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Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): Would it be correct to say that my right hon. Friend's statement is a holding operation? It is an essential holding operation and has a dynamic contained in it, in that the Bill will provide the arrangements by which the suspension of the Executive is imminent unless the paramilitaries deliver. Therefore, there is a duty on right hon. and hon. Members who have any influence with our friends from Northern Ireland to point out to Unionists the significance of the Bill that will be put forward. Those who have links with Sinn Fein should press them to see that decommissioning takes place.

Mr. Mandelson: All of us will be pressing all the paramilitary organisations to ensure that decommissioning takes place. My hon. Friend is right, in a sense, that I am describing a holding operation, but it is an operation that will not permanently be on hold. I will take the necessary powers in case the discussions that are going on now are unsuccessful. That is a prudent preparation to enable me to move as quickly as the situation demands, and nobody should be in any doubt that I will.

Mr. Robert McCartney (North Down): Will the Secretary of State confirm that the House will not have to wait until there is a second report from General de Chastelain before we get the first report that he received on Monday of this week?

Is the Secretary of State aware that General de Chastelain and his fellow commissioners, in a report on 7 July 1999, set out the clear criteria for the commencement of the process of decommissioning--not decommissioning itself, but the process--which contained two requirements: that the paramilitaries had given an unambiguous commitment to the completion of

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decommissioning by 22 May; and that the interlocutor had agreed all the modalities, including timing and verification? Will the Secretary of State confirm that neither of those criteria has been met?

Mr. Mandelson: I think that I made it absolutely clear in my opening remarks that that is precisely the situation and that we find it disappointing and unacceptable. That is why we hope and assume that the paramilitary organisations will rectify the situation without delay.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde): I warmly endorse my right hon. Friend's positive remarks concerning the democratic functioning of the institutions in Northern Ireland. I spent the whole of Tuesday at Stormont and I saw Members of the Legislative Assembly going about their work in a way that would be immediately familiar to Members of Parliament and, dare I say it, Members of the Scottish Parliament. Assembly Members and many members of the local public said to me that they were deeply alarmed at the prospect of the enormous loss of what has already been achieved in terms of stable partnership government and the working of the Assembly.

If my right hon. Friend has to introduce a period of suspension, I urge him and members of the Irish Government to do their utmost to ensure that it is as short as is humanly possible, so that democracy can take healthy root in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Mandelson: I strongly welcome and echo my hon. Friend's comments. I can give him this reassurance: the only point of creating a pause in the operation of the Executive of the institutions in Northern Ireland would be to avert their collapse and to allow them to get back on track as rapidly as possible. I am proposing to take this power in the legislation next week precisely because I fear that, if we did not put them on hold, should the circumstances arise and so demand, confidence in the institutions would continue to ebb and we would place in jeopardy their continued operation, through the actions of other people. The aim is precisely to save the institutions, to preserve what has been created for the benefit of the people in Northern Ireland.

My hon. Friend is right to say that the Members of the Assembly and those in the Executive are thoroughly conscientious and diligent. Above all, whatever political background they come from and whatever tradition has elected them, it is most noteworthy that all the Ministers speak and act for the interests of both traditions and all people in Northern Ireland. That is a huge step forward and something that we will want to preserve at all costs.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West): I have been cautiously pessimistic about the process in Northern Ireland for well over 10 years, but there are grounds for hope. I spent the day in Mid-Ulster today, and there was no sense of crisis, although clearly there is a political problem that could develop into a crisis. People right across the political spectrum, from Sinn Fein to the Unionists, had far more sense of partnership on practical matters. We have a week, possibly, before the Executive would have to be suspended; does the Secretary of State

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think that Sinn Fein-IRA will be able or will choose to make possible a continuation of the Executive without suspension?

Mr. Mandelson: I hope very much that that is the case. I do not think that any of us in the House can begin to imagine what the inner workings and political dynamic of Sinn Fein and the IRA are. I certainly do not know. I suspect from what I glean that there is a strong debate, a strong argument--a bit of a struggle--going on among different people who probably come from different backgrounds and have different leanings within the republican movement as a whole.

I suspect that Sinn Fein's leaders have tried hard. I believe that they have been personally sincere in their commitment to fulfilling that statement originally made by Sinn Fein at the close of the Mitchell review. But words, in these matters, while welcome and valuable, are not enough to sustain the confidence of both traditions in Northern Ireland for the political process. It is in order to rebuild and replenish that confidence in both traditions that we ask and plead that all the paramilitary organisations now do what the people of Northern Ireland want--that is, make a proper start to decommissioning.

Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough): As I understand my right hon. Friend, what we are doing next week is passing legislation that will be a sword of Damocles over all the work and institutions that have been created in Northern Ireland and throughout the island of Ireland. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that there can be no veto over these democratic institutions by terrorist organisations, and that the Government of the Republic of Ireland and the Government of the United Kingdom are absolutely as one that there can be no veto.

Can my right hon. Friend also confirm, building on the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), that it would be unwise to rush back to direct rule? We need time and patience. We need closeness with the Government of the Republic of Ireland. Is it not a fact that such closeness and co-operation are as much in the interest of Unionism as they are of nationalism?

Mr. Mandelson: I think that my hon. Friend's words are extremely wise and to the point. It is so frustrating and vexatious for people in Northern Ireland, who are so committed to devolution and to democracy in Northern Ireland, to find themselves cheated of those things by the actions of those who had hitherto placed themselves outside the democratic process. What we have seen over recent years is not only the all-important ceasefires, but, inching ahead, month by month, year by year, a growing distance being put by the paramilitary organisations between themselves and the violence that they engaged in in the past. The problem is that while they are now a long way from the sort of violence and military strategy, the bombings and the barricades, that were such an appalling feature of Northern Ireland in the past, they none the less seem no nearer to the decommissioning that is essential if the peace process is to be sustained in the future. It is that change that we need to see now.

Mr. John D. Taylor (Strangford): The Secretary of State has confirmed from the de Chastelain report that, even though decommissioning of illegal arms was a

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requirement of the Belfast agreement almost two years ago, and our Prime Minister confirmed that he expected it to begin in June 1998, there is still no decommissioning of IRA arms. Could the right hon. Gentleman refer to another part of this absent de Chastelain report--which I hope some day we will see--and confirm that it states that such is the magnitude of the IRA arsenal, decommissioning would need to begin now for the completion date of 22 May 2000 to be achieved?

When the Secretary of State talks about suspension of the institutions, is he also intending to suspend the north-south bodies and the British-Irish Council? Finally, does he fully understand the seriousness of the situation in Northern Ireland tonight, irrespective of some comments from other parliamentary colleagues, and that spin and words will not rescue the situation? The only way to save devolution in Northern Ireland is to move swiftly to suspension and not play for time, because if we play for time, we will lose everything.

Mr. Mandelson: Nobody is playing for time. We are playing for product and playing for progress. If that progress and product require a little more time, I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will be the last to deny anyone an opportunity to make it work, even at the 11th hour. If, in the event, that does not happen and fortuitous circumstances do not arise, I have already said that we shall take the powers necessary to place on hold the working of the institutions. I do not think that I can do more than that.

As for the right hon. Gentleman's remark about the magnitude of the weaponry that is held, he is right that it is great. It is not the case that General de Chastelain and his colleagues have said that for the deadline of complete decommissioning to be reached in May, a start has to be made now. It is desirable and necessary that a start should be made now, but the practical time frame to which the right hon. Gentleman referred is a little shorter than that.

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