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House of Commons

Wednesday 12 January 2000

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Madam Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked--


1. Mr. Jim Murphy (Eastwood): If he will make a statement on the decommissioning process in Northern Ireland. [103413]

3. Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): What progress he can report on decommissioning of weapons. [103415]

5. Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury): If he will set out a timetable for the decommissioning of illegally held arms and explosives. [103417]

7. Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne): If he will set out a timetable for the decommissioning of illegally held arms and explosives. [103419]

9. Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde): What discussions he has held with the Taoiseach on matters relating to the decommissioning of paramilitary arms. [103421]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Peter Mandelson): Decommissioning remains an essential part of securing full implementation of the Good Friday agreement. The Government and the political parties in Northern Ireland agree that decommissioning should begin as soon as possible. The report published on 10 December by the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning reaffirmed that, and noted that a timetable for voluntary decommissioning is best agreed with the authorised representatives of the paramilitary groups. I discussed that with the Taoiseach when I met him during the inaugural British-Irish Council meeting on 17 December. I look forward to receiving the commission's next report, later this month.

Mr. Murphy: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply, and the commitment that urgent decommissioning remains part of the Good Friday agreement; the murder of Richard Jameson is the most recent reminder of why decommissioning is essential. Will my right hon. Friend reassure the people of Northern Ireland that the British

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Government's opinion is that any decommissioned arms should be destroyed, rather than dumped, and that, if destruction does not prove to be possible in the short term, any weapons that are dumped remain permanently secure?

Mr. Mandelson: The people of Northern Ireland can remain assured that decommissioning remains absolutely central to the fulfilment of the Good Friday agreement. It is not possible to have progress on one part of the Good Friday agreement, but for another to be forgotten. If that were to happen, confidence would simply drain away from all that we have achieved in Northern Ireland.

The methods of decommissioning are for General de Chastelain to determine, providing that the weapons are destroyed or made permanently inaccessible and that there is independent verification of the destruction or the putting beyond use that has occurred. I have great confidence in General de Chastelain and his colleagues to ensure that that process is properly verified.

Mr. Hughes: The Secretary of State must know that, across the United Kingdom, and beyond it, there is huge good will towards the peace process in Northern Ireland. Will he tell us what plans he has--either with the Taoiseach or with other parties in Northern Ireland--to ensure that the process that he has just described, under General de Chastelain, is not only seen to produce decommissioning, but has the community's confidence that that is really happening, and happening now? In that way people will see progress made in every month until May, rather than three months of tension before the final agreed date.

Mr. Mandelson: We can generously understand the reluctance of people in the republican movement to decommission except in the context of an overall settlement. However, that settlement has now been put in place: we have the Good Friday agreement, and that condition has been fulfilled. Therefore, we may reasonably expect, as the people of Northern Ireland do, that decommissioning should now start apace, so that it can be completed within the one timetable--the one deadline--that has been established under the Good Friday agreement, which is May 2000. However, for that deadline to be met, a start must be made. All of us--every party that has signed up to the statement, and the belief that decommissioning is an essential part of the peace process--will want and expect that start to be made very soon.

Mr. O'Brien: I have listened very carefully to the Minister's replies on decommissioning. Does he agree that, in the absence of early and urgent decommissioning, in a free and civilised society, it is wrong to have Ministers of Health and Education who continue to be inextricably linked with a fully armed terrorist organisation?

Mr. Mandelson: No, I do not. If one were to believe that that is wrong, one would question the very basis of the peace that has been struck, the ceasefires that have been maintained, and the normalisation of politics that has been returned, at long last, to Northern Ireland.

I do not think that we should take for granted exactly what has been achieved. On most bread and butter issues in Northern Ireland, we now have, for the first time in

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25 years, power back in the hands of Northern Ireland politicians. We also now have an Executive in Northern Ireland who are representative of the whole community in Northern Ireland: there are no longer any outsiders in Northern Ireland politics, which is to be welcomed. Moreover, politics in Northern Ireland are no longer dominated by the age-old constitutional quarrel that has bedevilled them for so long.

Obviously, for those conditions to be fulfilled and for the institutions to be sustained, we need progress on every part of the Good Friday agreement, and that means early decommissioning. That is what I hope and assume will now take place; otherwise, many people in Northern Ireland will feel cheated because one side has not fulfilled its side of the bargain.

