Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. The hon. Gentleman must remember to use the proper parliamentary language.

Mr. Pound: I am extremely sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I apologise unreservedly to the House. As long as there are politicians of the calibre that we have elected to the House, I see hope for the future of Northern Ireland.

9.17 pm

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North): I listened carefully to the speech of the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound), and I admire his sincerity and conviction. He referred to having left the Chamber momentarily to act as Father Christmas. That must mean that there are two Members tonight who have acted as Father Christmas; the hon. Gentleman outside the Chamber and the Secretary of State, in terms of what he has offered to IRA-Sinn Fein, inside it. Let us make no mistake about it: that is exactly how the Bill is seen in Northern Ireland and how it will be taken by the republican constituency. They are delighted at the fact that once again the deadline for decommissioning will be extended, if the House so votes tonight. Once again, it is going to be fudged and put back, as many hon. Members have predicted. My hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) said to the Secretary of State at Question Time that it would not cause a ripple of surprise in Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, that is not to diminish the outrage that is felt among ordinary grass-roots Unionists in Northern Ireland at the way in which concession after concession has been given to the republican movement; and on the issue of the decommissioning of illegal terrorist arms, they have been pandered to and appeased.

Reference has been made to the 1997 Act and to the fact that this Bill is an extension of that Act. When the Act was introduced, it was not introduced in a vacuum, as some have said. It was introduced in the wake of the Mitchell report. The Mitchell commission was set up to look at how progress could be made through talks, and at the barrier that was said to exist for republicans because of their refusal to decommission. The Mitchell commission made a proposal for a twin-track approach, with political discussions and, at the same time, the decommissioning of illegal terrorist arms for those who took part in the talks. That is why the 1997 Act was introduced by the then Conservative Government. It was on foot with the Mitchell review.

What actually happened? Despite the clear outline given by Senator Mitchell, and the Government's acceptance of the need for political talks to run in parallel with decommissioning of illegal terrorist weapons by those engaged in the talks, what happened was that, once the talks started and IRA-Sinn Fein was admitted, just six weeks after the atrocious murder of two RUC officers on the streets of Lurgan, that issue was put to one side. It was forgotten, and no decommissioning took place.

Then we had the agreement. Nowhere in the agreement does it say explicitly that there was a deadline for decommissioning of illegal terrorist arms, but we were told by those who signed up to the agreement and by the

17 Dec 2001 : Column 105

proponents of the agreement that the deadline was 22 May 2000. Of course, we saw that deadline moved to June 2001. The then junior Minister at the Northern Ireland Office, the right hon. Member for East Kilbride (Mr. Ingram), made it clear that the target date was June 2001. That has passed and now the deadline of February 2002 is also to be extended to a date that means that the Government hope that decommissioning will simply disappear as a political issue. That is the purpose of the Bill and it is why so many people in Northern Ireland are so angry about it in the context of all the other concessions that have been allowed to the republican movement. On the one issue on which something was demanded of it, the deadline will be put back to 2007. As has rightly been pointed out, the original IRA and other terrorist organisations will take whatever time is available to perform whatever responsibilities they have.

The Secretary of State came to the House not long ago and quoted the editorial in the Belfast News Letter against hon. Members, and he urged us to take account of what it said. That newspaper is not generally supportive of those of us who have taken a sceptical view of the agreement—far from it—so I hope that the Secretary of State will take account of that paper's editorial on 12 December, which said:

That is what the Bill will achieve.

We have had discussion of the wonderful progress that has been made, but many people in Northern Ireland would scratch their heads in amazement at some of the descriptions we have heard from hon. Members, especially Labour Members, about the progress that is supposed to have been made. The Belfast Telegraph publishes opinion polls—which it does not generally use to bolster up my side of the argument—and it published one in the aftermath of the gesture carried out by the IRA, which showed that only 51 per cent. of all respondents, Unionist and nationalists, Catholics and Protestants, believed that an act of decommissioning was in fact carried out. It said that 52 per cent. of Protestants who were asked whether they believed General John de Chastelain when he said that a significant act of decommissioning had been carried out by the IRA said no. I am reminded of what the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) said on 28 June 1999:

I wish that the right hon. Gentleman still took that position, and that he had stuck to it before allowing IRA-Sinn Fein into government.

