Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East): I regret that I have to begin by dealing with some of the attempted revisionism of recent events by pro-agreement Unionists. I noticed particularly in interventions on the speech of the hon. Member for South Antrim (David Burnside) the suggestion that all the ills that now face our society and the necessity for a Bill such as the one before us have come about because, in some way, the Prime Minister deceived the people of Northern Ireland and because the IRA have not delivered on the deals into which it entered. However, politicians cannot use those reasons to explain sufficiently to the people of Northern Ireland the bad judgment that they exercised previously when they considered this issue.

We face the dilemma that we do with the Bill because the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) entered into a poor agreement with bad people. He should have known, as all the rest of us in Northern Ireland who opposed the agreement knew, that we could not trust the Provisional IRA. He should have known, as the rest of us in Northern Ireland who opposed the Belfast agreement knew, that we should not take the word of the Prime Minister on issues that could not clearly be substantiated in the text of the Belfast agreement. Let us therefore be clear that we face this dilemma because an agreement was reached that was never going to be delivered by the Provisional IRA and that it does not intend to deliver even now.

Let us stand back slightly from the technicalities that some on the Government Benches would have us address, and consider the wider issue involved. We could merely consider the legislation—and who could be against a Bill coming to the House to enable decommissioning to take place? The Government could rightly ask the House whether it wanted decommissioning in Northern Ireland to take place, and everyone would say, "Yes, of course we do." The Government would then be entitled to say, "If you want it, we must have provision in legislation to allow it to happen." The Government therefore introduced this Bill. However, when one stands back, one recognises that it is only part of the jigsaw and that decommissioning is an essential part of an overall process. Only then does one begin to address the key issue.

9 Jan 2002 : Column 575

The facts are these. Irrespective of whether the Government accept the Conservative amendment or whether the Committee supports it, the reality is that the Provisional IRA will not decommission its weapons.

Mr. Trimble: You were wrong before.

Mr. Robinson: I have been right all along on this issue, and the right hon. Gentleman, who says that we were wrong before, is still incapable of telling the House what the IRA have decommissioned, where its programme for decommissioning is and when it will next decommission anything. He cannot do that because neither he nor anyone else knows if and when that will happen. If justice is to be done and is seen to be done, decommissioning needs to happen and needs to be seen to have happened. If the right hon. Gentleman is prepared to take the word of the Provisional IRA, I am not; nor, indeed, are the people of Northern Ireland whom I represent.

What is required is not simply a timetable but a sanction. However, there is no sanction in the Bill or in the amendment. The only sanction that is meaningful is the exclusion from government of the Provisional IRA's representatives. That sanction is in the hands not of the Committee nor of the Government, but in those of members of the Ulster Unionist party in the Government in the Northern Ireland Assembly. They have the sanction, but were prepared to act on it only temporarily when they had to face the people in an election.

5.30 pm

The Government are, of course, entitled to put whatever length of time they like in their legislation, but the Opposition are right: the deadline is a farce. The very fact that it is being extended shows that it is not a deadline. We have the strange concept, delivered with a straight face by the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes), of a rolling deadline. Has he really not considered his words? How on earth can we have a rolling deadline? It is a contradiction in terms. If it is rolling, it is not a deadline, but a rolling deadline is precisely what the Government have, and year by year it will go on. They will introduce another piece of legislation in five years' time and, with clean hands, say, "Well, we need to give the Provisional IRA the opportunity to decommission should it wish to do so."

The matter is not technical. It is important, and not simply for practical purposes, because it is a matter of principle. We are discussing whether it is proper for people who are to be part of the democratic process to have at their beck and call an army with a stockpile of weapons that they can use. That is the issue that we are to address. I guarantee that if I were to ask every individual in the Committee whether it is proper that the IRA should have such weaponry, they would say, "No. There should be decommissioning", and if there should be decommissioning, the obvious question is whether there should be consequences if it is not forthcoming.

Jane Kennedy: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that it is not simply a question for the IRA? It is also a question for loyalist organisations and other republican organisations that retain illegal weapons. It is a question

9 Jan 2002 : Column 576

for all who are engaged in violence and the threat of violence. It is for all those organisations to consider their position and for all those engaged in the peace process to use their influence to bring about disarmament and decommissioning.