Mr. Waterson: Will the Secretary of State accept from me that nobody is keener on peace in Northern Ireland than my constituents, who saw my predecessor, Ian Gow, murdered? However, they have seen hundreds of terrorists released and ministerial portfolios given to those with clear terrorist links. When can they expect something tangible in return?

Mr. Mandelson: We have already seen significant progress on decommissioning. The establishment of the political institutions in Northern Ireland has created a new context in which decommissioning can and should occur. For the first time, all the main paramilitaries have appointed representatives to General de Chastelain's decommissioning body. In December, the general and his colleagues reported that those and other events

Further discussions are continuing, and General de Chastelain will report again this month. I hope and assume that he will be reporting further progress.

Dr. Godman: With reference to my question concerning the Taoiseach, I am sure that the Secretary of State will agree that there is broad agreement between the two Governments concerning the need for decommissioning to take place on or before the May deadline. In light of the impressive developments that have taken place--to which my right hon. Friend has referred--does he agree that the time has come for the leader of the Ulster Unionist party to give the most serious consideration to a rethinking of his February deadline? If he were to do that, those impressive developments would surely take strong and healthy root in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Mandelson: It is not unreasonable for the process to be put on some sort of probation while progress is made on the implementation of all parts of the Good Friday agreement. Let us be under no illusions: the implementation of the agreement depends on trust being built by all sides and on all sides. It requires reciprocal confidence-building measures, so that everyone can be assured that every part of the agreement is being properly implemented. Therefore, it is not unreasonable that the Ulster Unionist party has the expectation--which is shared by the British Government, the Irish Government,

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the American Government and all the other political parties in Northern Ireland--that an early start is made on decommissioning.

Mr. Ken Maginnis (Fermanagh and South Tyrone): Is the Secretary of State as concerned as I am that intelligence reports give no indication that Sinn Fein-IRA is preparing for decommissioning within the time scale that we all expect? Does he agree that we cannot go on trying to purchase disarmament by increments? Will he assure us that the ethos of the Royal Ulster Constabulary will be neither diminished nor distorted in order to flatter Sinn Fein-IRA into a process of decommissioning to which it already assented during the Mitchell review?

Mr. Mandelson: I can understand why the hon. Gentleman makes the link between decommissioning and the Patten report. I will do nothing that undermines the ethos or the organisational cohesion of the RUC and whatever police service flows from our implementation of the Patten report; nor will I tolerate any action that impugns the integrity or the professionalism of the police in Northern Ireland. Equally, the police themselves recognise that a fresh start is needed in policing in Northern Ireland so that it is effective and embraced by both communities. Therefore, in implementing the Patten report, we will be mindful of those things, and I will make clear the Government's decisions on its implementation in due course.

Mr. John Hume (Foyle): Will the Secretary of State point out to all the people who continually ask negative questions about decommissioning that they are being most unconstructive and ignoring all the positive things that have happened, with peace restored to our streets? They do not seem to have noticed that the main political parties, the official Unionists, my party and Sinn Fein are all totally committed to the full implementation of the Good Friday agreement, which includes the full implementation of decommissioning, demilitarisation and disarmament. We must take the positive view, as all the negativism is only in danger of stirring up trouble.

Mr. Mandelson: How nice it is to see the hon. Gentleman back among us, restored to good health. He is absolutely right: we should give credit for the political progress that has been made. It is easy for some to underestimate the sheer enormity of what has been achieved in Northern Ireland following the breakthrough made at the end of the Mitchell review.

Of course there is no room for complacency, but the fact is that the age-old argument over constitutional issues that has dogged Northern Ireland's politics for so long and resulted in its local politicians being shut out of government for more than a quarter of a century has been ended, and I hope for all time. The issues are now agreed and settled on the basis of consent. That is a major breakthrough and we must do everything that we can to cherish and protect it, whatever pressure it comes under.

Mr. John M. Taylor (Solihull): I very much hope that decommissioning will work, but will the Secretary of State confirm that it is inconceivable for Sinn Fein Ministers to remain in office if it does not take place?

Mr. Mandelson: I can only repeat what I said to the House before: if there is a report from General de

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Chastelain and his colleagues that there is a default on the part of any party signed up to the process--just as would be the case if one of the other parties defaulted in relation to devolution--the Government will take action to suspend the operation of the institutions, as I do not believe that it is right for any party to profit from a default. The whole process would then go back into review and we would do everything that we could to get it back on track as quickly as possible.

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