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'.This Act shall not come into force until after the Commission established under section 7 of the 1997 Act shall have
Brought up, and read the First time.
Mr. Quentin Davies: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
The new clause stands in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt), the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), and his colleagues the hon. Members for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs) and for North Down (Lady Hermon).
As everyone can see, the object of the new clause is to ensure that, before the Bill comes into force, a report is made to Parliament by the international commission and General de Chastelain. I assume that, if a report is made to Parliament in those circumstances, one will also be made, if it so wishes, to the Dail. Decommissioning is clearly a joint matter. Indeed, we know that a lot of the arms concerned are south of the border.
When I drafted the new clause, I in no way wished to be discourteous to the Republic or the Dailfar from it. It would be discourteous to put before the Committee a new clause that assumed that anything particular should happen in Dublin. That is not our business, but for the avoidance of doubt I make it plain that if our Irish colleagues followed the same line of argument that I shall set out, the report would be made there. I do not wish to alter the essential balance of the decommissioning process as one involving both the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. Both sides are equally committed to its success.
I tabled the new clause because there is a general feeling across the parties and throughout Northern Ireland that one of the weaknesses of the structure set up in 1997 was the lack of provision, or the lack of clarity of such provision as there was, for reporting. I do not blame our predecessors in 1997 for any such shortcoming and certainly not General de Chastelain or his colleagues. If there are any shortcomings, they are in the arrangements that were made in 1997 and the provisions that were passed at that time.
No blame is directed towards our predecessors in 1997. We learn from experience. Indeed, it would be unnatural if, after five yearswe are compelled to roll over the regime; the Government have defeated our amendment, so the regime will be rolled over for five years rather than one in the first instancewe could make no improvements or draw no lessons from the provisions that were put through the House five years ago.
The Bill introduced five years ago was the background for the agreement between the two Governments in August 1997. Article 4(d) of that agreement laid a duty on the commission
Would the Minister be kind enough, if she has a moment, to note that question down either mentally or on a piece of paper? It would be very nice, if she catches your eye later, Mrs. Heal, to have an answer. Have the Government received any reports in addition to those that General de Chastelain has made public?
If the Government do have any information that has not been put in the public domain directly by General de Chastelain, has information been passed on selectively to any of the participants in the process? Such selective passing on would be consistent with the terms of the agreement that I read out, but it would be an undesirable way of proceeding. It would cause considerable concern if some participants had information that other participants did not. It is what we would have called in my City days a false market. It would have been the basis for all kinds of rumours and speculation and be very damaging to the process.
It would be nice to know that the Government know nothing other than what we all know as a result of the public statements, but that has not been said explicitly; perhaps it could be said by the Minister.
Jane Kennedy: It may help to clarify matters if I say at the outset that all of the reports that we have received from the international commission have been published in full. Therefore, we have no information that is not in the public domain.
Mr. Davies: I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady for responding so promptly to my request and giving us that clear assurance. It is extremely helpful.
Let us focus on the kind of reporting that we have had from the international commission and General de Chastelain, and decide whether to take the opportunity to indicate to the commission or the general that, in future, we would like reporting to be conducted on a slightly different basis. Reporting is currently, formally at least, to the two Governments. The Minister has just said that the two Governments do not keep the information to themselves; they have passed on everything that they have available. She implies that the Government will continue with that procedure. If so, I very much welcome that.
In a debate such as this, it would be unnatural not to be frank about the fact that, in some quarters in Northern Ireland and elsewhere in this country, the feeling has been expressed that the reports have been so restrictive and discreet that it has been difficult to form a clear view of what is going on. I do not want to criticise General de Chastelain for that, because he must take the decisions himself. He bears responsibility for ensuring that the process is conducted as effectively as possible and that
General de Chastelain would accept, however, that it would be unfortunate if his reports gave rise to widely differing interpretations of the situation that they sought to depict. To read some of his reports has been like divining the Delphic oracle: it has been difficult to be clear about the interpretation that one should place on the words used. One word that constantly comes up is "significant", which General de Chastelain used to describe the welcome but belated act of decommissioning by Sinn Fein-IRA at the end of October.
The uncertainty has been made worse because of the interventions of the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) on Second Reading.
Mr. Swire: Earlier in our debate, the Minister of State said that the decommissioning that had occurred was "important", whereas the word that we have heard used to date is "significant". Does my hon. Friend agree that, given that words are so crucialindeed, they are all that we have to go on because we do not know the details of General de Chastelain's findingswe must know whether the amount that has been decommissioned is important or whether there has been an important step in the decommissioning process?
Mr. Davies: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's intervention, because he bears out the danger of too restricted a use of words. If the only description given to an act of decommissioning is a simple adjective such as "significant" or "important", nobody knows whether significant differs from important, or whether important is more or less than significant. Nobody knows quite how to interpret those statements, and the statements themselves become the subject of an enormous amount of speculation. Rather than contributing to credibility and public confidence, they contribute to a sense of uncertainty and dispute. That is extremely regrettable.
Jane Kennedy: I do not want to be mischievous, but what I actually said was "credible".
Mr. Davies: Those words are all subjective. What is credible? What is significant? What is important?
Mr. Peter Robinson: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will assess how the Minister could deem it to have been "credible" without knowing the amount of weapons that have been decommissioned. One could say that the very fact that decommissioning occurred made the event significant, but to say that there has been a credible act of decommissioning surely requires the Government to know the amount of decommissioning.