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In relation to the hon. Gentleman's question about significance, no one in the House could judge whether the amount of weaponry was credible or significant unless there was a clear appraisal of the amount of weaponry currently available to the Provisional IRA and each of the loyalist paramilitary groups. The judgment as to whether an amount is significant should also include information as to whether it forms a significant proportion of the weaponry.
An attempt was made by the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) to detail the weaponry believed to be available to the Provisional IRA and to the loyalist paramilitaries. That seemed to provoke the Government. Some of their Back Benchers thought that to list the scale of weaponry available to paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland was uncalled for. However, only when there is a common understanding of the amount of available weapons can we judge whether the event described as "significant" by the general really was significant or credible.
I think that the scale of weaponry available to the Provisional IRA as outlined by the hon. Member for Reigate is correct, so if the amount was only two or three guns, a couple of pounds of explosive and half a dozen rounds of ammunition, can the Government actually come to the Dispatch Box and say that it was credible? I do not believe that they could do so. Could they say that it was significant? They certainly could not say that it was a significant amount of weaponry compared to the total available to the Provisional IRA.
I must take the Minister to task when she uses the word "credible". Although one might say that the occurrence of the event had significancethe House might at least allow the Government to say that it was significant that an event took placeto use the word "credible" speaks of quality and quantity. It talks about the proportions, not merely the significance of the event. It relates to the scale and the impact of decommissioning. The Government are attempting to spin what the general and the commission said beyond what is justified.
Jane Kennedy: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we are talking not about the amount but about who describes the act as significant? That is about the integrity of the IICD. That is what I was saying was credible.
Mr. Robinson: The Minister is in a hole and she should stop digging. In reality, the only word that anyone is entitled to use is "significant", because that is the word used by the commission. To use that word, we need to recognise what the commission means by it. What the Minister might consider significant might not be considered significant by other hon. Members. So we are not simply talking about the difference between[Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) wants me to give way, I shall do soinstead of which she consistently chirps away from a sedentary position and never contributes to the debate.
Lembit Öpik: In an attempt to curry favour with the Government, may I ask a related question? I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman's view that the proportion of guns handed in would be the only meaningful measure, but is it not within the realms of possibility that the people who would have to inform us how much weaponry they have might be tempted to lie about it? That has always been the underlying difficulty with an objective statistical measure of what proportion has been decommissioned.
Mr. Robinson: I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman thinks in those terms about the security forces in Northern Ireland. They are, of course, on record as having briefed Members of Parliament and the press very considerably on the extent of the weaponry held by the various groups during the past few years, and several reports on the extent of that weaponry have been made available publicly.
Everyone has a reasonable grasp of the amount of weaponry available at least to the Provisional IRA. A lot less is known about the amount of weaponry in the hands of the loyalist paramilitaries, but I suspect that they have a lot less than many people in Northern Ireland, and perhaps some of their own members, think they have. All weapons must be decommissioned, irrespective of whether an organisation has half a dozen or 600 weapons, and the Bill must apply to all of them.
Whether one uses the words "significant" or "important" makes no difference to the community's ability to comprehend what the general is actually saying, unless one has some idea of what is significant to the general. The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), the Conservative party spokesman, quoted some of the comments that I made during my last speech, which followed the meeting that my colleagues and I had with General de Chastelain and his team.
We dealt with several issues at that meeting, the first of which was that the general was unable to tell us, because he did not know, where he had been. He did not know where the event had taken place. Secondly, he did not tell us what type of weaponry had been put beyond
The general was therefore asked whether the process could be reversed. It was his judgment that it could not, but unless hon. Members know what method was used to put the weaponry beyond use, we cannot determine whether it would be possible to undo what had been done. Clearly, from all that the general and his colleagues told us, there was no evidence, which we could have taken on board, to suggest that a significant amount of weaponry had been decommissioned in a way that would have been satisfactory to us or, indeed, to other hon. Members. There was no evidence to suggest whether a significant proportion of the weaponry available to the Provisional IRA was involved.
The general told us very precisely that there was no programme for further decommissioning, however. No such programme had been agreed. If there is no programme for decommissioning, we are entitled to deduce that this was a gesture, a token and a stuntsome people have called it cynical; others have grasped it as a great event. As it stands, it is a one-off event, until the general has a programme that will lead to total decommissioning. That is the only kind of programme that will convince the people of Northern Ireland, provided that it is fulfilled at each stage.
During the debate, reference has been made to the value of agreeing to the new clause, given that there may be some delay before the general could provide such a report. There is no substance to the argument that this is a delaying tactic. No one could reasonably argue that, if the Committee were to agree to the new clause, the general would drag his feet in providing the House with the necessary report. I am pretty sure that the report would be forthcoming as quickly as the general and his team could put it together.
I believe that such a report is necessary because it would provide us with a starting point, showing where we stand at present, but what is essential is that in a year's time, when the House decides whether to extend the provision for a further year in a ritual that it would undertake for at least another five years, it would know from the report available to it under the new clause what progress had been made in the intervening year. The House would therefore know whether extending the period had any value, or whether we were simply going through a process by which the Government were attempting, by spin and hiding behind an ambiguity, to pretend that the process was on-going when, in reality, the Provisional IRA was not delivering, but was gaining all the benefits of being part of a process.
Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell): May I begin my remarks by briefly apologising to you, Mrs. Heal, and the Committee for the fact that I had to miss the first part of these proceedings because of a Select Committee meeting?
Having listened to most of the debate on Second Reading, I felt strongly that I wanted to speak in favour of new clause 1. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) for the new
I come to this issue very much as a fresh player; I am a new Member of Parliament, without deep or long-term experience of Northern Ireland affairs. In many ways my perceptions have been shaped in the same way as those of the British public, not only in mainland Great Britain, but to an extent in Northern Ireland. The impression conveyed today is of a largely one-way process. That impression is clearly left as we see the events unfold.
If that impression continues, the implications for the future of Northern Ireland are very serious indeed. That is why it is particularly important to include checks and balances in the process, so that we ensure that we do not continue, step by step, down the road, with concessions coming from one side, but not the other. If one side keeps giving way and making the concessions in any process of negotiation, the result is bad and unworkable. As we go forward, it is tremendously important that concessions come from all sides involved in the process, not just from one.
When I look back at what has happened since 1997, I see the release of prisoners, and Sinn Fein-IRA members joining an Administration in Northern Ireland and becoming Ministers in the United Kingdom. Steps have been taken such as that involving the amnesty for prisoners on the run, and Sinn Fein Members of Parliament have been given access to the facilities of the House.