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Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead): It is clear that the House is not to be told how substantial—or not—the surrender of arms was, but has the Secretary of State been told the extent of the arms that were surrendered?

Dr. Reid: That is entirely a matter for General de Chastelain. [Hon. Members: "Answer."] The answer is that I have not been told, and I accept the word of General de Chastelain. If the hon. Member for Rayleigh does not want to accept his word, that is entirely up to him. The reason that the quantity was not made public has been explained by General de Chastelain himself, the person to whom the House entrusted the job.

For the first time, the Irish Republican Army has been prepared to put weapons beyond use. If people in this House, or indeed other politicians, feel that that historic progress would have been better achieved by the intervention and judgment of partisan politicians, all I can say is that they are wired to the moon. They know nothing of history and are far removed from the reality of the problem with which we are dealing.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Dr. Reid: I will, provided that the House will accept that my speech will last a little longer.

Chris Grayling: I thank the Secretary of State for giving way and apologise for having missed the first few moments of his speech. Does he not understand the difficulty faced by Members on this side of the House? This week, we are being asked to make significant decisions about the future of decommissioning and the future of Parliament's relationship with Sinn Fein-IRA, but we are being asked to do so in a vacuum because we have no clear idea about whether what has happened is a single step or the first of many steps. Our concern is that we are being asked to move further and further on, but we have no clear indication of what comes next and nor, apparently, does the Secretary of State.

Dr. Reid: I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern. Indeed, I said at the beginning of my remarks that I understand hon. Members' concern and frustration. However, if the hon. Gentleman is asking whether this House, before it embarked on a monumental project, should have had a guarantee of success in any area, I can tell him that if that had been the case, none of us would have embarked on it. If, however, he is asking for a review of what has happened since we embarked on the process, I can tell him that I have spent an inordinate amount of time explaining that. On decommissioning, the process has moved from a ceasefire, through weapons dump inspections, to a historic act of decommissioning, but that has happened alongside progress in many other areas.

I cannot guarantee to the hon. Gentleman that there will be success on any given aspect of the Belfast agreement. I shall turn later to a number of other issues that have still to develop as part of the process. It is not within my power to promise the hon. Gentleman that there will be success on all those issues, whether we are talking about criminal justice, policing, the Assembly or decommissioning. All I can say is that, in the past two and a half years, we have achieved things that were beyond the imagination of anyone in the House when we set out on that journey.

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Is it possible that the process will continue? Yes. Is it necessary that the process continues if the Belfast agreement is to hold together? Yes. Will we bring whatever pressure we can to bear on all aspects of the process? Yes. But can I guarantee that there is an inevitable route to success in all aspects? No, I cannot; nor can anyone else in this House. But it is a damn sight better to try and to succeed as far as we have done than never to have tried and to have languished where we were.

One of the commentators in yesterday's press told those who thought that there was an alternative to the political process that there was one, which was not to have a political process. If we wanted to see where we might end up with that, the commentator said, one needed merely to look at the middle east.

I cannot guarantee success, but obviously the greatest sanction on all of us will be if the process fails, because we will all have lost, including some of those who are engaged in the process of putting arms beyond use. If anyone in this House honestly believes that we can realistically say that all decommissioning can be finished by 26 February next year, let us know. If not, and if we are to continue the process, we must look to provide the legal framework as well as the democratic framework to make decommissioning a reality.

In plain terms, we cannot ask those groups to hand in their weapons if, by so doing, they would be breaking the law. This is exactly what we would be asking if we did not renew the legislation to continue past February, which is when the legislative cover in the 1997 legislation to provide legal immunity for those decommissioning weapons expires; that is why I am bringing the Bill before the House today.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell): Clearly, there are grave reservations among Conservative Members about the potential for five more years of leeway, albeit with an annual review and vote, which we appreciate. The Secretary of State has rightly said that pressure must be put on paramilitaries, that there must be decommissioning quickly from the so-called loyalists who have not decommissioned and that the Provisional IRA should decommission further. Will he give a guarantee that if, in February of next year, there has been no further decommissioning, he will not bring forward the order for extension for a further year?

Dr. Reid: Every Conservative speaker today seems to demand from me and seek to instil in me some foresight, whereby I have a crystal ball that can dictate the circumstances. Whether I bring the order forward in February would depend on the circumstances at the time. I do not think that anyone here would say that many of the aspects of the Good Friday agreement, including decommissioning, have progressed as quickly as we would have liked, but that does not diminish the fact that what has happened is of huge significance. I would have liked the stability of the Executive and the Assembly to be up and running and flowering more quickly than it has done. That is a regret. I would have liked decommissioning from the Provisional IRA to move more quickly than it did, and I would have liked decommissioning from some others who have not even started to decommission.

