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Northern Ireland

3.30 pm

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Peter Mandelson): With permission, Madam Speaker, I shall make a statement about recent developments in Northern Ireland, and the declaration issued over the weekend by the Provisional IRA.

On 11 February, I took the decision to suspend the political institutions which had been established barely 10 weeks earlier under the Good Friday agreement. I did so reluctantly, for reasons with which the House is familiar. If I had not done so, there would not only have been a collapse of the institutions, but a total collapse of confidence within Unionism, from which the political process would not have been able to recover for a very long time.

From that moment in February, we and the Irish Government have worked closely, at all levels, to restore the situation. As at so many crucial points in the past, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Irish Taoiseach have committed time and energy on a scale that must be unprecedented for busy Heads of Government. I have kept in close touch with the Irish Foreign Minister. There have been intensive discussions with the parties, in the most constructive atmosphere. I would like to thank officials in both Governments whose efforts have been tireless.

Our aim has been to achieve the clarity about the IRA's intentions which was noticeably lacking in February; by doing so to rebuild Unionist confidence; and thereby to re-establish the institutions. This could not be done quickly. Suspension was a bruising experience for all concerned. Unionists were disappointed that expectations raised during Senator Mitchell's review were not fulfilled. Republicans, and indeed many nationalists, saw great symbolic significance in a British Secretary of State acting to suspend local institutions as I did. People of good will on all sides were saddened that arrangements which had promised so much had proved impossible to sustain.

If Unionists need the confidence that the IRA are genuinely committed to the path of peace and willing to put their arms beyond use, republicans for their part need to know that the vision which the agreement offers, of a just and equal society in which both traditions are respected, will actually be realised.

We and the Irish Government therefore drew up an account of the remaining steps necessary to secure the full implementation of the agreement. Details were communicated to the parties on Saturday morning and I am placing a copy in the Library. The two Governments believe that those steps can be achieved by June 2001. In a statement published on Friday evening, we have committed ourselves to that goal.

The two Governments also called on the paramilitaries to state clearly and urgently that they will put their arms beyond use. For our part, we, the British Government, indicated that such statements would constitute a clear reduction in the security threat. In response, subject to assessment of the threat at the time, further substantial measures to normalise security arrangements will be taken by June 2001.

I am not yet able to say what initial measures will be taken. The Chief Constable is considering, in consultation with the Army, the situation in the light of the IRA

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statement, with a view to what might be done now, and then in the period ahead if and when the threat diminishes. I assure the House though, as I have done before, that the security of the public will continue to be my highest priority. There is no question of trading essential security interests for political progress. But equally there is no doubt that the statements of the kind I have described impact positively on the assessment of the security threat.

As the House will know, the IRA made such a statement on Saturday afternoon. In the context of the Governments' implementing what they have agreed, the IRA committed itself to

Not "maybe", not "might", but "will". The IRA statement went on:

In the same context, the IRA committed itself to

The statement further committed the IRA to resume contact with the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning, under General John de Chastelain. It noted that the IRA's arms are "silent and secure", and that there is no threat to the peace process from the IRA.

In addition, the statement committed the IRA to putting in place within weeks a confidence-building measure to confirm that its weapons remain secure. Independent inspectors will scrutinise a number of arms dumps and report to the de Chastelain commission. It will be an on-going process, with regular reinspections of those dumps.

It is important that we now hear, in similar terms, from the main loyalist organisations.

Since the IRA made its statement, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach have announced that Mr. Martti Ahtisaari, the former President of Finland, and Mr. Cyril Ramaphosa, the former Secretary General of the African National Congress and now a prominent business man in South Africa--both of them widely respected international figures--have agreed to head the inspections. I am pleased to be able to announce that they will pay their first visit to Belfast next Monday, and I am grateful to them for their speedy response at such short notice.

I regard the IRA statement as a very significant development. For the first time, there is a commitment to put weapons completely and verifiably beyond use, in a context that is realistic rather than simply aspirational. There is a real prospect of actually achieving decommissioning: it is no longer a matter just of talking about it, or of setting conditions for it that make its realisation less likely.

There is a more clear-cut assurance of the IRA's peaceful intentions than we have ever heard before. As an earnest of those intentions, there is an unprecedented willingness to allow independent third parties to inspect arms dumps containing weapons, explosives and detonators and vouch for their continuing security. An essential element of the scheme is that the process should be continuous, to provide reassurance that dumps have not been tampered with, and that weapons have not been removed, between inspections.

