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3 Feb 2000 : Column 1311

Northern Ireland

7.13 pm

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Peter Mandelson): With permission, Madam Speaker, I shall make a statement on the current situation in Northern Ireland.

I first pay tribute to the way in which the new institutions have got on with their challenging tasks in the past two months. The Assembly, the Executive, the north-south bodies and the British-Irish Council are all now up and running, as intended under the Good Friday agreement.

I pay particular tribute to each of the Ministers in the new devolved Executive, and their parties, who have taken up their new responsibilities in good faith, with good will towards each other and a genuine determination to serve all the people of Northern Ireland. I believe that that augurs well for the long-term success of devolved government in Northern Ireland.

Late on Monday, the latest report of the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning was delivered to the British and Irish Governments.

I pay tribute to the patient efforts of the Commission members, General John de Chastelain, Ambassador Andrew Sens and Brigadier Tauno Nieminen, over recent months--indeed years--and their readiness to continue those efforts to secure decommissioning as intended under the Good Friday agreement.

With the appointment of contact persons by the IRA and the UFF in December 1999, all the main paramilitary groups on ceasefire are now engaged with the commission. That is a significant advance. The commission's report points to a number of other positive factors. The ceasefires remain in place. The silence of the guns and the unequivocal support of the IRA and the other paramilitary groups for the political process have played a vital part in recent political advances. The assurance, repeated this week, that there is no threat to the peace process from the IRA is important and will be welcomed.

However, the report also stated that there has not yet been any decommissioning of arms by a major paramilitary group. If this continues, it is totally unacceptable. Notably in the case of the IRA, it has to be clear that decommissioning is going to happen. The commission believes that its conclusion in its report of 10 December--that recent events gave the basis for an assessment that decommissioning will happen--remains well founded. But it needs further evidence to substantiate that conclusion. In particular, it needs definite information about when decommissioning will actually start.

Over the past few days, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I have had intensive discussions with the Irish Government and the main parties. Even as I speak, those discussions are continuing. The decommissioning body has been kept closely in touch with those discussions and it has informed me that it is ready at any time to report further in the event of concrete results emerging from those discussions. If the commission provides a further report, which renders out of date the information that I am giving the House now, I will, of course, make a further statement.

Even at this very late stage, it is right that we and all the parties continue to see whether there is a basis on which the institutions can continue to operate and

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decommissioning start. The institutions, though, can work only on the basis of cross-community confidence. Without clarity over decommissioning, I have no doubt that this confidence will ebb quickly. All the parties must have certainty that all aspects of the Good Friday agreement are being implemented, without some being forgotten and others overlooked.

If it becomes clear that, because of a loss of confidence, the institutions cannot be sustained, the Government have to be ready to put on hold the operation of those institutions. Nobody who is genuinely committed to the peace process will relish this prospect. However, our purpose if it comes to this will be to preserve them from collapse and to create the time and space in which to rebuild the confidence required to sustain them.

I shall therefore publish a Bill tomorrow to enable us to institute such a pause should one prove necessary despite our best efforts.

This will only be the case if the current unsatisfactory state of affairs is not changed clearly for the better.

We shall invite the House to consider the Bill early next week, with a view to royal assent later in the week unless events between now and then clearly make that unnecessary. In the meantime, we shall redouble our efforts, with the Irish Government and the main parties, to resolve the present difficulties.

Even at this late stage, I believe it remains possible to rebuild confidence in the institutions, to enable devolution and the other institutions to continue, and to ensure that decommissioning starts. But, I stress, those three things are interdependent. We cannot partially implement the Good Friday agreement. It is all or it is nothing.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell): This is a sad day for the people of Northern Ireland. For weeks, they have prayed and hoped that there would be a proper start to the decommissioning of illegally held arms and explosives. They have been badly let down by the paramilitaries, both republican and so-called loyalist.

May I put it to the Secretary of State that the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), and his Unionist colleagues, made a courageous decision to take ministerial posts in an Executive last December, even though there was no decommissioning by the paramilitaries? It was a courageous decision that we on the Opposition Benches strongly supported. Will he also confirm that there was an understanding that the Provisional IRA would properly start decommissioning its illegally held arms and explosives within a matter of weeks? As General de Chastelain has now reported, this has not happened.

Will the Secretary of State also confirm that all the other signatories to the Belfast agreement have fulfilled all their obligations in full? The only people who have not are the parties inextricably linked to the paramilitaries, whether so-called loyalist or republican. Will the right hon. Gentleman give us an undertaking that General de Chastelain's report will be published so we can learn from it and perhaps gain guidance from it? Will he agree with me that it would be unwise at this juncture to continue with the Disqualifications Bill, which has now gone to another place? That should be put on hold.

Will the Secretary of State accept that we believe that he had no alternative and that he is absolutely right--if we do not, at this late hour, have positive moves

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on decommissioning--to suspend the Executive, the Assembly and related bodies? When he brings legislation before the House next week, will he accept my assurance that, as far as we are concerned, it will receive a speedy passage?

Will the Secretary of State also accept that many people--myself included--will regret the return to direct rule? The great majority of people in Northern Ireland, in both communities, have appreciated and enjoyed the end of the democratic deficit. They have welcomed the fact that their democratically elected politicians are taking important decisions and running much of the Province, and there will be regret that those within the Unionist community and the nationalist community who have done so much and have fulfilled their obligations are now being penalised in the same way as those who have failed to fulfil those obligations. We must bear it in mind that, particularly, the right hon. Member for Upper Bann and the Deputy First Minister--the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon)--have done an outstanding job and they also deserve better than that an Executive should be suspended through no fault of their own.

Mr. Mandelson: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his support for what I have announced today. I entirely share his analysis of the courage and the initiative shown by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) and his colleagues as well as other Members of the House who are present tonight. Both the First Minister of Northern Ireland and the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland--both of whom are here tonight--have shown tremendous strength of leadership to both traditions throughout Northern Ireland. I know the House will wish strongly to commend them for the leadership that they have shown.

I accept that it was clearly understood during the course of the Mitchell review that, while no commitment or guarantee was given that decommissioning should happen in January, none the less it was equally clear throughout, among all those who were involved in the Mitchell review, that if there was no decommissioning by the end of January, the Ulster Unionists would be unable to sustain their involvement in the Executive in Northern Ireland. There was no ambiguity about that--no guarantee, but no ambiguity either. It is, therefore, a disappointment that progress has not yet begun on decommissioning.

The right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) was right in what he said about everyone else's obligations under the Good Friday agreement. I believe that the criminal justice review has yet to be published. That will happen in a matter of weeks. I cannot think of anything else that has not been done, is not being done, or is not about to be done.

I am not going to engage in some sort of blame game tonight, but everyone in Northern Ireland will be disappointed that progress has not been made in decommissioning, for precisely the reason given by the right hon. Member for Bracknell. People in Northern Ireland are rightly proud of the Executive. They like seeing local people--locally elected politicians with local accents--taking charge of local affairs, and they want that to continue. It will only continue if all aspects of the Good Friday agreement are properly implemented.

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I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that, in the event of a further report from the de Chastelain commission, the report that the commission gave the Governments on Monday will also be published, at the same time, so that any difference between the two can be carefully noted.

As for the Disqualifications Bill, it is not linked to what I am talking about now, and I think that its passage can be safely left to the other place.

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