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House of Commons
Session 1999-2000
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Standing Committee Debates
Northen Ireland Grand Committee Debates

Devolution in Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland Grand Committee

Wednesday 5 July 2000


[Mr. John Butterfill in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Arms Dumps Inspections

10.30 am

1. Mr. John M. Taylor (Solihull): If he will make a statement about arms dumps inspections in the context of the decommissioning provisions of the Belfast agreement. [128185] The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Adam Ingram): We welcome the inspection of IRA arms dumps by Mr. Ramaphosa and Mr. Ahtisaari. We believe that this step signals the sort of process of moving from talking about the arms issue to actually getting it under way. I hope and expect that the IRA will honour that undertaking. The re-establishing of contact between the IRA and the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning is another sign of helpful progress. The recent IRA statement included for the first time a clear and unequivocal commitment to put arms ``completely and verifiably'' beyond use.

Mr. Taylor: I welcome the Minister's reply, but as confidence and openness are essential ingredients in the fulfilment of the Belfast agreement, are we for ever to expect the inspections to be a sort of mysterious medieval sacrament, visible only to a high priesthood?

Mr. Ingram: In one sense, that question was couched in obscure and opaque language. As I said, it is obviously a matter of making positive progress towards that which we all seek to achieve. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman hopes that the expectation that I expressed in my first response—that we shall move on from where we are now, with what was called the confidence-building measure, to the full undertakings that we believe to be consistent with the Belfast agreement—is fulfilled by those organisations, which can play an important part in achieving that objective.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): The Minister and I have discussed this matter in the past and we take slightly different views on it. Given the recent court case in the United States in which people were convicted for buying arms during the IRA ceasefire and in which it was verified that the arms went to the IRA, although it seems strange that the IRA should want to buy more arms during a ceasefire, what tangible evidence does the Minister have for hoping—I use his word—that the IRA will honour its undertakings?

Mr. Ingram: We have always made it clear that it is not a simple and straightforward process. Regarding the court case raised by the hon. Gentleman in the opening part of his question, we have said that all such matters are kept under scrutiny and examination. He will know that the previous Secretary of State made a determination in advance of the court's final decision of whether that information was in the public domain. That decision was tested in a court of law and the Secretary of State's finding was supported.

Clearly, we must at all times consider the process in which we are engaged, keeping alert to the possibility of failure but always building for success. It requires the involvement not only of the Government and of those who have influence over those in possession of weapons, on the republican side and the so-called loyalist side, but of all parties in Northern Ireland to move forward progressively—first to establish the peace that we all hope for and, secondly, to keep the pressure on those who have illegally held weapons.

Military Presence

2. Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde): What recent discussions he has had with the Irish Prime Minister relating to the process of the reduction of military presence in Northern Ireland. [128186] The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Adam Ingram): The Secretary of State regularly discusses the security situation in Northern Ireland with the Irish Prime Minister, whom he last met on 31 May 2000. However, all decisions with regard to normalisation of security are taken by the Chief Constable in the light of the current threat level.

Dr. Godman: In light of the turbulence surrounding Drumcree, this may not be the best moment to pursue the issue of demilitarisation. I readily acknowledge that Ministers and the Chief Constable have done a great deal, and that the arms inspectors have reported some progress. Despite those developments, will the Minister continue to press ahead with the process of demilitarisation, especially where obvious manifestations of the military presence cause local irritation? Will he confirm that the crow's nest in Crossmaglen will be demolished in the next two months?

Mr. Ingram: I would not use the term demilitarisation; I would talk about normalisation. I would not use terminology that equates our security presence in Northern Ireland with those who are involved in paramilitarism and terrorism. As we have consistently shown, we will move progressively forward towards a normalised environment based on the threat assessment of the Chief Constable, in consultation with the general officers commanding, and in the light of our other security advice. All those matters are kept under constant scrutiny. The current situation is very volatile, as the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) recognised in his opening question. This is a difficult time and there is a real threat, which must be addressed by those in the front line, who have a very difficult job.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann): In his discussions with the Irish on the question of reducing the military presence, has the Minister made it clear that significant progress cannot be made unless the question of paramilitary weapons is dealt with successfully? Further, does the Minister agree that while the inspection of weapons may be welcome as an initial confidence-building measure, it is not an end in itself? Much more significant are the discussions that will take place between the IRA's interlocutor and the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning. Can the Minister assure the Committee that rapid progress will be made, and has he made it clear to the Irish Government that rapid progress along that track must be made, or confidence will not be maintained? Has he also made it clear that putting weapons beyond use must comply with the definition of decommissioning; namely that the weapons must be permanently unavailable and unusable?

