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Mr. Davies: The hon. Gentleman makes an irrefutable point. If all that the Government know is what General de Chastelain said in public—they have just told us that that is the case—which is that the event was significant, nobody in the Government can take responsibility for using any other adjective than "significant". To use any other adjective adds to the meaning in a way that is not based on knowledge of the facts. It is therefore a completely irresponsible use of language. I entirely

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endorse the hon. Gentleman's comments. If the Minister would like to intervene again, I shall give her the opportunity to do so.

6.45 pm

Mr. Hunter: On the word "significant", does my hon. Friend recall that General de Chastelain acknowledged that even one round of ammunition was significant? That suggests that the word "significant" is subject to a variety of interpretations.

Mr. Davies: Indeed.

When I took the first of that series of interventions I was interrupted from reaching for my copy of Hansard. I was about to read to the Committee some remarks that are enormously pertinent to the point that we have reached in our debate. The hon. Member for Belfast, East said:

he refers, of course, to General de Chastelain—

The key point in the quotation is this:

That quotation from Hansard is, I fear, extremely—dare I use the word?—significant. It is also—advisedly, let me add a word of my own—extremely worrying, because that statement has cast a great deal of doubt on whether the act by Sinn Fein-IRA was meaningful, if "significant" carries the sense of meaningful.

Lembit Öpik: What specific proportion of guns and weapons would the hon. Gentleman regard as significant? He must have a benchmark in mind if we are to make sense of the points that he is making.

Mr. Davies: No, I do not. The drift of my argument is, and will be, that this is not a sensible way of conducting a reporting process. That is why the Opposition tabled the new clause, which seeks to improve the reporting process. I do not wish to be too prescriptive. It would not be right, having given the international commission the task of overseeing decommissioning, to be too prescriptive about what it does. I do not intend that Parliament should send the commission some kind of form to fill out every time there is an act of decommissioning. That would be absurd.

However, I take this opportunity to say that I believe that a major contribution could be made to the credibility of the whole exercise and to the confidence that people have in its completion if General de Chastelain could be given an opportunity to set out in writing, objectively and in his own hand, an account of the progress that he believes he has achieved over the past five years. I understand that he would be in an invidious position if he

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simply made a public statement in response to the comments made by the hon. Member for Belfast, East. General de Chastelain probably feels that he could not possibly be in the business of responding to statements made by Westminster or Stormont politicians, or politicians who happen to be in both those Parliaments.

The new clause seeks to give the General the opportunity to give an account of the whole of the past five years and to set the record straight where necessary. I leave it to General de Chastelain to decide whether, in the light of the reported conversation that he had with the hon. Member for Belfast, East, he thinks that there is a need to set the record straight. I also leave it to him to use such language as he thinks is appropriate in such a report. However, I express the personal hope that if he does so—and if the Committee agrees the new clause, he will no doubt do so—his comments will be, as far as possible, factually based, if not to the extent of itemising every item of ammunition, ordnance or armaments that is handed over because I can see that there may be arguments for not doing that. In that way, people will be able to measure progress towards the shared aim of decommissioning.

Mr. Barnes: I wish to check the purpose of the new clause. The hon. Gentleman has just said that it is an attempt to obtain full reports from de Chastelain, but it says that the Act will not come into force until a report is produced. Therefore, one consequence of the new clause might be to delay the implementation of the legislation. How much is that a consideration? That would mean that if de Chastelain made a nil report, it could still be a mechanism under which the Act would be implemented.

Mr. Davies: The hon. Gentleman asks whether it is sensible to make our proposal in the form in which it is expressed in the new clause. I believe that it is. We have plenty of time before 26 February, if we act on an agreed basis here and in the other place, to make progress on the Bill and pass it into law so that we can continue the regime seamlessly beyond that date. If the Government accept the new clause, I see no problem. The Bill will go forward in its amended form, so that is not a practical problem.

The hon. Gentleman also asked what would happen if the general produced a nil report. That would be a depressing event, but the sooner we knew about it the better. There can be no merit in continuing with a false process, with everybody under the impression that progress has been made when it has not. Progress has been made apparently, in terms of the first Sinn Fein-IRA decommissioning in October. I greatly welcomed that at the time and regarded it as significant progress. If the hon. Gentleman tells me that I was wrong and that only one rusty old musket was handed over, or a single bullet—something insultingly small—that would be very worrying, but the sooner we knew that that was what had happened, the better. There can be no merit in brushing reality under the carpet, and it is certainly wrong to do so in a democracy. The hon. Gentleman's suggestion that the process is a facade is horrific, but if the effect of the new clause were to be to bring forward the publication of such bad news, it would be better than to continue to conceal it. I have explained the rationale behind the proposal and

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I assume that the hon. Gentleman is satisfied, as he is about to leave. [Interruption.] My comment may mean that he will delay his dinner by a few minutes.

I express the hope that if the new clause is accepted, General de Chastelain will say something about the criteria or circumstances that would enable him to determine that the process has been completed—as we all hope he will one day—because it would be helpful for the credibility of the exercise and have a positive effect on public confidence. There will never be a time when not a single illegal weapon exists in Northern Ireland, because that will never happen in any human community. There are illegal weapons in Lincolnshire, for example, but they are not a major problem and I trust that they never will be. However, it is not possible to state categorically that no illegal weapons exist in any one region of the earth. That is not a reasonable expectation.

What would constitute the end of the process? What would enable the general to make that determination? I hope that his answer will not be that he will never be able to say that. If so, by definition, the Belfast agreement will never be implemented and the peace process will never be concluded. Anyone who has made concessions—and the Government have made many more than were necessary—will have made them in vain. Public confidence would collapse if the exercise were to lead nowhere. The general is a man of great distinction in his profession, as are his colleagues, and I cannot believe that they would preside over such a process if they thought that they could not honestly and effectively make a determination that the process had been concluded.

What would be the criteria for determining that the process had concluded? Those who have studied natural sciences are used to the discipline that before launching an experiment one must state the thresholds that it must meet before it can be said that it has proved something. We similarly need to know what hurdles must be overcome before the final determination can be made, in the right circumstances and when all parties have made the requisite contribution to the decommissioning process. The general has not been asked to comment on that point and it would be wrong for him to have a casual conversation and throw out some informal suggestions on such a matter. It would be better to make a considered and objective statement, such as in a report to this Parliament. I assume that the report would be made in parallel to the Dail.

I have explained the intention behind the new clause, and I hope that the Minister will agree that nothing that I have said runs counter to the Government's objectives and hopes. I hope that the Government will not contract that dreadful old Whitehall disease of "not invented here" and use that excuse for not accepting the new clause. If they do accept it, it would be helpful in continuing the process and enhancing public confidence in it.

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