The gesture that we have seen from the IRA is just that. It is not linked to a timetable or a process. We were told that it had to be part of a timetable leading to the complete and verifiable destruction or decommissioning of illegal terrorist weapons.

There have been gestures before. People have urged us to consider the historic significance of the IRA's acts, but another event, already referred to today, involved the Loyalist Volunteer Force. There was an act of decommissioning. The LVF ceasefire has been declared over since then because that gesture turned out to be meaningless. Why was it meaningless? Because it was not part of a process linked to a timetable for the complete and utter destruction of all weapons. It was a gesture, a stunt.

17 Dec 2001 : Column 106

Ministers have been unable to tell us today that they know even what the IRA's gesture amounted to. The IRA, as General de Chastelain confirmed to us, made it clear that it wants no one apart from the commission—not the Government, not even the Prime Minister—to know what the event was, how many weapons were involved, where it took place or anything else. On that basis, we are supposed to keep Martin McGuinness, the IRA chief of staff, and Gerry Adams and other such people in the Government of Northern Ireland.

Let us consider the so-called historic and significant event in the light of what happened following the LVF gesture. The LVF ceasefire has been declared bogus. Hon. Members on both sides of the House should recognise how strongly people on the Unionist side in Northern Ireland feel. I accept what the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound) said about recognising where Members from Northern Ireland come from on these issues, but I wish people would take more time to speak to Unionists in Northern Ireland and realise the depth of anxiety and anger that exists at the process of concessions that is under way.

We have seen the Royal Ulster Constabulary shabbily treated and discarded. The Minister can shake her head, but the RUC has been shabbily treated and discarded. That is the view of the vast majority of the Unionists of Northern Ireland. Indeed, the Minister herself said that the RUC had been laid to rest.

The hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) referred to the fact that people in our Government refuse to support the new Police Service for Northern Ireland. Not only do they not support it; they are on record as saying that they want its recruits to be treated in the same way that recruits to the RUC were treated. We know exactly how they were treated—they were murdered and intimidated, and their families were murdered and intimidated.

There is a cold house for Unionists, as the Secretary of State said in his speech in Liverpool. Instead of offering measures to remedy that, he comes before us with a measure that will put back the deadline for decommissioning. Tomorrow, along with his colleague the Leader of the House, he will come here with a motion to allow IRA-Sinn Fein into the precincts of this House, a special privilege not granted to other Members who refuse to take the oath. The Secretary of State needs to start acting on his words. The vast majority of Unionists, whether or not they supported the agreement, have lost faith both in the agreement and in the Government's capacity even to acknowledge the fears of the Unionist community.

9.29 pm

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): The debate has shown that the measure is anything but technical—the suggestion made by one or two Labour Members. It has shown the importance of timetables and process. The measure is central to the process that we all want to achieve.

Following the speech made by the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds), it is appropriate to reflect that his constituents experience anything but normal life under the peace process. They have no experience of political normality—unlike the majority of our constituents. The hon. Gentleman was right to remind us of the twin-track process that Mitchell set up. He was also right to remind

17 Dec 2001 : Column 107

us that the Government are allowing paramilitaries to duck their responsibilities. I agree with the hon. Gentleman's remarks about the Government's treatment of the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

I shall deal with the Secretary of State's speech towards the end of my contribution, but I shall refer first to the speech of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe), who said that timetables have bedevilled the process. In that case, what was the Prime Minister doing when he insisted on a timetable for the Belfast agreement and said that it had to be finished by Good Friday—hence its name? The Prime Minister gave graphic descriptions of how he put his back to the door and said that no one was to leave until there was an agreement.

What about the first act of IRA decommissioning? The decision of the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) to remove Ulster Unionist Ministers from the Northern Ireland Executive led, four days later, to the first act of IRA decommissioning. For the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green to say that another five-year period, as proposed by the measure, is the minimum needed to achieve the objectives flies in the face of experience not only in Ireland but throughout the world.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) pointed out how long it took in Zimbabwe-Rhodesia to complete a decommissioning process in circumstances that were much more challenging and wholly different from those we face in Northern Ireland. In Afghanistan, the decommissioning of al-Qaeda and the Taliban—admittedly an involuntary process—was achieved in only three months.

The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) complimented my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), who opened the debate for the Opposition, on his cogent arguments. I regret that I shall be unable to respond to the hon. Gentleman entirely in kind. His criticism was that our current position is inconsistent with that of the Conservative legislation in 1997. However, he must understand that in 1997 the Government were setting up a mechanism to test the genuineness of terrorists' intentions to give up violence.

