Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Wilshire: Yes, if that is what the Minister said or intended to say, I readily accept that. It is not what I understood her to say, but I will not make an issue of it. I accept entirely what she says and tomorrow's Official Report will provide clarification one way or the other.

I ask the Minister to consider accepting the new clause, which I judge to be very modest. I do not believe it to impose a strenuous requirement. Indeed, it is with some trepidation that I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) that he could have

9 Jan 2002 : Column 600

made the new clause even stronger had he wanted. In her very brief contribution, the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mrs. Calton) referred to a negative report. The new clause merely requires the general to say something; I think that it would be helpful for him to tell us something rather than just say something. To say that nothing had happened would prompt us to ask whether to go down this route; to say that only one gun had been decommissioned would be pretty negative.

If the report is submitted to Parliament, as the new clause proposes—and I say this as much to those on my Front Bench as to the Minister—it should include an assessment of the overall quantity of arms and explosives that are to be decommissioned. There is no way of judging significance until we know how much the commission thinks is to be decommissioned. In addition, it would be enormously helpful to know how much of that the commission has actually seen. I suggest that that information should be required to be laid before Parliament. Then we can begin to assess what has been going on.

7.15 pm

Mr. Hunter: Does my hon. Friend agree that it would also be helpful in such a report if the inspector could confirm that he stayed until the end of the process and did not leave IRA men with the weapons that had allegedly just been put out of action?

Mr. Wilshire: I have a long list of items that I think should be included in a report, but that is not one of them, so I am eternally grateful to my hon. Friend for adding to the list. I shall come to some of the others shortly. However, my hon. Friend makes a very relevant point: unless we see what is going on for the whole of the process, how do we know whether it is credible or significant?

The report, after assessing how much material there is and saying how much the commission has seen, must state how much material has been put beyond use. Credibility can be determined only when we know how much material is beyond use. I understood the general to say not that a significant amount of arms had been decommissioned but that the event was significant. Given that, historically, parts of Sinn Fein-IRA have always said that they will decommission nothing, we come back to the general's point that even one bullet, as the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) said, is a significant event. So that tells us nothing. We have to know how much has been put beyond use.

We also need to know how such material was put beyond use. The arms and explosives could be put beyond use in such a way that they were still usable. I imagine that some in the terrorist organisations would honour their commitment to give nothing away by sealing something up while knowing that as long as it was still usable, they had not destroyed it. If material had been put beyond use in such a way that, if it could be reached, it could be used, the report should say what arrangements were in place for the repeat visiting of the sites to ensure that, once sealed, material could not be used without breaking those seals. We would need to be assured, in more than one report, that inspections were continuing so that weapons were permanently beyond use.

If the report is to include an assessment of what the commission considers to be the total quantity of material, we would need to know how it came by that information.

9 Jan 2002 : Column 601

To what extent has the commission had any dealings with the security services or the police in Northern Ireland or in the Republic? If it has not had any such liaison, where has it got its information about how much material is to be decommissioned? Presumably the only other way of finding out is to listen to the terrorists, and I would not take anything they said at face value.

Jane Kennedy: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. I must try to resist this urge to intervene; it is a very bad habit, and as a Whip I would have discouraged it. However, does the hon. Gentleman accept that the new clause would impose no such requirements on the commission to include that kind of detail? It would require the commission to say nothing new. That is why I think that the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mrs. Calton) was right to query the motives behind the new clause, which would not achieve the objectives set out by the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Wilshire: The hon. Lady, as a former Whip, will know the lack of wisdom of intervening. She will also know that for an existing Whip, such as myself, speaking is not held to be a particularly useful activity either, so she may have some sympathy. Her point highlights why I said, as gently as possible, that some of my comments were aimed at both Front-Bench teams.

I accept what the Minister says; if she does not like this new clause but agrees with the principle, it is open to her to say that she will table another one that will go even further. I would be delighted if she was willing to offer us that, and would come into the Lobby with her. However, she does not appear to want to intervene again, so she clearly has the habit under control.

The Minister rightly said earlier that there is a tendency always to talk about Sinn Fein-IRA. I believe that we should all put it on record as often as possible that the purpose of this debate—indeed, of any debate about decommissioning—is the decommissioning of all weapons and explosives, irrespective of who holds them. Perhaps we can do business with Sinn Fein-IRA; I do not think so, but other people do. However, the weapons and explosives are moving to another group of people who will not hand them over, so dealing with only one organisation, from whichever side of the divide, will never be adequate.

What worries me most about resistance to the new clause is the spin that is being put on these proceedings: why should the Opposition be concerned? Why should we be trying to change the legislation when what is going on is positive? The word "significant" is being used positively. The word "credibility" has come up. All sorts of comments have been made about the fact that we are making real progress with decommissioning, yet the truth—rather than the spin—is that we simply do not know.

Thus far, the loyalist paramilitaries are the only people to have done anything—a point that is overlooked. The general Unionist community in Northern Ireland has seen almost nothing. The hon. Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs) made the point that watch towers had been taken down, so the nationalist community had seen some result. The Unionist community has seen nothing that reassures it, yet it is from that community that the major concessions have come throughout the process.

9 Jan 2002 : Column 602

It is not too late to introduce a confidence-building measure—the whole debate on the Northern Ireland peace process has consisted of such measures. The Unionist community needs a confidence-building measure to show that there is transparency in the decommissioning debate. The people of Northern Ireland as a whole need reassurance that, in return for the concessions that they are making, there really is credible decommissioning.

The Minister could be proved right by accepting the new clause and then saying, "Look, this is what has happened. That is why you should feel reassured". Until that happens, however, I shall take the secrecy and the refusal to explain anything as meaning that nothing has been going on and there is nothing but smoke and mirrors. Until that is put right, the people of Northern Ireland will not be content.

Mr. Peter Robinson: When I read the new clause yesterday I was not terribly enthusiastic about it. During the debate, I realised that it could not do much harm, but when I heard the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mrs. Calton), I was convinced that such a provision was essential. The hon. Lady made the case well.

The hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter), however, put his finger on the matter: for an hon. Member to suggest that a nil report or a negative report from the commission might be used as a reason to oppose the Bill, or an extension to it, shows clearly that the party in question wants to hide behind a lack of information and would much prefer vagueness and ambiguity; and that to have the facts out in the open might lead the Committee to do something that it would not do if those facts remained hidden. As ever, the Liberal Democrats are the aides and accomplices of the Government; they have acted in accord with the Government on all these matters. It is thus clear that when Liberal Democrat Members make such comments, the Government are speaking through them.

The hon. Lady put the point forcefully. Like the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) I, too, have been jotting down the remarks of various Members. The hon. Lady said that we could not allow that position to arise. What position can we not allow to arise? Is it the one in which the House of Commons would have the facts made available to it? That is the position of the Liberal Democrats.

Lembit Öpik: I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's enthusiasm for decommissioning, but he will note that the proposal, about which he wisely expressed scepticism, does not specify the nature of the report. Surely he must agree that even if the proposal were included we would have no more information than we do at present. Will he explain what he considers significant? His case would be strengthened if he could describe, for comparison, the measures of success that he would use for a more specific report.

Next Section

IndexHome Page