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6.4 pm

Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green): When I came to the Chamber this afternoon, I assumed that we would hear genuine concerns and anxieties being expressed by some of our friends from Northern Ireland. I expected that that would be difficult and that ground that had already been covered would have to be covered again. I understand that for people who have worked hard for peace, the length of time that the process takes is disturbing, and it is difficult for them to keep others on board.

Anyone who has listened to the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) will realise that the focus of the debate lies elsewhere. We are back to the old question of deadlines and the position that the only decommissioning that should concern us is decommissioning by the Provisional IRA. That is extremely regrettable.

Mr. Davies: I cannot let the hon. Gentleman misquote me so soon after my remarks. I made it clear that it was extremely important that all the organisations with arms in Northern Ireland should be part of the decommissioning process. On several occasions I referred specifically to the loyalist paramilitaries.

Mr. McCabe: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for setting the record straight. I must have slept through that part of his speech. Were I judging it on quantity, I would recognise the number of references that he made to one group in particular.

Back in July 1999, the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) said of the decommissioning scheme:

He went on to say that the decommissioning scheme states:

He continued:

I welcomed that statement by the right hon. Gentleman, as the issue of timetables has bedevilled the process.

Listening to the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford, I came to the conclusion that the Opposition amendment is not a reasoned amendment. It does not seek to alter the process. It does not recognise that we are dealing with an amnesty. It is an attempt to renege on the agreement. It represents the end of bipartisanship. I am shocked and horrified by the comments of the hon. Gentleman and of the hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois), who is no longer in his place.

The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford said— I listened carefully to this part of his speech—that nothing had happened in the first two years of decommissioning. I recall that on 18 September the LVF decommissioned a

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small quantity of weapons, which General de Chastelain described as a significant event. To my recollection, no one queried those remarks.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North): The LVF gesture was made in the full glare of publicity—in front of the television cameras. In the case of the latest so-called gesture of decommissioning, no one has seen it and no one knows what it amounts to, not even the Secretary of State or the Prime Minister.

Mr. McCabe: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. There is a record of decommissioning and it is verified. Unless the hon. Gentleman is joining others in saying that he does not trust General de Chastelain and his commission, he should accept that there is a record of the IRA decommissioning and it has been verified. Most hon. Members were prepared to accept the procedure when the commission was established. There have been two significant acts of decommissioning. The first occurred in 1998 and was a very early and welcome gesture. I entirely agree with those who suggest that we waited far too long for the second such act; none the less, a second important act of decommissioning has occurred.

We must make a simple choice before we consider the Bill any further. We must decide whether the House will continue to place faith in General de Chastelain. If hon. Members are saying that they are not prepared to do so, the whole process will come to an end, as that is the basis on which agreement was struck and on which they said they would have confidence in the process. Now that General de Chastelain has announced that a second act of decommissioning has occurred, that basis has been challenged.

Chris Grayling: Does not the hon. Gentleman understand that the issue of concern is not General de Chastelain, but the continuous process in which the Government have made concessions during the past two to three years without any response from Sinn Fein-IRA? We have seen the process of releasing prisoners, the creation of the new institutions and the reform of policing, and we are now dealing with the issue of accommodation in the House of Commons for Members who have not taken their seats. There has been concession after concession, but we have had only one item in return, and we are being asked to take it on trust that that is sufficient. Does not he understand that the concerns arise from the continued process of give but very little take?

Mr. McCabe: I am tempted to ask the hon. Gentleman to give way.

As I understand it, we are dealing with the question of extending an amnesty for those who are prepared to decommission weapons on the loyalist and republican sides. That is what we should be considering now. I accept his concerns, which are genuine, but not his analysis of events since the Good Friday agreement was signed. It seems to me that General de Chastelain's remit has not expired. As I understand it, his remit is established by treaty, so nobody should be querying his right to continue in his current role. However, we are entitled to ask what will happen when we hit the 27 February deadline. If people to whom an amnesty applies are poised and ready to decommission weapons, are we prepared to turn our backs by not agreeing to take another step to allow them

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to do so? I cannot believe that any reasonable human being in this place who wants to see peace and decommissioning in Northern Ireland would come to that conclusion, which is utterly wrong.

I want to make it absolutely clear that I recognise that decommissioning must be one of the crucial elements of the peace process. I was in South Africa with other members of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs a couple of years ago. We witnessed first hand some of the problems that had occurred in that country despite the peace process there, because of the failure successfully to decommission weapons. If the entire peace process in Northern Ireland is to succeed, successful decommissioning must be a part of it. I do not take the view that we should put unnecessary obstacles in its way. Whatever people feel should have happened in the first two years, tentative moves have been made. They are insufficient, more is required and it is to be hoped that we can persuade those involved to deliver more, but tentative moves have been made—one on each side—which show that the process can work, given the right encouragement.

Unfortunately, we must recognise that the UDA, a specified organisation, is not currently prepared to engage in the process. How on earth we could expect it to decommission before 27 February or within three months of that date—I think that that is the preferred time scale of the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford—I do not know. I think that that is utterly absurd. We know that the UVF and the LVF are currently engaged in discussions with General de Chastelain, although I do not think that there is much information about exactly what stage the negotiations have reached. It is possible that they are considering the time scale for further acts of decommissioning, but the hon. Gentleman is prepared to sweep that possibility aside unless such an act takes place within his three-month time scale. That position is frighteningly absurd and I think that we are entitled to expect better from Her Majesty's official Opposition.

On decommissioning by the Provisional IRA, I want to make this simple point: we know that it has taken the first vital step and we hope that a succession of steps will follow. I share that view with my colleagues from Northern Ireland. I dearly want such progress to happen soon and I hope that we might even see more of it before 27 February. I also want total decommissioning, which can happen only if we retain faith in the process. That is why I am shocked and disturbed to be told that the official Opposition spokesman wants to rewrite the de Chastelain brief. He is not content to accept what his predecessors and this whole House were happy to accept: that the onus is on General de Chastelain and the commission to say that they are happy and satisfied, that they have a record and that they were able to verify the process. The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford does not want that. He wants a new set of conditions and timetables, the result of which would be to undermine General de Chastelain at the very stage when we have seen what he describes as the first significant act. I cannot for the life of me work out how any reasonable individual would come to that conclusion.

Chris Grayling: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way a second time. He said that he did not understand how any reasonable individual could come to the

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conclusion that he described, but surely the evidence of the past three years shows that every time Sinn Fein-IRA sees an opportunity to string the process out or grab an extra concession, it does so. The message of a five-year time frame is that decommissioning is anything but urgent. I put it to him that it is urgent and that we need a tighter time frame and tighter guidelines in respect of Sinn Fein-IRA to try to encourage it to come to a resolution.

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