Mr. Ingram: The right hon. Gentleman has been involved in many of those discussions, and he has made his views well known to the United Kingdom and Irish Governments. He is right to say that it would be wrong to regard the recent confidence-building measure as an end to the process—that was never the way in which it was envisaged. That is why I said in response to the first question that we must engage in further steps following that. All the issues raised by the right hon. Gentleman are being impressed upon those who have weapons, through their interlocutors and other people with influence. That message should be heard loud and clear because not only the people of Northern Ireland, but all the people of the island of Ireland want to see those weapons removed for good.

Mr. Robert McCartney (North Down): Is the Minister aware that the Irish Prime Minister, the Taoiseach, Mr. Ahern, has stated categorically that, in his view, the confidence-building measure, which has been implemented to some degree, is the end of the decommissioning issue? Does the Minister agree that making weaponry available to selective viewers of designated dumps, the contents of which remain entirely within the control of the IRA and represent only a fraction of the total IRA arsenal, cannot be considered to represent a commencement of the decommissioning process, whatever else it might be?

Mr. Ingram: The hon. and learned Gentleman takes a view that is diametrically opposed to that of most of us, who are trying to advance the process. He takes a firm view that all the things that we are doing are not signs of progress. However, we take a different view. Most parties and political representatives accept that progress has been made, although we accept that more must be achieved.

The hon. and learned Gentleman asked about the views expressed by the Taoiseach. We cannot easily resolve the fact that the Taoiseach's comments are over-interpreted by others for their own political purposes. However, the two Governments are clear in their objectives, which is why they have been working closely to try to achieve the ultimate objective of the removal of illegally held weapons and the return of a normal society to Northern Ireland.

Post Offices (Criminal Raids)

3. Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): What steps have been taken to provide protection for post offices from criminal raids. [128187]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Adam Ingram): The Royal Ulster Constabulary has recently consulted senior Post Office management on this issue. As a result of that consultation, a number of preventive measures have been put in place. The hon. Gentleman will understand that, for operational reasons, it would not be appropriate for me to make comments in any further detail.

Rev. Martin Smyth: I understand the Minister's point, but does he agree that there are worrying signs? I refer especially to the release of certain folk who have been involved in terrorist activity. In my own constituency, one post office has been raided three times in the past 12 months. Latterly, a double raid occurred—one on a nationalist post office at the top of the road and another on what we would call the loyalist post office, in the middle of the road. For some obscure reason, the post office that is situated between the two was passed over. Now, people are talking, in the fashionable language of this age, about cross-community robberies.

Mr. Ingram: There was some humour in that question, but its thrust was different. I share the hon. Gentleman's view that any increase or other development in criminal activity within Northern Ireland is to be deplored. Clearly, it is the RUC's role to try to tackle such activities while trying to attend to what is currently a very difficult security environment. We hope to find a resolution for these security difficulties, but the matter in question is one for the operational activities of the RUC. As I have said previously, I cannot go into the detail of such operational considerations, which are a matter for the Chief Constable. I am confident that the RUC is only too well aware of the undercurrents in the way in which events are described. More importantly, it is aware of the reality of the level of such criminal activity and the way in which it should be tackled.

I know that all hon. Members will join me in making the following plea. Tackling such activities requires people to give evidence. If people want to see an end to crime in their society, they have to co-operate with the police and with agencies of justice. Without that co-operation, it will be very difficult to achieve the hon. Gentleman's end objective.

Extradition Proceedings

4. Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry): How many outstanding extradition proceedings there are between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. [128188]


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