The inevitable concessions to bring together all sides that are linked to the Belfast agreement had not been made. The Conservative Government brought in the 1997 Act to implement the Washington principles, as enunciated by Lord Mayhew, and then to give effect to the Mitchell principles that followed. The situation was wholly different. It began the process that led to the Belfast agreement in 1998. In 1997, the then Government and the then Parliament were opening up that process.

In a typically independent and refreshing contribution, based on years of commitment and experience, the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) pointed out that the measure proposed merely a minor amendment to the 1997 Act. However, it goes much further than that. We are talking about the signals that the measure sends out. It is not merely a minor amendment, although I have no doubt that we shall return to that issue in Committee if our reasoned amendment is not carried this evening.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's support for the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford on the appalling failure of the Government to deal with prisoner releases and the complete lack of

17 Dec 2001 : Column 108

connection between those releases and decommissioning. I know that some of my Republican friends will have enjoyed the links that he made between Presidents Castro and Clinton in their terms of welcome for Gerry Adams—I of course refer to my Republican friends in the United States.

The hon. Gentleman was absolutely right in his unrelenting message that Sinn Fein must be opposed. He was concerned over the constant concessions made to Sinn Fein as the party of violence, of the bullet in conjunction with the ballot box. It has pursued that strategy with success, and now with electoral success in Northern Ireland at the expense of the constitutional politicians of the SDLP. He is right to say that that is significantly to be regretted.

The right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) intrigued the House in reporting that IRA decommissioning had been substantial. I am sure that we all look forward to further substantiation of and evidence for that remark. The Secretary of State is not, it seems, in a position to deliver it.

The right hon. Member for Upper Bann was, however, absolutely right—he added his name to the reasoned amendment that we tabled—that it is the Government's responsibility to achieve decommissioning. The Government should not be hiding behind him any more. It is the Government who must deliver and not expect the right hon. Gentleman as First Minister to do the difficult work for them.

The contribution to the debate of the hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Joyce) must be respected. He served in Northern Ireland, but his memory seems to have been overtaken by his latter experience in the Army following his earlier experience alongside colleagues in the Black Watch. I wonder how many of his former Black Watch colleagues, knowing what has happened to morale in the Northern Ireland Police Service, have his confidence that in the end the Real IRA and loyalist paramilitaries who remain at violence will be mopped up by sound policing process.

My hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter), whose long experience and personal commitment to the issue is peerless in this place, has shown courage in consistently putting forward his views in the face of the threats that he has opposed. That makes it appropriate for him to comment on what he called the retreat and appeasement between 1993 and 1997. I do not share his conclusion, as it was right for the then Government to pave the way for the Belfast agreement in 1998. It was right for the Ulster Unionist party to sign the Belfast agreement and right for the Conservative party to support the agreement in the campaign that followed to achieve a yes vote in the referendum. All the work done by Lord Mayhew and his predecessors as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland led to that process, which remains the best available for achieving a lasting peace.

The hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) brought to the debate his usual uncomfortable clarity. He rightly disinterred the meaning of the word "significance" in his discussions with General de Chastelain, to confirm what most of us expected that de Chastelain was saying—that he considered not the amount but the event as significant. That is true; we must acknowledge that the event of decommissioning itself was of psychological rather than practical importance.

17 Dec 2001 : Column 109

The point from which we cannot escape, however, is the record of the Provisional IRA since the Belfast agreement, to which the hon. Gentleman drew our attention. It is a damning indictment of that organisation.

The Secretary of State says that we cannot tolerate private armies indefinitely. Inescapable logic leads from that remark to the conclusion that at some point we must cease to tolerate them, but the signal that the Bill sends is that we will tolerate private armies indefinitely, because it mirrors precisely the legislation that laid down the timetable five years ago. The message is that in five years' time, we shall be back here again, debating a precisely similar piece of legislation, with nothing substantial having happened in terms of decommissioning.

We had an extraordinary diversion in the form of the Secretary of State's definition of Sinn Fein-IRA and his assertion that they are not the same organisation—that they enjoy the same relationship as the trade unions and the Labour party. Is John Monks the director of the Labour party in some sense, or is the Prime Minister the director of the trade unions? I must have missed something.

Next Section

IndexHome Page