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10.48 pm

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): First, I apologise to the Minister for missing the first couple of minutes of the debate. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) was here and reported to me what he said. I listened to his careful words and to the careful words of the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor), and I can be brief. The view in my party and among Members on these Benches is similar to that expressed from the Conservative Front Bench.

It is clearly right that when the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997 was passed, a possible five-year period, renewable on a regular basis, was envisaged--that was the end point contemplated then. It is also clearly right that forward steps have been taken. The two people appointed to undertake the monitoring are held in great esteem internationally and are highly regarded in their job. Likewise, General de Chastelain has become an accepted broker with the paramilitaries.

However, we are getting near the end of the period--the new Secretary of State is as aware of that as anybody--and our nervousness is shared much more every day by people in the Province who have to live their lives in circumstances that the rest of us experience only occasionally. The promises and the indications given have yet to be delivered.

We will not divide the House. We accept the Government's good faith, and know that they are trying to bring about delivery of the agreement and

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decommissioning; but one or two matters appear to remain unspoken, and I hope that the Minister will deal with them.

First, the last Secretary of State and the Prime Minister implied that we could realistically expect an agreement to be concluded by June this year. We are now dealing with the order in early April. If pressure had been put on all the parties, there might have been a logic--as the hon. Member for Solihull implied--in delaying the order or giving it a shorter life, so that pressure could be seen to be exerted to achieve the June deadline. Will the Minister tell us whether he contemplated either a shorter order or delaying tonight's debate until nearer the June date--a date in May, when the current order runs out--to put pressure on the parties to deliver the goods which, as the hon. Gentleman said, have not yet been delivered?

My second point is this: it is obviously a good thing that the IRA has made two statements, one last year and one this year, saying that it is willing to engage with the de Chastelain commission, but that was against a background of talks having been broken off in the first place. Can the Government give the House and the people of Northern Ireland any idea of whether further progress has been made? Is there any possibility that a date is to be fixed on which General de Chastelain will be able to give a positive indication of progress? Are the Government aware of any good news in the pipeline? Have there been a number of meetings between the IRA and the commission on which the Minister can report to the House; if so, how many?

I know that we clutch at straws to some extent, but they must be more than straws before long. They must be solid pieces of building material, to enable the peace desired by the Government and all other democratic parties in the House to be achieved.

Obviously I do not deal with these matters as often as my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik), but I understand that the weapons dumps have been inspected twice in the past 10 months. That is all well and good, but what the people of Northern Ireland want is exactly what the hon. Member for Solihull said they wanted, and what the rest of us want. We want not just inspections, but destruction. We do not just want a monitoring process; at the end of the day, we want the weapons to go. It would be helpful if the Minister could tell us whether, as of tonight, the Government have been given any indication that there is not merely a willingness for a further inspection to take place, but a willingness for the weapons to disappear by the end of the period.

Time is running out for the amnesty; time is running out for people to show that they mean what they say. Time is running out for a response to the perfectly proper initiatives that the Government have taken, with the support of all sides. We cannot call too strongly--on behalf of all the people of Ireland, north and south--for a response. We cannot go on saying, "Tomorrow, or later, will be time enough".

10.54 pm

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann): The order is a technical measure. It is necessary because, without such an amnesty provision, actual decommissioning could never occur. Obviously we shall want the order to be

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made, to provide for that. As the current amnesty period will expire on 19 May, it is clearly necessary for it to be extended. I therefore support the order, subject to a reservation similar to that mentioned by other Members, to which I shall return shortly.

Clearly, the debate will range beyond the technical measure to review what has--or, more precisely, has not--happened with regard to decommissioning over the period. The starting point is the discussions that took place in Hillsborough in May last year. At that time, the Government set June this year as the point at which full implementation of all aspects of the agreement should be achieved. The original date set for full implementation was May 2000, but in view of the circumstances at that time, the Government moved it to June this year, which was regrettable but necessary.

