HL Deb 09 February 2005 vol 669 cc879-85

8.11 p.m.

Baroness Amos

rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 26 January be approved [7th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, this is the third such order and I should like to set out briefly its purpose. The order appoints 24 February 2006 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 schedules 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, not necessarily centred on the weapons involved, but on the behaviour which may accompany participation such as the withholding of information or making arrangements for terrorists. Section 2 of the 1970 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 27 February 2003 unless the Secretary of State, by order, appoints a later date. The purpose of this order is to extend that period until the end of 23 February next year.

I am very aware of the anomaly of bringing this order before the House today when only last week the Provisional IRA made clear its intention to withdraw all previously made offers of decommissioning. In that respect the timing is unfortunate, but in terms of the process itself we are determined to move on. It is necessary for us to have this legislation in place to allow us to continue to seek progress on the decommissioning of all paramilitary weapons.

Since the signing of the Good Friday agreement, the Government have consistently expressed the view that decommissioning has been, and remains, a vital element of taking violence out of politics in Northern Ireland permanently. That, and stable, inclusive devolved government, remains our goal.

As this House has discussed in recent weeks, immediate political progress does not appear likely. The process in Northern Ireland has been seriously set back by recent acts of criminality, which have caused grievous damage to the trust that had been established between parties. Those acts have ended for the foreseeable future any hopes of a return to devolved administration in Northern Ireland. It is deeply disappointing that the progress that appeared so close in December has been lost. Those who saw the published details of that settlement will know how much could have been achieved and how much has been lost, at least for the present.

My right honourable friend the Prime Minister recently met the Sinn Fein leadership to convey to them the seriousness of the situation and to tell them in person that if the situation is to be retrieved, the IRA must end all paramilitary and criminal activity. The Government will continue to use measures such as this decommissioning order to facilitate the ending of violence in Northern Ireland. We strongly urge all paramilitary groups, both republican and loyalist, to decommission the weapons that have caused so much suffering in the past.

I should like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to General John de Chastelain and his colleagues. We thank them for their commitment, perseverance and integrity.

The people of Northern Ireland, and, indeed, the Republic of Ireland, voted for the full implementation of the Good Friday agreement. They understood that for the agreement to succeed, it fundamentally required all sides to work together to create a peaceful, inclusive future for all. Their vote opened the way for those associated with paramilitary groups to campaign for their goals through peaceful and democratic means. They could reasonably have expected those parties who represent, and have links with, paramilitary organisations to have delivered in full their side of the deal. It is more than disappointing that some seven years later the people of Northern Ireland are still waiting for full and complete decommissioning.

The Government will renew their efforts to ensure that the people of Northern Ireland are rewarded for their patience and long suffering. We want to see the completion of the decommissioning process and a peaceful future for all. This order is part of that process and I commend it to the House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the order laid before the House on 26 January be approved [7th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Baroness Amos.)

Viscount Bridgeman

My Lords, I rise to support the order before the House. Again, the Lord President set out the purpose of the order and I shall not repeat the detail of what she said. We support the Government in their efforts to pursue the goal of decommissioning, despite the disappointing statements recently made by the IRA.

Obviously, much has happened since the Conservative government first introduced this legislation. In particular, the Belfast agreement of 1998 looked forward to: The decommissioning of all paramilitary arms within two years following endorsement in referendums". According to that timetable, all weapons should have been put beyond use by the end of May 2000. Instead, nearly five years on from that date, the issue of arms and decommissioning continues to cast its dark shadow over the entire political process in Northern Ireland.

It is true that three acts of decommissioning have taken place but, due to the confidentiality clauses in the decommissioning scheme published by the British and Irish Governments in 1998, we have absolutely no idea of how much of the IRA's arsenal has been destroyed.

Before Christmas, as part of the aborted comprehensive deal, the IRA issued a statement in which it promised to place all weapons beyond use. Now, following the breakdown of those negotiations, in the face of authoritative claims that the IRA was behind the Northern Bank heist, that offer has been taken off the table.