However, I cannot predict to the right hon. Member for Bracknell either what is likely to happen six months' ahead or my automatic reaction to that. That will depend

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on the circumstances and that is a sensible way to proceed. This issue will be brought to the House regularly because, even with tonight's Bill, the measure must be brought before the House, as the Bill would merely extend by 12 months, in the first instance, the legal immunity for decommissioning. It will then have to be discussed, debated and decided by this House again.

We cannot allow the great potential that we have to make further progress to be simply thrown away because we have come across what is largely an arbitrary deadline. Given the considerable developments that I have outlined today, we have to be realistic and provide the legal framework to enable further progress to take place.

I recognise that some say that we need to have deadlines and that without pressure the Provisionals will not move. To some extent, that addresses the point raised earlier by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), and that may reflect a difference of emphasis on that point. I do not know whether that is the case, but I shall be as honest as I can with the hon. Gentleman and the House. Some people will point to occasions in the past few years when we have achieved progress only by taking matters right to the wire. I understand that argument, although I have to say that the Provisionals are not the only people in Northern Ireland who regularly take matters to the wire.

However, the Bill includes a provision for Parliament to approve any extension beyond a further year. Though it is not set up as a deadline in any way, there is, therefore, a point at which the matter will have to be discussed and approved again by the House. Notwithstanding that, the simple point is that we will not sustain the peace process merely through deadlines and public ultimatums. Hon. Members constantly point to deadlines that have been passed, and by definition the objective has not been achieved, even through the power that some hon. Members seem to assume lies in deadlines.

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe): The IRA argues that it is not bound by the agreement because it is not a signatory to the agreement. On this side of the House, it has been argued that the IRA is a signatory to the agreement because Sinn Fein-IRA are inextricably linked. Is not it clear from the debate that the Secretary of State is accepting the IRA's definition, not the definition put by hon. Members on this side of the House?

Dr. Reid: No, I am accepting the Belfast agreement. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman can assert that the IRA signed the Belfast agreement. He can assert that Santa Claus signed the Belfast agreement, but that does not make it true. It is, however, obviously the case that Sinn Fein's signature of the Belfast agreement gave rise to a reasonable expectation that since Sinn Fein had signed that agreement, there would be full decommissioning within the specified period, during which people would work towards a target. That is partly why there was such disappointment. I wish that that had happened at the specified time, and I also wish that it had happened by the end of the further extension in June.

I wish that the Provisional IRA and all the loyalist groups will have decommissioned by next February, but I cannot wish away the fact that it is now extremely unlikely that that will be accomplished. Therefore, the choice before the House is whether to make it illegal, by

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voting against the extension, for people to decommission after 26 February, when the legal immunity will end. Yes, it will take continual pressure, but it will also take patience and—obviously—it will take time.

It will take time to complete every aspect of the Belfast agreement, including the changes that we have inaugurated in policing, and the full flowering and stability of the Assembly and the Executive. I hope that more powers can be passed to the Assembly and the Executive. It is only with time that we will see the normalisation of Northern Ireland society, and that will mean a reduction in the military presence to levels found in the rest of the UK. We need to continue to make steady progress on all of the issues covered by the Belfast agreement, but we cannot exclude decommissioning and the putting of arms beyond use from that. Decommissioning is an integral and essential part of the progress that has to be made. As ever, if we stop moving forward, we will not stand still but will start sliding back.

It would not be helpful to dictate that there must be an absolute, and by definition arbitrary, end, to just one aspect of the agreement. To pretend that that would deliver the objective that we seek would be neither an honest nor a practical application of our experience. I am firmly convinced that that is not likely to be a sensible or effective way to proceed.

I have already paid tribute to General John de Chastelain and his colleagues in the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning. I extend to them my heartfelt thanks. Their integrity, diligence, skill and, above all, perseverance have been instrumental in bringing us this far. Whatever disappointment hon. Members may feel about how far we have come, they will, at least, have the dignity to accord due thanks to John de Chastelain for the significant distance that we have come.

The commission's life is not time-bound. Its mandate comes from the Belfast agreement and the pursuit of the objective of decommissioning all arms can and must be continued. Many hon. Members will no doubt concentrate tonight on what has yet to be achieved. That is, perhaps, natural, and I understand their concerns and frustrations and the occasional anger that accompanies them.

Legitimate debate remains to be held on the matter before us tonight, but it is worth recalling the nature of the project on which we have embarked. We are addressing a problem whose roots lie deep in decades—indeed, centuries—of conflict. We are addressing it through a process that seeks nothing less than the reversal of that history in Northern Ireland and in the island of Ireland. The Bill is central to that purpose, and I commend it to the House.

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