Previous SectionIndexHome Page

7.32 pm

Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke): I hope that the hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Joyce) will forgive me if I do not pursue the points that he made, although I listened to his speech with interest. I strongly agreed with the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) when he said that decommissioning was essentially the responsibility of Government. It is an issue on which the Government to date have been defective. I was also intrigued by the right hon. Gentleman's assertion that the IRA's decommissioning event was substantial. The rest of us are unaware of any evidence that supports that view. If I may say so somewhat lightheartedly, we look forward to him sharing that evidence with us.

17 Dec 2001 : Column 81

It has been predictable for three or so years that one day this Bill or something like it would come before the House. It was only a matter of time before the Government reflected in legislation their lamentable failure to deliver meaningful decommissioning. Further, nowhere is the saga of our surrender to domestic terrorism more clearly illustrated than in successive Governments' handling of the issue of decommissioning. I say successive Governments, because I am mindful of the retreat on that point that was made between 1993 and 1997. The unpalatable truth is that what started as a peace process long ago degenerated into a process of appeasement. The Bill is largely the consequence of capitulation to the threat of terrorist violence and fear of renewed terrorist violence.

Rev. Martin Smyth: I appreciate the hon. Gentleman giving way on that point, because it was earlier argued that the Conservative party is going back on 1997 in the reasoned amendment. Does he agree that when one realises a mistake has been made, the best thing to do is to rectify it?

Mr. Hunter: I strongly agree, but I have also been intrigued by the frequent references to the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997, because I remember clearly its passage through the House and the arguments in the Chamber and behind the scenes. That Act was aspirational. It prepared the way, controversially, for the recommendations of the Mitchell committee and it came at a time when the Conservative party was still uncertain how strongly to insist on decommissioning as a precondition for entry to the talks. So the climate was very different from today.

The Bill will lengthen the timetable for decommissioning and, therefore, represents the Government's failure to deliver an integral part of the Belfast agreement. It is an expression of that failure, the reasons for which significantly lie in the agreement itself. During the past three or so years, my hon. Friends and I have lamented the absence of linkage. We lamented the absence of linkage between early release and decommissioning and between places on the Executive and decommissioning. If only that linkage had existed, the situation today could have been very different.

There was no linkage, and far from decommissioning being completed by February 2001, another five years will be allowed in which it may take place. That will bring the entire decommissioning process even further into disrepute and it will make fraudulent nonsense of Sinn Fein's position at the heart of Government in the Province.

A simple principle is at stake and we lose sight of it at our peril. It cannot be morally right to sustain a system of democracy in which one side reserves the right to use force if its will does not prevail. How can a power-sharing Executive possibly work when parties are asked to share power with political opponents who have kept open the option of recourse to violence?

I am sorry that the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) is no longer in his place, because I listened to his speech with interest. He got close to saying that decommissioning is like the icing on the cake, or an added attraction. That is not true. It is a core imperative for the maintenance of democratic society.

17 Dec 2001 : Column 82

A long time ago, the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume) said:

If one cannot negotiate with such people, one most certainly cannot share power with them. The requirement that terrorists must decommission their weapons embodies a basic democratic principle, and that principle has been diluted by the Government's failure to achieve meaningful decommissioning and is diluted further by the protracted timetable that the Bill provides.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) said, if the Bill had provided for a reasonable and limited extension of decommissioning of, say, one year, we might have been prepared to support it, but five years is totally irresponsible. A state that agrees to give executive power to people who are members of an armed body is undermining the rule of law on which its stability rests. That principle seemed to be understood by British and Irish Governments at the beginning of the process. So great, however, has been the desire to appease domestic terrorism that they have regressively diluted that principle.

Let us consider the past few years. We were told that decommissioning would be resolved by May 2000. That did not happen, and a new deadline was set for June 2001. It did not happen then, and the deadline was extended to February 2002. The Bill gives a new date—February 2003—and makes further extension available. The point is that if we extend the deadline, we shall extend the time until decommissioning becomes reality. That is the fundamental flaw in the Bill.

I remember that, shortly after the agreement was signed, the Prime Minister wrote to the right hon. Member for Upper Bann to say that decommissioning should start straight away. A few weeks later came the Prime Minister's handwritten pledges to the people of Northern Ireland. On the basis of what proved to be worthless pledges, the majority of voters in the Province backed the agreement. They were essentially conned.

So it has gone on—fudge after fudge after fudge. There came the joint communiqué in April 1999, which the IRA's Brian Keenan described as an Easter bunny. There followed the Prime Minister's initiative and his article in The Times in June 1999, then "The Way Forward" document in July. The Mitchell review of the process followed, and then the IRA's so-called seismic change of thinking. So it has gone on.

