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10.27 pm

Mr. Blunt: It is typical that I shall probably be speaking at the end of the Third Reading. I made a nine-second speech on the programme motion for the

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Second Reading, I was unable to get in at all on a subsequent stage, and I was cut off at the end of the Committee stage.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch) and to the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), the Chairman of the Defence Committee, for their kind remarks about me--the right hon. Gentleman's remarks were kind, once he had withdrawn half of them. I noted his point about the report being good, so far as it goes. The Chairman of the Defence Committee would be pretty unimpressed by a document of 67 paragraphs over 26 pages. By his standards and those of the Defence Committee, that is pretty thin gruel, given the scope that the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill had to cover.

The way in which the Bill has been dealt with must be reviewed, as the right hon. Gentleman said. There was the opportunity for it to go to the Defence Committee. A Defence Minister and a shadow spokesman should have been attached to the Committee. The necessary expertise would then have been in place to allow the Committee to consider all the issues.

The Bill is necessary, and it would be grossly irresponsible for the House to vote against it on Third Reading. This is the Bill by which we sustain the armed forces. It is a unique piece of legislation which gives us the opportunity on a cross-party basis, with the authority of a Select Committee, to examine the issues in proper detail. As I am about to run out of time, I shall conclude by picking up on the comments made by the hon. Member for Hereford, who should not weigh so heavily the evidence given in public by senior officers who have no choice about responsibilities further up the chain of command. Perhaps he should rely more--

It being half-past Ten o'clock, Mr. Speaker put the Question, pursuant to Orders [7 November 2000 and this day].

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.

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Northern Ireland

10.30 pm

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Adam Ingram): I beg to move,

The order appoints 27 February 2002 as the date before which the amnesty period identified in a non-statutory decommissioning scheme must end. The amnesty period is the time during which firearms, ammunition and explosives can be decommissioned in accordance with the scheme, thereby attracting both the amnesty and the prohibitions on evidential use and forensic testing of decommissioned items provided by the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997.

Section 2 of the 1997 Act requires that a scheme must set out the amnesty period. The initial period had to end before 27 February 1998, but the Act gave the Secretary of State power, by order, to extend the scheme by a maximum of 12 months at any one time. Four such orders have been made to date. Under the one made in May last year, the amnesty period will expire at midnight on 19 May this year. The day appointed in any order must not be more than five years after the enactment of the 1997 Act. The Act took effect on 27 February 1997, so the five-year period that it envisages will end at midnight on 26 February 2002. The order therefore extends the period during which an amnesty may be provided to the maximum extent that is permitted under the Act.

The Prime Minister and Taoiseach stated at Hillsborough castle on 5 May last year that

That remains the Government's position. We are absolutely clear that we want to see substantial progress on decommissioning by June.

The report published on 22 March by the decommissioning commission, confirming the IRA's re-engagement and the continued engagement of the UVF and UFF, is to be welcomed. The commission stated in its report that

on decommissioning. Those are encouraging words for all of us who want the agreement to be implemented in full.

It would be unrealistic, however, to expect all decommissioning, including decommissioning by loyalist groups, to be completed by 19 May, when the current amnesty period will expire. The reality is that, as part of the Government's commitment to the full implementation of the agreement, we must continue to provide the means by which terrorist weapons can be put permanently beyond use.

It is the responsibility of the Government to ensure that the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning can fulfil its remit, which is to determine exactly how the mechanics of decommissioning should operate. That is the purpose and effect of the 1997 Act, which envisaged a maximum period of five years within which an immunity from prosecution might be required. Parliament approved that arrangement, and has

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also approved the renewal of immunity on a periodic basis. That is why the Government have brought the order before the House.

In preparing the order, we considered the possibility of setting a June date for the expiry of the amnesty provisions. However, the Government did not think that extending the period for only a few weeks after 19 May was sensible. The reality is that decommissioning is a voluntary act, and it is not only the IRA who must decommission. Some of the loyalist groups that are committed to the agreement have made it clear that they will consider decommissioning only after the IRA has made tangible progress.

It would therefore be counterproductive not to have some flexibility over timing, and it would not help the process if we had to keep coming back to the House every few weeks. A longer time scale has therefore been chosen.

