predicted—the UUP/Sinn Fein deal fell apart in the Government's hands. Trying to manipulate the process in this way has been counter-productive and is the very antithesis of inclusive democratic dialogue. The Government must now rue the day they peremptorily and unilaterally aborted the May election.

At least there is now going to be an election, and that is to be welcomed. After that, the pro-agreement parties— along with, I suspect, the DUP—will seek to establish an executive. I hope they succeed. In the mean time, the Government would be well advised to back off trying to choreograph down to the last detail some kind of a deal between Sinn Fein and the UUP. Will the Government now proceed with a much lighter rein and go in for much less micro-management? Even if the duopolistic deal can be revived, there is no guarantee that David Trimble can deliver given the ruptures within his own party and in the wider Unionist community.

Let the people of Northern Ireland now speak; let their freshly elected representatives attempt to form a power-sharing executive; and let us hope that it is successful.

3.21 p.m.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I thank both noble Lords for their comments but, before I answer the specific questions that have been raised, let me say that I am a little disappointed with their response. Considerable progress has been made and it is not helpful to describe the outcome of yesterday's discussions as a shambles when talks are still ongoing and we are in the midst of very delicate negotiations. We all know how difficult peace processes are; we all know how difficult it is to reach the stage where negotiations are concluded; and we all know that there will be points where we take steps backwards rather than forwards. Of course we are deeply disappointed—we will have to consider what happened yesterday—but, at the same time, recriminations are not helpful.

Talks have been going on between the UUP and Sinn Fein. The Government have not been a party to those talks. The leaders of the two parties have been engaged in those talks and that is a considerable step forward given the position of the parties only a few months ago.

Specific questions have been asked in regard to confidentiality in decommissioning and inclusivity in the talks. The decommissioning legislation expressly provides for the principle of confidentiality if the organisation doing the decommissioning asks for it. The Government are clear that they would like to see greater transparency, but that is the nature of the legislation. It was considered necessary when the system was established in order that decommissioning should take place at all. We all agree that we need a system to deliver complete decommissioning, but it should be done in a manner which is conducive to creating public confidence. That is the next stage. In answering questions in another place today, the Prime Minister made clear that we would be working on finding a way to disclose and that the talks will continue. I hope that that will reassure the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran.

As regards hype, this is entirely a matter of confidence between the parties. The process has not been orchestrated by the Government. We have done all we can to facilitate engagement between the parties and we shall continue to do so. We shall try and try again in relation to that.

The issue of inclusivity was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton. Devolved government was suspended because of a lack of confidence between two of the parties. Restoration of confidence has been a key requirement for moving forward and, as noble Lords will know, there have been a large number of meetings between those two parties. However, it is important to put on record that we would not have made the great advances of recent times without the collective effort of all the pro-agreement parties. I pay tribute to the courage and commitment of them all. As I said in the House earlier this week, there have been ongoing discussions with the other parties.

As regards the speech of Mr Adams, as I said in the Statement, he called for a full and final closure of the conflict—and that was endorsed by the IRA.

3.25 p.m.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, on the basis of the information made available to us, the two Governments are to be congratulated on having brought the talks so close to success. Many of us wonder why the talks failed because, technically, the differences appear to be slight. Was there a reason for the breakdown? Given the assurances of the Prime Minister, does my noble friend agree that if everyone knew what he knew we would be satisfied? Will not the parties in Northern Ireland think again about the outcome—which has not succeeded so far—and redouble their efforts to bring these talks to a conclusion? We have been so close that it would be a tragedy if they cannot bring it off this time.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I agree that we are so close that it would be a pity if we were not able to come to a conclusion. As I said in answer to questions from the noble Lords, Lord Glentoran and Lord Smith of Clifton, we will try and try again. It is good that the parties will continue to talk. As the Prime Minister said earlier today, we are working on finding a way to disclose on the issue of decommissioning.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, the Irish and British Governments set up the monitoring commission to observe whether the acts of completion were being carried out as part of the run-up to, and condition of, the election. But in his speech Mr Adams dismissed the monitoring commission with the greatest contempt. Can the Lord President assure the House that, nevertheless, the IRA will be required to allow people in the Irish communities—who are still being terribly treated by IRA paramilitaries—to testify to the commission? Is that one of the requirements to be placed on Mr Adams as proof of genuine good faith?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, the noble Baroness asked me earlier in the week about the commission. I hope that she has received my letter in response.

The draft international agreement establishing the commission was published early in September. Once signed and ratified the agreement will formally confer functions on the commission and set out the terms of its operation. I do not want to anticipate its terms of operation. There was a recent announcement in regard to the setting-up of the commission and the work it is anticipated it will do. I should like to check the facts relating to the noble Barones’s question and write to her.