The objective has been to secure Unionist acceptance of Sinn Fein's participation in Government without decommissioning. The Government have largely succeeded in that. I find it wholly unacceptable that they should now seek more time for decommissioning when they have squandered so much and shown themselves incapable of delivering the goods. The Bill should be rejected.

7.42 pm

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East): Some weeks ago the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland seemed to say that he understood something of the alienation in the Unionist community. He seemed to understand—given the results of recent elections, he could hardly have done otherwise—that the Unionist community did not support his agreement. He referred to the cold house that seemed to exist for Unionists in Northern Ireland.

17 Dec 2001 : Column 83

The Secretary of State has done himself no favours in his performance today. He demonstrated clearly that he was prepared almost to be a spin doctor for Sinn Fein-IRA and to put the best possible gloss on Sinn Fein-IRA activity. He could have said that Sinn Fein-IRA is full of despicable people who have failed us time and again. He could have said that they had made us promises and pledges, and then broken them. He could have said that they were still going on with their violence, but that the Government feel that we should give them a final chance. We could have disagreed with that judgment, but at least it would have been clear that he did not think that anything in the behaviour of Sinn Fein-IRA was worthy of commendation.

As it was, however, the Secretary of State came to the Dispatch Box, and the worst that he could say of Sinn Fein-IRA was that there had been massive imperfections in the way in which it had operated within the so-called peace process. By and large, he referred to the great significance of what Sinn Fein-IRA has done.

Before I turn to what Sinn Fein-IRA has done, let me leave one fact with the House. Any Member who has not been following events in Northern Ireland may be unaware of it. The Provisional IRA has more weapons and explosives in its stockpiles and armouries today than it had when it declared its ceasefire: so much for decommissioning.

The security forces will make it clear to those who inquire that the IRA has continued to bring weaponry into the country. Indeed, it was caught bringing weapons in via Florida when its network was uncovered by chance by a scanning machine in Great Britain. The IRA has continued to bring in weaponry while talking of the great need for decommissioning, its great desire to see that happen and its preparedness to be part of such a process. Rather than reducing its number of weapons, it has, during the so-called peace process, increased the weapons at its disposal.

It is essential to consider the backcloth against which our debate takes place. Several hon. Members have mentioned that the Provisional IRA and others have given a number of commitments over the past few years. The Government's position before 1994 was that there had to be complete decommissioning of weaponry before Sinn Fein-IRA could be part of any talks process. That position was weakened during the period of the three Washington principles. Lord Mayhew, then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, changed the position so that if Sinn Fein-IRA started on the road to decommissioning, Sinn Fein could be part of the talks process.

The position was weakened further when the Government brought in Senator Mitchell to consider decommissioning. His report said that some people wanted decommissioning to happen before talks could take place, but the IRA did not want to decommission until after the talks were over. Perhaps we should do something in the middle, he said, and he judged that decommissioning should occur during the talks process. Of course, it did not. After the talks took place, we had the Belfast agreement, and all that it gave was a commitment on the part of all participants to use best endeavours to bring about decommissioning by May 2000.

17 Dec 2001 : Column 84

When that date came, another change was made. It was decided that June 2001 would be the appropriate hour. In June 2001, the Government stretched the deadline until February 2002. The measure before the House tonight will take us right through to 2007.

We are told that there is great reason for hope today because there has been a decommissioning event. We are told that that event was of some significance, not because anyone knows what was decommissioned, but because General de Chastelain thought that it was significant. If his judgment is to be used, we should consider just what General Chastelain has said. His statement talked about our having witnessed an event that "we regard as significant".

In the desire to know and to test what the general considers significant, my colleagues and I went to see him. We asked if the commission considered the amount of weaponry to be significant, or whether the fact that anything at all had occurred was significant. He replied that the fact that an event took place was, to him, significant. He said that he had seen written on the gable ends of walls in republican areas, "Not a bullet; not an ounce". In that context, what had happened was significant, he said.

I asked whether the general regarded his meeting with us that day as significant. He said that yes, it was. That might give the House some idea of how easily he is persuaded that any event is of significance. I then asked him whether, if the IRA had decommissioned one gun—just one—he would have considered that to be significant. He said, "Yes, I would." It would thus have been significant if the general had seen only one weapon put beyond use. We are asked by some hon. Members to take as evidence of the Provisional IRA's bona fides—its willingness to see total decommissioning—the fact that in some unspecified place an unspecified event took place, whereby an unspecified amount of weapons of an unspecified classification was put beyond use in an unspecified way, with no suggestion that there would be a further act to put weapons beyond use.

Next Section

IndexHome Page