The blunt truth is that throughout this process the IRA has used the arms issue in order to extract ever more concessions from the British and Irish Governments. We have had so-called "historic" offers put on the table, only to be withdrawn at some later stage, and then reinserted when it suits the republican movement. It is time for the games and the posturing to stop. They should deliver what the people of Northern Ireland thought they were being promised in 1998.

We are in no doubt. Decommissioning is not an optional extra. It is a central requirement of the Belfast agreement and is absolutely vital if the community is to have any confidence that republicans are serious about making the move from terrorism and criminality to, exclusively democratic and peaceful means". Like the Minister, I pay tribute to the painstaking work of General de Chastelain and the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning. Clearly, though, that simple verification by the General and his team is not enough.

The aborted negotiations in October 2003 between Sinn Fein and the Ulster Unionist Party, and those last December involving the DUP, clearly demonstrated a need for greater transparency in the decommissioning process. It is not my intention to be prescriptive about this but, given the IRA's record, we find the Unionist position on this issue wholly reasonable.

Let us be clear about one thing. While attention inevitably focuses on IRA decommissioning, because it is linked with a party, Sinn Fein, that would be entitled to ministerial office in a revived executive, we are equally adamant about the need for loyalists to deal with their weapons too. There is no justification—and there never has been, any justification—for acts of loyalist terrorism. Regrettably, as a result of the current political impasse—compounded by the IRA's responsibility for the Northern Bank heist—the prospects of early decommissioning appear remote.

We sincerely hope that once the general election is out of the way—whichever government are in power—we can make progress and these issues can be satisfactorily resolved. What the Northern Bank heist showed, however, is that along with the decommissioning of weapons, we need to see a decommissioning of the mindset that regards such activities as legitimate. On current evidence, that could take some time.

In the mean time we believe that without the extension of the amnesty period provided for in this order the prospects of decommissioning would be less rather than more likely. We therefore support the order.

Baroness Harris of Richmond

My Lords, I too thank the Lord President for bringing this order. which of course these Benches will support. In the euphoria following the Good Friday agreement, there was an expectation that decommissioning could occur by 2002—the latest date set down in the 1997 Act. However, as we have heard, it took almost that long to achieve the beginning of decommissioning. Therefore, it will take longer to achieve total decommissioning, so the amnesty must be extended.

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 what we are aiming for. While the decommissioning that has taken place in the past is obviously welcome and a significant step, we are still nowhere near the total decommissioning that we all want to see. I share everyone's disappointment that the IRA has withdrawn its offer of progress on decommissioning. However, it has offered statements of progress in the past and withdrawn them. Perhaps it was not the wisest thing to do, if the IRA wants to demonstrate that it is genuinely committed to peace and democracy. If it wants to avoid accusations in the future and to show that it is an organisation to be trusted, then withdrawing offers of progress is not the way to do it.

The Government now need to look for a clear and unequivocal statement, from the IRA and from all paramilitary groups which claim to be on ceasefire, that they are committed to paragraph 13 of the joint declaration. We need to see this demonstrated on the ground. That means an end to paramilitary assaults, exiling, and so on, as I stated in our debate on Northern Ireland last week.

Is the Minister aware whether any contact has taken place between the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning—and I too pay great tribute to General de Chastelain and all the people involved in the IICD—and any of the loyalist paramilitary groups? Has any contact taken place in particular with the UDA and UFF, as we despecified them last year? Also, what are the Government doing to encourage other loyalist groups to engage with the IICD?

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

Lord Rogan

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Baroness for bringing the order to the House.

For some eight years, all those involved in the Northern Ireland peace process have waited patiently for the Provisional IRA to give up its weapons and declare that its so-called war is finally over. We have waited for acts of decommissioning to bring closure to this phase of its political strategy—the armalite and the ballot box. Its reluctance to move from this military political philosophy has never been more apparent than in recent weeks. Even after all that Northern Ireland has been through, after all the work that the two states have undertaken—and I thank them for it—Sinn Fein/IRA reverts to type as soon as it comes under the heat that affects all democratic parties. That is the heat of accountability, democratic responsibility and, of course, legality.

