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Mr. Mandelson: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his endorsement of my assessment of the IRA's weekend statement. That is the starting point and cornerstone of all the steps and further moves that I have described this afternoon.

The point at the heart of all the right hon. Gentleman's questions was whether we can trust the Provisional IRA, take it at its word and rely on that word. It has been said that IRA statements--even at their most unwelcome and bloody--have a sort of rugged honesty about them. That has been shown in the past, as my predecessor and previous Ministers could testify. While I firmly believe that we must always be on our guard and must always look ahead and test and evaluate statements rather than taking what people say at face value, my judgment is that, taken in the round and given the background of considerable efforts and difficulties from which the statement emerged, it can be relied upon. That does not mean to say that we should take anything for granted. I think that I have shown myself to be anything other than an easy touch for the republican movement in Northern Ireland, and I do not intend to become one now.

The right hon. Gentleman asked several specific questions. He must understand that the confidence- building measure is a first stage towards making arms safe

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and secure. The next stage, which must follow--this is what the decommissioning process is all about--is for those arms to be completely and verifiably put beyond use. The confidence-building measure paves the way for that and builds up to it. The main process must follow, and the Provisional IRA now says that we have a political context and a backcloth of institutions that will function once more against which it can pursue the process of putting arms completely and verifiably beyond use.

I gather that there will be several substantial dumps of weaponry, explosives and detonators. Obviously, the inspection of those dumps is a matter for those whom we have nominated, and not for me. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that a robust and dependable process will be put in place in consultation with the inspectors, who will work closely alongside General de Chastelain's commission to make sure that monitoring and scrutiny are replete and adequate for the task.

The right hon. Gentleman asked several questions about sanctions and about what we should do if it all goes wrong. I have addressed those questions in the past, and I am not blind to them now. I can only say that I am not planning for failure, but if a further political crisis is sparked in circumstances that it is not possible for me to foresee, those responsible for that crisis will be clear for everyone to see. I shall of course, at the end of the day, always ensure the good government of Northern Ireland and will take any measures necessary to secure it.

As far as normalisation measures and security are concerned, I do not act except on the advice of the Chief Constable--primarily--who in turn consults the General Officer Commanding of the Army. That has always been the case and it always will be.

Finally, the whole point of the Good Friday agreement was to enshrine the principle of consent, and for the legitimacy of Northern Ireland's position in the United Kingdom to be recognised and respected while a majority in Northern Ireland wish it. That is the kernel of the Good Friday agreement, along with principles of fairness and parity of esteem. Those principles are robust and enduring. The measures and policies that we pursue will reflect those important principles at the heart of the Good Friday agreement.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann): The Secretary of State, in his statement itself, has acknowledged that we are being properly cautious in our approach to the developments of the weekend--in particular, the IRA statement. While it appears to break new ground, there are still matters that should be probed. Until we get sufficiently satisfactory answers on those and related matters, it would be premature to make a decision on this matter.

I think that the Secretary of State is also aware of our very firm view that the progress that there has been would not have been achieved but for suspension in February. Had there not been suspension in February, we would not have seen this happen. It was my own clear view that the evidence--of actions rather than words--clearly is that the republican movement only moves under pressure. That is a lesson that we hope has now been learned.

Like the Secretary of State, we take the view that the most significant part of the IRA statement is that passage in which they say they will initiate

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The Secretary of State also referred to confidence- building measures that the IRA said it would undertake within weeks. Can we have it again confirmed that it is the Government's view that those confidence-building measures are of a transitional nature; that they are not the end result itself, but a transition--part of a process leading to decommissioning in the proper sense?

The Secretary of State will also know that it is very much our desire that this process should succeed and that we should see devolution restored--provided that it is done on a sound basis--and that, irrespective of whatever decision he may make with regard to the restoration of devolution, my party will make its own decision as to what role it will play in future institutions: this party's decision will always be its own decision, and should it consider that, at any point in the future, there is a failure by republicans to carry out the process, it will act accordingly.

Finally, I underline the comments of the Secretary of State that, having heard from the republican movement, it is now essential that we hear from loyalist paramilitaries. We hope that they can--as they have done in the past--improve upon what the IRA has offered.

Mr. Mandelson: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman--not just for echoing my comments about the loyalist paramilitary organisations; I think that all Members of the House will join him in expressing that sentiment. Of course, I respect, have always respected and will always respect the position and the right of his party to consider what it believes it is necessary to do in the interests both of those who support his party and of society in Northern Ireland as a whole. I readily acknowledge that that is how he is motivated.

I do not want to dwell on the past or to return to the issue of suspension; that is far too painful. I think that the lessons that the right hon. Gentleman described have probably been learned by everyone. On holding people's feet to the fire, no one can touch him in that regard and everyone will have heard what he said about putting pressure on others. Although pressure is sometimes unwelcome, it is none the less frequently necessary to maintain it.

The right hon. Gentleman asked specifically about the confidence-building measure. Yes, it is a start not an end; it is the beginning of the process and stage 1. Further stages must follow. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, I am not in the business of trying to announce deadlines at this stage as to when the process should finish. We have done that in the past and it got us precisely nowhere, so I am not going to try it again. None the less, the process must be on-going.

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The right hon. Gentleman asked me specifically about the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997. The point that he referred to in the Government statement of Friday night was simply that, if anyone wishes to make fresh proposals for new decommissioning schemes that they think are preferable to those already on the table, both Governments will consider them urgently. The whole point of any such scheme would be to maximise the latitude open to the decommissioning body to fulfil its objectives--nothing more and nothing less.

I do not propose to introduce any amendments to the 1997 Act. It set out four options for decommissioning arms, but provided for more to be created if necessary. It also says that arms can be destroyed or made permanently inaccessible or permanently unusable, and that gives us enough breadth and scope for action to proceed without amending the legislation.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): The statement is most welcome. My right hon. Friend will know that I supported him fully on the suspension of the Executive and I support him on its re-establishment now that circumstances are dramatically different. However, would it not help in putting arms, iron bars and other weapons beyond use if, over the next year, movement were made so that exiles are no longer kept out of Northern Ireland by paramilitaries, but are allowed to return home and feel that it is safe to do so because estates in certain areas are no longer run and dominated by paramilitary groups? If there are moves in that direction in the next year, we might have everything established fully by June 2001.

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