The right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) has acknowledged the significance of the IRA statement, and the fact that it appears to break new ground. Not

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surprisingly, he wishes to examine it carefully, and weigh its implications. That is entirely understandable. The right hon. Gentleman will also want to be confident, as I will, that, in moving forward with the agreement, the traditions and concerns of the Unionist people will be respected and dealt with sensitively, every bit as much as the traditions and concerns of nationalists.

I believe that all friends and supporters of responsible forward-looking Unionism will conclude that the proposals that I have outlined today, buttressed by the weekend's statement by the IRA, provide the conditions on which the right hon. Member for Upper Bann can lead his party back into government, confident that their long-standing and proper concerns have been addressed.

On the basis of such a positive response to these proposals, not only from the right hon. Gentleman's party but from all the pro-agreement parties, I can confirm to the House that I will bring forward the necessary order to restore the Northern Ireland Assembly and its Executive by 22 May.

In this event, I feel hopeful and confident that the ultimate prize--stable, inclusive government in Northern Ireland and an unbreakable peace--will at long last be within our grasp.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell): In light of the developments in Northern Ireland over the weekend, I know that I speak for the whole House in saying to the Secretary of State that we are very grateful that at the first possible opportunity he has come to the Dispatch Box to make a statement. I endorse what the right hon. Gentleman has said--the statement issued by the Provisional IRA at lunchtime on Saturday is significant. It is worth recalling that never before have they said that they will put arms and explosives completely beyond use and have that verified. Naturally, we welcome this significant development.

The Secretary of State will not be surprised to know, however, that we have concerns, reservations and questions which I would like to put to him this afternoon. Those reservations are not least because we have all of us, the right hon. Gentleman included, had our fingers burned in the past. We thought that we had an understanding last November/December that if the right hon. Gentleman set up an Executive, within a matter of weeks the Provisional IRA would start decommissioning its illegally held arms and explosives. Sadly, the people of Northern Ireland were let down. That did not happen, and the Secretary of State had no choice but to suspend the Executive.

My first point is that we need guarantees that the arms and explosives will be permanently put beyond use. We note that the Provisional IRA is promising to bring forward confidence-building measures in the next few weeks that will give us and the people of Northern Ireland that assurance. Is there anything further that the Secretary of State can say today that will satisfy us on that point?

Secondly, we note that the Provisional IRA has said that several of its arms dumps will be available to the international inspectors. Clearly, the House wants all the arms dumps to be available. I would like confirmation of that from the Secretary of State. I would also like him to go a little further than he did in his statement about the

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process by which the inspectors will be constantly monitoring what happens in the dumps. As he will appreciate, spasmodic visits from time to time will not regain the confidence of the people of Northern Ireland who have suffered so much from terrorism, both republican and loyalist, over the past 30 years.

The next point that needs raising is what sanctions the Secretary of State believes he has if his international inspectors tell him that the arms have been used or moved. Can he confirm that, if necessary, he is prepared to suspend the Executive again, if the Provisional IRA fails to fulfil its part of the bargain?

We note that the two Prime Ministers have drawn together a statement saying that they wish to normalise security in the Province. That is of course welcome, not least to people living in Northern Ireland. However, can the right hon. Gentleman go even further than he did in his statement and say that there will never be alterations in troop levels or other changes in security arrangements without full consultation with, and the consent of, the General Officer Commanding in Northern Ireland and also the Chief Constable? I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman appreciates that that is essential.

Can the right hon. Gentleman confirm that, in supporting the Belfast agreement, the Provisional IRA clearly supported the fact that the agreement recognises beyond all doubt that Northern Ireland will remain part of the United Kingdom while the majority of people within it wish it to do so, and the fact that there will be absolutely no circumstances in which Northern Ireland will not remain part of the United Kingdom without the consent of the people of the Province?

Finally, will the Secretary of State accept that it is absolutely essential that the men of violence--republican or so-called loyalist--must fulfil their obligations under the Belfast agreement, just as the two Governments and democratic politicians, both Unionist and nationalist, have already done. The eyes of the world will be on them, and they will not be forgiven if they fail.

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