HL Deb 26 January 2004 vol 656 cc79-82

7.24 p.m.

Baroness Amos rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 14 January be approved [5th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the order appoints 25 February 2005 as the date before which the amnesty period identified in a non-statutory decommissioning scheme must end. The amnesty period is the time during which firearms, ammunition and explosives can be decommissioned in accordance with the scheme. The amnesty provides immunity from prosecution for the offences set out in the schedule to the 1997 Act—offences that might be committed during the decommissioning process. Most relate to possession, but others concern offences which may stem from a person's participation in decommissioning—centred not necessarily on the weapons involved, but on the behaviour which may accompany participation, such as the withholding of information, or making arrangements with terrorists.

Section 2 of the 1997 Act, as amended by the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning (Amendment) Act 2002, requires that a scheme must identify the amnesty period and that it must end before 26 February 2004 unless the Secretary of State, by order, appoints a later day. The purpose of this order is to extend that period until midnight on 24 February next year.

Naturally the Government would like to see the decommissioning of all paramilitary weapons as soon as possible. The order is a vital part of the process of delivering on that. Since the amnesty provisions were last renewed last spring, there has been a further act of decommissioning on the part of the Provisional IRA. On 21 October last year, the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning reported witnessing a third IRA decommissioning event in which weapons were put beyond use in accordance with the Government's scheme and regulations.

Naturally the Government regret that it is necessary to continue to have such provisions at all, but we are absolutely clear that without them the process of decommissioning that we all want to see would not be possible. I underline that we want to see decommissioning by all paramilitary groups—loyalist and republican. We also call on those groups outside the peace process to engage with the decommissioning body to bring about full decommissioning, because we want to see an end to all paramilitary activity and to stem the rise of the criminal culture that threatens to replace it.

I want to pay tribute to the commitment, perseverance and integrity of General John de Chastelain and his colleagues at the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning. I want to express my thanks to them for what they have achieved in the process to date. The decommissioning process has begun. We want it to continue and to be completed, so it is essential that we continue to provide immunity from prosecution for those involved. We do that through this order and I commend it to the House.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 14 January be approved [5th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Baroness Amos.)

Viscount Bridgeman

My Lords, on this side of the House we also express thanks to General John de Chastelain for all that he is doing in the peace process. Of course we share the Government's view that we all want the decommissioning period completed as early as practicable. However, we note that the amnesty period set out in the order must end one day before the decommissioning period. As the inception of the decommissioning period continues to be postponed we also accept that it is necessary under the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act for the amnesty order to be renewed annually. As the Minister has indicated, the reality is that without an amnesty in force there will be no prospect of decommissioning. Accordingly, we support the order.

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, the Lord President, for introducing the order. In the euphoria following the Good Friday Agreement there was an expectation that decommissioning would occur by the latest date set down in the 1997 Act. However, it has taken almost that long to achieve the beginning of credible decommissioning and it will take longer to achieve total decommissioning, so the amnesty must be extended.

The step of decommissioning weapons was a long time coming and no one should underestimate the significance of the move that occurred last October. It has always been recognised that decommissioning is a process—no one ever expected the IRA to decommission all its weapons at once. However, the Good Friday Agreement talks about the total disarmament of all paramilitary groups and that is our aim. Although the decommissioning that took place before the elections last year was welcome and significant, as yet we are still nowhere near the total decommissioning that all want to see.

I repeat what the noble and most reverend Lord, Lord Eames, said many years ago: decommissioning should not be elevated to a principle of supreme importance; negotiations must go on. Has there been any contact between the IICD, led by General de Chastelain, and any of the loyalist paramilitary groups? Incidences of loyalist violence are increasing, and we cannot expect real dialogue on decommissioning by loyalists while such violence continues. The aim is to achieve the total decommissioning of all paramilitary weapons. What action is the Minister taking to achieve that?

We do not believe that in a democratic society there is any place for illegally held weapons and have always called for full decommissioning by both loyalist and republican paramilitary groups. We have been supportive of the progress made on the issue to date. However, we always hoped that we would be further down the line to total decommissioning than we are. We recognise that decommissioning is a process and that no paramilitary group will decommission all its weapons at once. But now that we have started out on the process, we cannot give the IRA, in particular, any reason not to decommission its weapons. That is why we will support the passage of the order.

We are at the point of impasse, but at least we are not sustaining a false equilibrium anymore. Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party have a choice: they must either come to an accommodation, in which IRA decommissioning will play its part as will the previous intransigence of the DUP, or else the stalemate will give way inevitably to Northern Ireland being governed by a de facto London/Dublin condominium. We all hope that devolution can be restored and that there can be some sort of accommodation between Sinn Fein and the DUP.

7.32 p.m.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, and the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, for their comments. I agree totally with the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, that the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons is only one element—though a vital one—in the process of taking violence out of politics in Northern Ireland for good.

The noble Lord asked me specifically about contact between loyalist organisations and the IICD. I can tell him that in April last year the Loyalist Commission along with UDA representatives met the IICD. As I understand it, that was the last contact. I hope that that addresses the noble Lord's point.

On Question, Motion agreed to.