Lord Rogan

My Lords, I, too, welcome the Statement. I agree with the Minister that recrimination takes us nowhere and that we should try to make progress. But that does not take away the disappointment that everyone in Northern Ireland— and, I am sure, in the House—felt at the turn of events yesterday when General de Chastelain failed to give transparency to the IRA's act of decommissioning.

Like other parties, Ulster Unionists wish to see the election of a government in Northern Ireland. However, what we saw yesterday fell far short of our expectations. We expected greater transparency from the IRA and greater clarity from the IICD about precisely what had been decommissioned.

The Prime Minister has continually pointed to a lack of confidence among Unionists in Ulster. If, as the Prime Minister suggested last night, the IRA has undertaken a substantial act of decommissioning and is now finally and fully committed to the political process, will the Government now assist in rebuilding lost confidence by disclosing the details of yesterday's decommissioning event?

The Prime Minister, Ministers and officials continually refer to the decommissioning legislation as constraining their ability to disclose fully the decommissioning information. Can the noble Baroness pinpoint where in the legislation this confidentiality clause actually is? Can she further tell us to whom or to what exactly this confidentiality clause applies; or does it just apply to the IICD and General de Chastelain, thus excluding the Prime Minister from this obligation?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, for his general comments and his recognition of the work which has gone into this process. I entirely agree with him about the nature of the disappointment.

It is open for a group to decommission with confidentiality. This was agreed to and, as my right honourable friend the Prime Minister made clear in another place earlier today, he is not at liberty to disclose without the general's permission.

As I said earlier, the Government would like more transparency. We will work to achieve that greater transparency because it is an important way of restoring confidence. I can only repeat what my right honourable friend the Prime Minister said earlier today—that we will work on finding a way to disclose.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, does the Lord President of the Council agree that the vast majority of ordinary people in Northern Ireland want to see an end to political and criminal violence? Further, can she confirm that I am right in thinking that there have already been three substantial rounds of IRA disarmament, but on the other side of the equation, I believe that so far only nine obsolete weapons have been produced for destruction by loyalist paramilitaries? Does that not indicate a rather asymmetrical situation, and does she see a prospect for remedying that?

Finally, can the noble Baroness confirm that full and final closure of the conflict is intended to encompass such events as beatings, shootings in the leg, exilings, death threats and intimidation? Is that not a consummation greatly to be desired?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I think we are all agreed that the statement made by Mr Adams yesterday, which was endorsed by the IRA, that there would be full and final closure of the conflict, marks a very significant and welcome step forward. In terms of the application of that to specific areas, which is what the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, is asking me, I am afraid I am not able to go into those specific areas, but if I can give the noble Lord any further information, I will be happy to do so.

I entirely agree with the noble Lord that we are all seeking an end to the political and criminal violence in Northern Ireland. That is something the people of Northern Ireland desperately want.

On decommissioning, it was confirmed yesterday by General de Chastelain that the quantity involved was considerably larger than that dealt with in the previous decommissioning event. I hope that reassures the noble Lord that the decommissioning process applies not just to the IRA but to all paramilitary groups.

Lord Shutt of Greetland

My Lords, in welcoming the Lord President's Statement, I, too, was very pleased to learn and hear about the discussions that had taken place between Mr Trimble and Mr Adams. We are told there have been several. However, I also saw that that could create problems because others have not been involved. What I did not bargain for was that as a result of those discussions and what was supposed to happen yesterday, it would appear that the two parties did not know what they had agreed. This seems very strange indeed.

There is supposed to be choreography; it seems to me that what was lacking was a clerk to the choreography. Could the Government assist in making certain that where these things happen, people at least know what they are supposed to have agreed, because that—to me, at any rate—was the tragedy of what happened yesterday?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, the important thing as we see it is that the Government's role is to try to facilitate the process where the parties are talking. That is very much the approach that we have taken.

I am unable to comment on the noble Lord's point with respect to a clerk being needed to take a note of the conversations. The important thing is that these conversations are taking place at all. I think and hope that as a result of yesterday the parties will now look very seriously at what has happened and will think through what steps they need to take to build on the confidence which is already being created to enable us to take the process to the final step.

Lord Fitt

My Lords, since the signing of the Belfast agreement, it has always been known by elected representatives in Northern Ireland that the question of decommissioning would be of crucial importance in bringing about any settlement. Indeed, the paramilitaries—the IRA—had given an undertaking that total decommissioning would take place within two years. Repeatedly in this House, it has been drawn to the Government's attention that the whole question of decommissioning must be made more transparent. I have a copy of Hansard in my hand, containing a speech I made in this House on 12th September, when we came back after the summer recess. I stressed that it was crucial that the people of Northern Ireland should be made aware of what took place under the aegis of the de Chastelain commission.