At that time--May last year--we were encouraged by the undertaking given by the IRA to put its weapons beyond use, completely and verifiably. Our expectation was that the IRA would engage with the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning and agree a method by which the weapons would be put beyond use. We expected the republican movement to approach de Chastelain with ideas about how that could be done, so that a fresh scheme could be made and the weapons dealt with. Provided that the weapons were permanently beyond use or unavailable, people in Northern Ireland would have been satisfied.

Regrettably, although there was some contact--a telephone call, I believe--in May or June last year, there was no engagement. The failure of the republican movement to keep its promise resulted in the decision that I took, supported by my party, to impose what sanctions we could on the political representatives of the republican movement, barring them from the North-South Ministerial Council and possibly other meetings. That sanction has been and will be maintained until serious progress occurs. I am convinced that the republican movement has moved only under pressure. Any thought that progress can be achieved without pressure being applied is, I believe, quite illusory.

Republicans have recently made undertakings to renew contact with General de Chastelain and his commission and to have further discussions, and reference has been made to a report issued by the commission on 22 March. I commend General de Chastelain's recent reports. The most recent ones have been quite detailed and are worth reading closely. When the report of 22 March is read closely, it reveals that no progress has been made. Some who have spoken today have drawn encouragement from some of the language used in that report, but it is clear that there has been no progress.

There has been a meeting--one--between de Chastelain and a representative of the IRA, but the language used about that meeting is interesting. De Chastelain says that the participants reviewed events over the course of the past year and discussed a basis for further discussions. One can contrast that with the references to meetings that de Chastelain has had recently with representatives of the UVF and UFF, at which he says they renewed their commitment to decommissioning and their general agreement on modalities.

There is commitment and agreement on methodology from the loyalist paramilitaries, but with the republican movement there has not yet been discussion on the means

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by which weapons would be put beyond use, let alone any agreement. As I read that report, I conclude that there has not yet been any serious engagement between the republican movement and the IICD--contact, yes; a meeting, yes; but no serious engagement. I regard that as a very serious matter. June is the date for full implementation. As has been said, if we are to see serious decommissioning in June, there will have to be agreement on methodology and various matters will have to be sorted out in advance of that date. The time in which to do that is running out.

The danger of this order is that setting or renewing the amnesty period right through until February of next year could create the impression that June was being undermined as the date by which full implementation will occur. It is very important that nothing that is said tonight on either side of the House should undermine June as the key date by which implementation has been agreed. Whatever the position might be in an amnesty order, de Chastelain's mandate was renewed in May of last year until June. That mandate derives from an agreement that was made by all the parties; it can only be extended by all the parties.

I know from discussions with General de Chastelain that he is aware that his credibility and that of his commission is at stake. If no serious progress is made between now and June, he is well aware of the possible effect on the decommissioning process and his commission's credibility. It is therefore important that all parties who wish to see progress on this issue should maintain the emphasis on June and maintain the pressure on the republican movement. They should make it clear to the republicans that there will be no extension of the de Chastelain mandate without serious progress on this issue. I intend to maintain that pressure, with regard not only to the sanctions that we have applied to the republican movement but to other matters. We shall take whatever course of action we consider most appropriate to reinforce the pressure on the republicans, because there has to be progress on this issue.

I shall not weary the House by saying why that progress is necessary. The reasons have been mentioned by the hon. Members for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) and for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes). An additional reason is that there is already a significant worry that material, explosives and weapons held by the mainstream IRA are leaking into dissident republican organisations. There is some evidence of that happening from the devices that have been used. For that reason if no other, it is necessary for these weapons to be made permanently unusable and permanently unavailable. If we have progress on that, we can then start to tackle--effectively, I hope--the way in which some paramilitary gangs are transmuting themselves into Mafia-type organisations.

The people of Northern Ireland appreciate the progress that has been made so far, but they are conscious of the fact that the job is not yet done. A lot of hard work remains to be done to achieve the goal that we have set ourselves of producing a normal, peaceful society that operates in a wholly democratic fashion.

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