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Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann): As the Secretary of State has said, it is clear that no decommissioning has occurred. Can he confirm that there has also been no serious discussion, let alone agreement, on the modalities of decommissioning of any specific terrorist weapons, and that the progress made over the past six weeks has been minuscule and deeply disappointing? Does he understand the disappointment we feel--after taking the risk to proceed, in advance of decommissioning, with the formation of the Administration--about the fact that now, months later, there has been such a contemptuous response from the paramilitaries concerned? Does he understand our astonishment at the fact that, after all the discussions and the review, so little has happened? I think the House will appreciate that, now that the basis on which we proceeded to devolution has been falsified, we have no alternative, and cannot continue in an Administration with those who have disappointed the hopes that were created.

I must ask the Secretary of State whether he intends, unless there is clear, significant and verifiable decommissioning in the next few days, to suspend the institutions. He referred to the presentation of a Bill that would receive royal assent next week; can he say precisely when it will be brought into operation?

Mr. Mandelson: Let me say straight away that no one doubts--indeed, I think every Member will applaud--the commitment of the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) to the Good Friday agreement. That is beyond doubt. Equally, let me say that we shall need his strength and determination again to keep the process moving ahead.

Both traditions throughout the community in Northern Ireland want to see the agreement work. They want to see the political parties--they want to see their political leaders--working together as well in the future as they have during the last two months. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues will not take precipitate action in relation to the Executive, and that they will allow the events of the next few days to unfold before making a final judgment.

I have to confirm, however, that, as the right hon. Gentleman said, there has not been an adequate engagement on the part of any of the paramilitary organisations with General de Chastelain's body. That is simply unacceptable. It is a betrayal of the entire community in Northern Ireland, of whatever hue, whatever background or whatever tradition--especially when it is abundantly clear from every expression of public opinion and every opinion poll published on the subject, both in Northern Ireland and in the south, that Unionists, nationalists and, I suspect, most republicans, overwhelmingly want decommissioning to happen, and want it to start now. I appeal to the paramilitary

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organisations to heed the call of the people to get cracking and to enable local self-government in Northern Ireland to flourish once and for all.

Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh): May I commend the Prime Minister, the Taoiseach, the Secretary of State and the Minister for Foreign Affairs for the remarkable efforts that they have been making recently to solve the problem, and are making now, as we speak, on the issue?

The Secretary of State knows that I believe that suspension of any kind of the institutions in the north of Ireland at this time and in this context would be unwise for three reasons. One: it could do serious and perhaps lasting damage to the new political dispensation, which is beginning to work and is beginning to work well, if I may say so. Two: it would make obtaining decommissioning immeasurably more difficult, if not ultimately impossible. Three: it would play straight into the hands of those who are opposed to the agreement, its institutions and the working of those institutions.

May I ask the Secretary of State if he agrees that the priority as of now must be to allow and ask General de Chastelain to obtain answers from all the paramilitary groups to two questions? One: "Will you decommission?" Two: "If yes, when will you decommission?" Will the Secretary of State then inform the House of those answers; inform all the political parties in Northern Ireland; consult with the Irish Government; and, in light of those answers, decide how to proceed--but not until answers are got to those questions, which should have been answered many, many months ago?

Mr. Mandelson: I think that all those questions are extremely relevant and I can assure my hon. Friend that those are precisely the detailed questions that I have already put to General de Chastelain. I regret to say that, in answer to most of them, the answers have been extremely lacking. Let me make it absolutely clear to him: no one is seeking suspension of the Executive. It is the very last thing that I would want to see happen, save to have those institutions collapse and fall apart. If that is the choice, suspension is the better of those two options and that is what is motivating us.

No one wants to do anything that will make decommissioning any harder to achieve, but there comes a moment when we have to express our impatience and, indeed, our intolerance, that decommissioning is failing to happen. I know that the hon. Gentleman has expressed his own impatience and his own very strong feelings on behalf of the people whom he represents, and that is welcome.