The Government believe that extending the length of the amnesty for the full period permitted by the Act is more advisable than setting a June date, because we do not want unnecessarily to restrict the decommissioning commission's room for manoeuvre.

The commission must be able to deal with arms from any paramilitary organisation, and it must have the tools to do so. In effect, we must provide the tools to help General de Chastelain and the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning to ensure that decommissioning takes place.

The Government, with the Irish Government and all the pro-agreement parties, have a responsibility to do everything in their power to secure the decommissioning of arms held by all paramilitary organisations. We are totally committed to that objective.

It is worth while putting the matter in context. It would be wrong to lose sight of the considerable progress on illegally held weapons since the Good Friday agreement was made in April 1998. The ceasefires have helped to create a context in which peace, prosperity and stability can flourish. It may not be a perfect peace, but it is preferable to what preceded it. The decommissioning commission issued a positive statement on 22 March, setting out the nature of its recent contact with the Provisional IRA, the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster Freedom Fighters, and stating its belief that progress could be made.

In addition, there have been two separate, encouraging reports from the independent arms inspectors Martti Ahtisaari and Cyril Ramaphosa, detailing their inspection of a number of IRA weapons dumps. The IRA has stated publicly that it is prepared to put its arms completely and verifiably beyond use. All those stages constitute real progress in our pursuit of a peaceful, non-violent society in Northern Ireland.

However positive those developments, they are not enough on their own. They do not constitute actual decommissioning and they have not yet resulted in illegally held weapons being placed completely and verifiably beyond use. That is our ultimate goal. The Belfast agreement requires it, and all parties to the agreement agreed to work to achieve it. The Government, with the Irish Government, are committed to bringing it about through discussions with all the pro-agreement parties in Northern Ireland. Renewal of the amnesty provisions is essential to that goal.

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Decommissioning is a central part of the Good Friday agreement. Removing permanently the bomb and the bullet from Northern Ireland politics is essential if the new era of peace and normality that the agreement envisages is to be established on a stable and lasting basis. To achieve that, we must work through the arrangements that are already in place, through the IICD and the mechanisms set up by the Decommissioning Act 1997.

I commend the order to the House.

10.38 pm

Mr. John M. Taylor (Solihull): Conservative Members will not oppose the order. After all, the previous Conservative Government introduced the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997. As the Minister has pointed out, the legislation was intended to encourage voluntary decommissioning of illegally held arms and explosives by terrorist organisations in Northern Ireland. It sought to do that by providing immunity from prosecution for terrorists who gave up arms and explosives, and by prohibiting any forensic testing of them.

The amnesty period for which the Act provides initially ran for a year from the date on which it was passed-- 27 February 1997--though it could be extended for further periods of up to 12 months for up five years. The Act also established the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning to deal with the modalities of decommissioning and to verify that it had taken place. We pay tribute to the work that has been carried out by General John de Chastelain and his team in very difficult circumstances over the past four years. He has achieved an almost unique position in Northern Ireland, in that he has been able to gain the trust and confidence of all sides.

Although we shall not oppose the order, we deeply regret that it has been necessary to introduce it and to prolong the amnesty period until 27 February 2002. The reason is clear: despite all their promises, and in defiance of the wishes of the overwhelming majority of the people of Ireland, north and south, the paramilitaries have yet to decommission one gun or one ounce of semtex. At the same time, the IRA has seen its political allies in Sinn Fein enjoying office as Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive. Furthermore, some 430 hardened terrorists--republicans and so-called loyalists--have been let out of prison and back on to the streets early. All the main terrorist organisations continue to carry out vicious beatings, mutilations, shootings and, in some cases, murders, even though they are supposed to be maintaining complete and unequivocal ceasefires or, put more accurately in their own terms,

The Belfast agreement made it clear that the decommissioning of all illegally held weapons was to be achieved within two years of the referendum--that is, by 22 May 2000. That deadline came and went. However, in May last year, in what appeared to be a breakthrough, the IRA promised to begin the process of putting its arms completely and verifiably beyond use. It said that it would re-engage with the de Chastelain commission, and promised to open some arms dumps for inspection by the team of independent inspectors, to demonstrate that its guns remained silent.