However, one cannot be too surprised at Sinn Fein/IRA's response. Why do I say this? Because this sort of blackmail, bullying and threats of a return to violence have always worked for the Provisionals in the past. So what are all the democrats who live in the United Kingdom and Ireland supposed to think? Does Sinn Fein/IRA want one last spin on the merry-go-round? Or is the IRA seriously contemplating going back to its terror tactics of the past?

As has been stated, the two Governments have a choice. Either they continue to appease Sinn Fein/IRA and treat it like a political party that is exempt from the parliamentary standards that apply to all other western democratic parties, or they call its bluff. We all know the story of the boy who cried wolf.

The PSNI and the NIO do not believe that the IRA is about to resume its terror war on the UK mainland, nor do the security forces in the Republic of Ireland. The decommissioning issue has run its course and the Governments must act to bring closure to this phase of the political process. That means suspending Sinn Fein for however long it takes for it to deliver on its commitments under the Belfast agreement. Everyone else has done so, everyone else is desperate for devolution and power sharing, but only the two Governments have the power to act to bring those about. I implore them to do so.

The task falls to the Governments to direct the process. This time they must not fail. For if they do—if they do not stand up to those who have utter contempt for the democratic process and the consequences of breaking every law in the land—the unity of purpose with which the Governments negotiated the Belfast agreement will be blunted.

This situation can go on no longer without a shadow falling over the two Governments' handling of the process. My colleagues and I have the utmost respect for the time, effort, determination and dedication that the Government have spent on the political process since 1997, but their record is in danger of being tarnished, and, with it, the spirit of the Belfast agreement crushed.

Lord Shutt of Greetland

My Lords, I hesitate to rise, but there is one point I should like to make which I hope will receive a response from the noble Baroness. It is quite clear to me, having observed these matters, that, to the IRA, visible decommissioning equals surrender. I believe that there will have to be visible decommissioning, but somehow, brains must be brought to bear so that that can happen without it being seen as surrender. It is a very important issue which must be tackled, otherwise it may well be so distant that it is beyond us. I believe that the whole business of visible decommissioning must somehow be delinked from surrender in the IRA mind.

Lord Mayhew of Twysden

My Lords, it is some time now since I introduced the first measure which had the effect of protecting those who were in the act of delivering up their weapons for decommissioning from the risk of being prosecuted for possession. That is what this order extends, with some variations. It was a necessary measure years ago and it remains necessary. However, I hope that the Government will make the very most of the cardinal feature of this measure. It is easy for it to be misrepresented as a concession, a weakening. It is not. I agree with what has already been said in this short debate. It is important that the IRA should be deprived of any possible argument to justify a failure to decommission its weapons. In that process this extension measure plays an important part.

I shall not detain the House for more than another 10 seconds. I take issue with the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, in saying that balance has always secured its purpose for the IRA from successive British Governments. I do not believe that for one moment.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken for the support that has been given to the order. I entirely agree with the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, that we need to deliver what the people of Northern Ireland thought that they were getting.

Transparency goes to the heart of the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Shutt. It is clear, especially given what has happened recently, that there has to be public confidence in the decommissioning process. That is the only way that it will facilitate political progress. We recognise that greater transparency is required in the future than there has been in previous Acts on the arms dealt with and how long it will take to complete the process.

I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, for his points about the importance of this necessary measure not being misrepresented as a concession. He knows more about that than anyone given the important role that he played in relation to it. The noble Baroness, Lady Harris, is right about the Good Friday agreement: it is about the total disarmament of all paramilitary groups. She asked me about organisations in contact with the IICD. All noble Lords know that on 2 February this year the Provisional IRA stated that it was taking all its proposals off the table. In 2004 the UDA resumed contact, which remains in effect. The UVF officially broke off contact with the IICD in January 2003.

It is our view that we should support those groups that want to give up their paramilitary past and move forward to peaceful democratic politics. We should support those elements committed to a genuinely peaceful society in Northern Ireland while cracking down on the elements still committed to criminal activity and behaviour.

The noble Lord, Lord Rogan, talked about the importance of acts of decommissioning bringing closure. I could not agree more. That is what the Government want to see and why we want the process to continue. However, I recognise the potential associated difficulties in the light of recent events.

On Question, Motion agreed to.