May I say this, too? I know that there will be many nationalists whom the hon. Gentleman represents who will be bitterly disappointed that, having gained their places in government after being treated as outsiders for so long in Northern Ireland, they might be suddenly snatched away from them. To them, I say, "Have faith and have confidence." There are no longer any second-class citizens in Northern Ireland. Their place in government is absolutely assured. That is precisely why we are trying to build up the confidence of everyone in Northern Ireland in the Executive and in the institutions that have been

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created--just so that their place and the place of every section of political opinion can be properly secured in that Government in Northern Ireland.

Mr. John Major (Huntingdon): Many hopes--hopes across the divisions in Northern Ireland--will have been fractured by the failure of the paramilitaries to decommission. One of the great conundrums of the process from the very outset has been whether the leadership of the paramilitary groups--and most important of all of Sinn Fein-IRA--wished to disarm, but were inhibited from doing so by the views of the membership, or whether there was in reality never any real intention to disarm at all. That, sadly, is still unclear to me, and I suspect that it is still unclear to the House.

What is clear is that the leaders left the impression that there would be disarmament; but there has been none. In the circumstances, sadly, and I hope, temporarily, the Government have no alternative left to them but to return to direct rule, and there should be no doubt where the blame for that backward step now clearly lies.

May I follow up the important point made by the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) by making a slightly different point? Can the Secretary of State tell me whether Sinn Fein and the IRA have ever been directly asked by the Government if they would place a proposal for disarmament before the general council of the IRA and a general meeting of volunteers? Can he tell me whether that point has ever been put? If not, can the Secretary of State undertake to put that point now, so that this House may know the clear intentions of those people with whom the Government have been negotiating on behalf of this House for some time?

Mr. Mandelson: I can say to the right hon. Gentleman without any equivocation at all that we would not have got this far, and that the Government would not have treated with Sinn Fein in the way that we have, had it not been made absolutely clear by that organisation that they regard decommissioning as an essential part of the peace process. That having been said, the IRA, in their statement at the conclusion of the Mitchell review, said among other things that they accepted the leadership shown by Sinn Fein. I think most people would infer from that that they were accepting and endorsing the political strategy as expressed by the leadership of that organisation.

If that is the case, they must accept, as Sinn Fein has said, that decommissioning is an essential part of the peace process. That is what they are being tested on and that is what they will be judged by. I hope very much indeed that, in the time that is available to them, the IRA will make that clear--just as Sinn Fein has made that clear--so that the powers that I am proposing to take in the legislation next week do not have to be used and so that we do not have to suspend the Executive and the institutions. There is time yet.

We have not reverted to direct rule yet. I hope that everyone will come to their senses, see the value in what has been created and not put it in jeopardy any more.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): Does the Secretary of State accept that Liberal Democrat Members will offer complete, but sad, support for the proposition that we shall have to have reserve powers to suspend the working of the Northern Ireland Assembly, if that is what is required at the end of next week?

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Will the Secretary of State join me in appreciating the enormous efforts made by Members--both Unionists and nationalists--of this House who have brought us to the brink of peace, and whose efforts we must all try not to frustrate at this stage?

Will the Secretary of State explicitly share with me the view that, given how far so many people have come already down the Good Friday road, it is now absolutely clear that it is, above all, the IRA who must take the next step; and that General de Chastelain's report made it clear that, unless the next step is taken very soon, it will not be possible for the May deadline for decommissioning to be met? Does he also agree that the Unionists who have stayed on the road very firmly, despite pressures and temptations, must be encouraged by all of us to stand firm and not to be pushed off course, and that their leadership is the prerequisite to our continuing to make progress together towards continued devolution of power to Northern Ireland?

I have two specific questions on the factual timetable. Will the Secretary of State confirm that, if there is progress over the next few days, there need not even be legislation to produce reserve powers? More importantly, will he confirm that, if there has to be legislation, he will not take a decision to suspend until the last moment, always seeing that as the worst option, and that suspension can be lifted almost immediately if the people who now have a responsibility take the steps that are clearly required to start making progress towards the decommissioning that the whole of the United Kingdom and Ireland need them to take?

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