Like the Government, we welcomed the IRA statement, although, as the Prime Minister made clear in the House, inspections of arms dumps could not be a substitute for

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decommissioning or, to use the jargon, "delivery of product". Since then, there have been two reported inspections of arms dumps by Mr. Ahtisaari and Mr. Ramaphosa. The IRA re-engaged with de Chastelain only on 8 March--the first contact since last summer. We await the next report of General de Chastelain's decommissioning commission with interest, to find out exactly how productive those discussions have been, although the Minister will forgive me if, on the basis of the terrorists' past performance, we do not hold our breath. The blunt truth is that despite last May's statement we, and the people of the island of Ireland who want nothing more than to see the gun taken out of Irish politics for good, are still waiting for decommissioning.

There are those who say that the fact that the terrorist guns are silent is sufficient. They are wrong. Decommissioning is crucial for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that its absence remains the single most important obstacle to the full implementation of the Belfast agreement, which has yet to be implemented. The issue of decommissioning is also proving to be the single most destabilising factor in the entire political process.

The single most important commodity in the process is confidence, and it is essential that decommissioning should take place if we are to maintain the confidence within the Unionist community that is vital if the process is to succeed. Decommissioning is essential if the paramilitaries are to demonstrate once and for all that the war is over and that they are committed, in the words of the Belfast agreement, to

The refusal or failure to decommission is clearly incompatible with that commitment. Until decommissioning takes place, there will always be a lingering suspicion about the true intentions of the paramilitaries: a suspicion that if they do not ultimately get their way through political debate, a return to violence remains an option. People will be entitled to ask why, if the terrorists are committed to peaceful and democratic means, they need to hang on to the weapons of terror.

Sadly, it still appears that Sinn Fein-IRA are playing two strategies at the same time, which is best summed up by the acronym TUAS. That was the title of a briefing paper circulated to republicans in 1994. To one audience, it means "Totally Un-Armed Strategy"; to another, "Tactical Use of the Armed Struggle". That ambiguity should end, and decommissioning is a way to demonstrate that beyond question.

Decommissioning should happen because, quite simply, it remains fundamentally wrong in a democracy such as the United Kingdom's to have Ministers serving in government--apart from temporarily--while they are associated with an organisation that retains weapons. Decommissioning should happen, for as long the island of Ireland is awash with guns and explosives, the chance of them falling into the hands of dissident organisations that reject the Belfast agreement is significantly increased.

We are all aware of the serious threat posed by dissident organisations on both sides, not just in Northern Ireland, where serious loss of life has been avoided only through a combination of good fortune and skill on the part of the security forces, but here in Great Britain, as the recent bomb in Shepherd's Bush showed.

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Decommissioning should happen because it is the clear will of the people of Northern Ireland and the will of the people of the Irish Republic. They voted in 1998 to take the gun out of Irish politics: they voted for decommissioning. They did not vote for an armed peace. By refusing to decommission, the paramilitaries show their contempt for the views of the people in whose name and cause they have so often claimed to act.

For all those reasons, decommissioning should take place, and it should take place soon. In their statement of 5 May last year, the British and Irish Governments set out the process for the full implementation of the agreement, which envisaged decommissioning taking place by June of this year. For that to happen, it would presumably have to begin in the next few weeks.

With that deadline in mind, we are somewhat surprised that the Government have chosen to extend the amnesty provisions in the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997 for the fullest possible period, to next February. Is not there a case for extending the amnesty only until June, as a clear indication of the importance that the Government attach to that date and of the urgent need for decommissioning to take place?

The decision to extend the amnesty until next February risks sending out a message that the Government have already accepted that decommissioning will not take place within the time scale envisaged last year. If so, that would be truly regrettable. We look to the Minister to reassure us that that is not the case, that decommissioning remains an urgent necessity, and that all pressure will continue to be put on the republican and so-called loyalist paramilitaries to carry it out. Everyone else has done their bit and, often at great political risk, fulfilled their obligations. Surely it is time for the paramilitaries to deliver on theirs.

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