Mr. Robinson: Of course the issue of handing over illegal weaponry is relevant to any organisation that holds them. It is especially important in relation to the Provisional IRA because it, and it alone, can exercise authority in government. A member of the IRA's army council exercises authority as a Minister of Education in the Government of Northern Ireland. That does not happen in relation to the loyalist paramilitary organisations. However, the principle of handing over illegal weaponry applies to all organisations that hold them. They should do that and there should be consequences if they do not, whether republican or loyalist organisations.

The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) made one of his best speeches. I do not agree with his support for the Belfast agreement, but his reference to the Provisional IRA's likely attitude to deadlines is spot on. He understands that much better than the Government do. Were we to put legislation through the House and tell the IRA, "You've got five years to decommission", it would not do that next week or next year. It would wait until the deadline when it could extract concessions from the Government before making another contribution that was as meaningless and token, and as much of a stunt and a sham, as its previous gesture; and the Government would herald it as a great advance of the peace process. The Provisional IRA will do that, with the Government making a further open concession the day after, just as they have done before.

I have no stomach for the play acting on the number of days, weeks or years of any deadline, because the Provisional IRA will use and abuse any deadline it is offered. The Committee needs to exercise its mind on what sanction it has against those who do not decommission. The Secretary of State has the power under existing legislation to advance to the Northern Ireland Assembly a requirement for the Speaker of that Assembly to put a motion before it for the exclusion of Sinn Fein-IRA, on the basis that decommissioning has not taken place in accordance with the legislation. He should do that immediately. Only that kind of sanction is likely to work and bring about decommissioning by the Provisional IRA.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): Just about everything that needs to be said about this group of amendments has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) and others of my hon. Friends, so I shall not detain the Committee unnecessarily long.

All of us have been faced, although we may not have known it, with a deadline of 31 January. That deadline is for our tax returns. I have been doing mine this week, and I hope that all hon. Members have submitted their tax returns, or that their accountants are preparing to do so; otherwise there is a sanction. The sanction is a £100 fine. It is automatic and we all know about it. Of course, £100 is not as much money as it used to be, but it is still a reasonable sum. For that reason, I was determined to send in my tax return on time.

9 Jan 2002 : Column 577

That is the point about deadlines: they put on pressure. If one does not accept the deadline, there is a sanction. It is straightforward. If one does not submit a tax return by the end of February, I understand that 5 per cent. interest is charged on the sum owing. All hon. Members should note that, and more importantly, should note the lesson. It is vital that the point of a deadline be understood. [Interruption.]

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead): My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound) is off to do his tax return.

Mr. Robathan: The hon. Gentleman is indeed rushing off to do his tax return, late.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford observed, the Bill completely changes the Belfast agreement. The Minister will be familiar with the paragraph in the agreement that allows two years for decommissioning, which ran out in May 2000, as I recall. The Bill reneges on the Belfast agreement. The Minister shakes her head. Perhaps she wishes to intervene to explain why that is not the case.

The Belfast agreement allowed two years, yet the Bill extends that period, possibly by another five years. What is that if not changing—reneging on—the Belfast agreement? Those of us who, with a certain amount of unhappiness, supported the Belfast agreement as the best way forward for peace are greatly saddened that the history of the agreement, particularly since May 2000 but before then as well, has been one of appeasement and concession after concession to one side.

The Minister should show a little embarrassment or even shame. It is a great tragedy. As we heard, people who did not want to support the Belfast agreement were encouraged to vote for it in Belfast. I know many Northern Ireland people who voted for it and who are now embarrassed that they encouraged others to do so. They are disenchanted and feel lost. Only this week, I received a letter from a great friend there who says that the position is appalling. The crime that is taking place in Northern Ireland is that we are conceding and appeasing. I tell the Minister, in sorrow rather than in anger, that the Bill is an embarrassment. The Government should be ashamed, as should the media, which do not report the matter sufficiently well.

Next Section

IndexHome Page