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Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe): Does the Secretary of State agree that the already difficult process of ensuring that deadlines in the Good Friday agreement are met is not necessarily made easier by the tendency of some parties to impose additional deadlines on other parties? Does he agree that we are discussing the need for a credible plan from the IRA for meeting the May deadline, and no other deadline? If it is necessary to suspend the institutions for a period, and in order to avoid demoralisation and discontinuity during that period, will my right hon. Friend consider asking some of the bodies that are working at the moment to continue on a shadow basis to advise the institutions of direct rule so that they will be able to resume their work officially, should the opportunity arise?

Mr. Mandelson: I can confirm that the legislation that we shall introduce next week will make it clearly understood that existing Ministers will continue to hold their posts, but will not exercise any of their functions. When--I hope it will be in a short time--devolution and the Executive resume, the status quo ante will simply apply. All existing Ministers--including the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, assuming they are willing--will revert to their previous ministerial roles.

It is true to say that the only deadline in the Good Friday agreement is for decommissioning in May, and I certainly agree that we need a credible plan to achieve

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that from the IRA. However, I must add that a deadline is one thing, and a credible plan another. For one to be reached and the other implemented, we require the maintenance of confidence right across the community in Northern Ireland. If that confidence subsides, people's ability to sustain the Executive and the institutions will inevitable wane. It is in order to replenish confidence among everyone in all the parties in Northern Ireland that we need not just credible plans, but early moves to achieve decommissioning.

Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon): Can the Secretary of State tell us whether the Irish Government fully support the statement that he has made and the actions that he proposes to take? Will they make their support absolutely clear, so that an unequivocal message goes from both Governments to the terrorists?

Mr. Mandelson: I do not think that there is any doubt at all--I must say this--about the position of the Irish Government in relation to this issue. The Taoiseach and his deputy and other Ministers have made it clear, again and again. As recently as January--on 13 January--the Taoiseach said:


I do not think that he could have been clearer. I think that his support and his commitment to the implementation of the Good Friday agreement as a whole are necessary and welcome. He should be applauded for the strength of that commitment.

Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South): Those of us who had the privilege of participating in the negotiations in Castle Buildings in April 1998 always knew that the agreement was reached without trust. Does the Secretary of State agree that trust has begun to creep in, and that one of its bases is the excellent relationship between the British and Irish Governments? Will he assure the House that, whatever happens during the next week, we will not go back to bad relations between our two Governments, and that the excellent relationship that has been established will be built on in the future? Will he also assure the House that the agreement is the property not of the eight parties that signed it, or of the two Governments, but of the people of Ireland--in the north and the Irish Republic--who voted for it overwhelmingly? Will he confirm that the agreement will not be torn up, as some rejectionists want, but will continue in some form in the future?

Mr. Mandelson: There is absolutely no question of the Good Friday agreement being torn up. It will encounter many vicissitudes; it will encounter difficult times and, no doubt, strong opposition from familiar quarters. However, in my view, it is strong enough--robust enough--to withstand all that, because it is the right agreement for the people of Northern Ireland, as well as for those in the Republic. The agreement simply could not have been achieved without the efforts, put in over so long a time, by people in political parties in north and south and by the Governments both here and in the south. It is absolutely important that those relations are built upon, and they will be, so that that trust, which my hon. Friend rightly says has crept in, is kept in and built on in the future.

Mr. Jeffrey Donaldson (Lagan Valley): Will the Secretary of State now confirm exactly when we can

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expect to receive the de Chastelain report? Secondly, if decommissioning has not been completed by 22 May 2000, will the Secretary of State confirm that, under the terms of the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998, he is under a statutory obligation to halt the early release of terrorist prisoners, which is not due to be completed until July 2000; that between 22 May and the end of July, there is a considerable number--perhaps somewhere in the region of 150--of terrorist prisoners remaining to be released; and that it would be most unfair if those releases were to continue in the absence of the decommissioning of terrorist weapons?

Mr. Mandelson: On the specific point of the prisoner releases, the provisions relating to those flow from legislation that was foreshadowed in the Good Friday agreement. Prisoner releases had always depended not on the state of decommissioning, but on the state of the ceasefires. That remains the case. The maintenance of the ceasefires obviously remains under permanent scrutiny by the Government. We will not be suspending the Good Friday agreement; therefore, we are not going to put into reverse all those gains and all those changes that have flowed from its implementation. We will be suspending, if we need to--and only if we need to as a last resort--the operation of the political institutions, for what I hope will be a very short period of time.

As for the report issued by General de Chastelain, I have described fully and accurately--and certainly somewhat disappointingly--the contents. I can give the hon. Gentleman this assurance: it will not be changed prior to publication and it will be published alongside any further report, should one be issued.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead): In agreeing wholeheartedly with the tone and the content of my right hon. Friend's statement, may I ask him whether he thinks that the key to progress is to try to get some clarification of the relationship between Sinn Fein and the IRA? There seems to be a variable distance between them. When there is a ceasefire, Sinn Fein claims that it is close to the IRA and, hence, that it deserves the credit for the ceasefire. When there is a failure to decommission, there is a huge gap between them and Sinn Fein claims, as it did to us yesterday in Belfast, that it is nothing, or very little, to do with it. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, if there is a huge difference between Sinn Fein and the IRA on the matter, the undertakings that Sinn Fein gave in the Belfast agreement were not given in good faith because it did not have the necessary relationship to give those undertakings?

Mr. Mandelson: No, I do not think that it would be fair to say that any commitments made in relation to the Good Friday agreement were made in bad faith. I genuinely do not believe that. I think that there was a sincere commitment made by individuals to do their best to bring about the changes to persuade their colleagues in other parts of the republican movement to fulfil the Good Friday agreement in the way that they had signed up to. They do not appear to have been entirely successful, however. Rather than spending time clarifying the

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relationship between Sinn Fein and the IRA, I would just urge them to agree on what needs to be done and to get on and do it.

Several hon. Members rose--

Madam Speaker: Only five Members are waiting to be called. I am conscious that the Secretary of State has been at the Dispatch Box for more than an hour, and it is not usual to keep a Secretary of State at the Dispatch Box for even an hour. All parts of the statement have been well aired, so can I have brisk questions and brisk answers from the Secretary of State? I do not wish to disappoint hon. Members on such an important issue.

Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke): The Secretary of State appears to be saying that he will not publish independently, in advance of any second report that there may be, the de Chastelain report on which he based his statement. Why is that?

Mr. Mandelson: I have already described accurately and fully the contents of the report. If I felt it were important and relevant for the House to see and to compare one report with another in the event of a further report being issued, I shall make sure that the original one is published alongside it.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): Will the Secretary of State take the opportunity, when he speaks to Sinn Fein, to point out to it that the two-year time frame was largely for the benefit of those who needed to have trust built? If they are not taking advantage of that to take staged decommissioning when the opportunity exists as they go along to have the reassurances that they may need, they are losing the benefits of the agreement to which they themselves signed up.


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