I heard only yesterday—as, I think, did other noble Lords—that the secrecy built into the de Chastelain commission was insisted upon by one of the paramilitary organisations. The very fact that secrecy was built in has led to great suspicion, but then all communities in Northern Ireland, particularly the Unionist community, feel very insecure. I listened to some of the speeches made in the other place this morning; we were told that if the IRA decommissioned, the loyalist murder gangs—the paramilitaries—would decommission in support of that. Does anyone really believe, at this moment in time, that the loyalist murder gangs of the UDA and UVF will rush to decommission because of what happened yesterday?

Northern Ireland politicians were placed in a very distressing situation yesterday. The noble Baroness said that the British Government had no involvement in the discussions between the two parties. Then why have all these meetings been taking place in Downing Street over the past weeks? The two parties that were involved were in and out of there like yo-yos. However, other political parties, such as the SDLP, the party which I formerly led, and the Alliance party—I agree with what has been said on the Liberal Democrat Benches—although instrumental in and constructive about the process, were totally excluded. What happened yesterday—and I hesitate to predict this and hope that I am wrong—means that in the forthcoming election Sinn Fein will take seats from the SDLP and the so-called Democratic Unionist Party will take seats off the official Unionist Party. In what situation will the Government and the people of Northern Ireland then find themselves?

I refer to the fact that the Government agreed that the de Chastelain scheme would be surrounded by such secrecy. I repeat what I said on 12th of this month in relation to the Monitoring Commission—that if the same secrecy is going to surround the activities of that body, there is too much secrecy in Northern Ireland. The people who are in a position to decide to cast their votes must be made totally aware of what is happening, so that they can vote in their interests in Northern Ireland.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, first, I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, that given the history, we need to be sure that Unionists and others in Northern Ireland are clear that there is a substantial act of decommissioning. I entirely agree with him on that. However, I remind him that, when the system of decommissioning was established, it was considered necessary to have the confidentiality clause, because it was felt that decommissioning would not happen at all with out it. The confidentiality requirement is set out in the decommissioning scheme, which is based on Sections 3(1 )(c) and (d) of the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997. It has been in place for some time.

On the question that the noble Lord raised with respect to inclusivity, I repeat what I said in relation to earlier questions. The suspension occurred because of a lack of confidence and trust between two parties, which have been engaged in discussions to enable us to work towards restoring, or beginning to establish, that confidence and trust. That is why the focus has been on those two parties. Having said that, there have been meetings with other parties. Indeed, in the past two weeks there were two meetings between my right honourable friend the Prime Minister and the SDLP.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead

My Lords, like most old hands, the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, and I might be tempted to say that this high-wire act, like many before it, is in very real danger of collapsing after five years. However, I want to be positive.

I do not expect a reply today, because the Minister has not had notice of the question. Will Her Majesty's Government consider a plan for administrative devolution designed by a former government, endorsed in 1979 by the entire United Kingdom electorate, but sabotaged by the Foreign Office and its allies on the grounds that—to use their own words— "It was not enough"? The problem with "not enough" is that it usually means that you get nothing; I have said that before. But surely the time has come to revise that modest plan after a vacuum of 22 years, and this time build it on really solid foundations.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for making it clear that he does not require an answer to that question today. It is something that we must go away and consider, and I will of course write to him.

Lord Alton of Liverpool

My Lords, should we not reflect on the years that preceded the Good Friday agreement and the deaths, violence, carnage and hatred in the two intractably opposed communities in Northern Ireland? We should reiterate and welcome the progress that we have made since then, and not least pay some credit to the leadership of David Trimble. In very difficult circumstances, he has persevered against all the odds, both inside and outside his party and across the communities in Northern Ireland. Many of us admire the courage that he has shown.

Although the process may today be in some disarray, the fact that there is a process at all is something that we should welcome, and be optimistic and strong about. Over the summer, such a personal relationship has developed between David Trimble and Gerry Adams; that could never have happened before the Good Friday process. There may be stumbles and a faltering approach, but this is the way in which we will see normality in Northern Ireland, the entrenching of democratic institutions and the proper way towards peace. The Government should be congratulated on facilitating those things and helping the process along.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, first for reminding us of some of the recent history and, in particular, of the situation before the Good Friday agreement. We have had the quietest summer in Northern Ireland for some 30 years. The noble Lord is quite right.

We should pay tribute to the collective efforts of all the parties in Northern Ireland for their courage and commitment. For example, without the SDLP's commitment to the policing process several years ago, we would be much less far forward than we are now. The noble Lord referred to the courage and bravery of David Trimble. Others too numerous to mention have been engaged in the process and have stuck with it because the ultimate prize is peace.