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8.26 pm

Dr. John Reid: I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

Obviously, as we are dealing with questions of violence and guns, the House would expect me to say something about the terrible events of this afternoon and this evening in that context in north Belfast. A number of police have been injured in north Belfast and I think that I speak for everyone in the House when I once again commend the courage and dedication of those in the Police Service of Northern Ireland who so often have to stand between two communities. I obviously condemn utterly the renewed violence around the Holy Cross school in Ardoyne. It would be a tragedy if the progress made last year in resolving this dispute were thrown away, and if the children of north Belfast and the decent people of Northern Ireland were to have their lives and reputations betrayed by people acting like thugs and hooligans, from whatever quarter of the community they come.

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The people of Northern Ireland deserve better and I believe that they fully support those in the devolved Administration and the local community who are trying to promote peace and reconciliation. They and everyone in the United Kingdom utterly reject those who seek to spread conflict and violence. In a debate in which we have had our differences, I am sure that those sentiments are reflected largely throughout the House and in all parts of it. So to anyone engaging in rioting in Belfast tonight, I say this: the people of Northern Ireland reject your violence, which belongs to the past, and the people of this House also reject that violence.

In asking that the Bill be read the Third time, we search, as always in such a debate, for common ground. Unexpectedly, I suppose, there is a degree of unanimity throughout the House on at least one thing: as one would expect, and as became clear on Second Reading in December and in Committee today, the House is unanimous in wanting to secure the decommissioning of all paramilitary weapons in Northern Ireland. Where there are differences between us, they relate only to how best to achieve that objective.

It was clear in the exchanges between the contributors to the debate tonight that for the most part we are discussing, in essence, the practicalities. Most of the discussion centred on the question of deadlines, on the danger of sending the wrong signals, and on the need to maintain the pressure to decommission.

As I made plain on Second Reading, the achievement of progress in any of those areas, including decommissioning, benefits both from a degree of contextual progress on other issues and from a degree of pressure. The question of deadlines—or as others may call them, time frames—is to some extent a matter of judgment. It seems to me that there is a view among some Opposition Members that it is essential to impose deadlines if we are to succeed, and that deadlines will ensure success. On that, I am afraid that we will have to agree to differ.

Of course we need a time frame in which to operate, but neither my hon. Friend the Minister of State nor I, nor any other member of the Government, believe that deadlines and public ultimatums will necessarily achieve the objective that we all share—nor, indeed, that they are always helpful. In any case, as has repeatedly been made clear during all the stages of the discussion on this issue, there will have to be not only a time frame that breaks down into 12-month periods, but a debate every 12 months. Not only—

Mr. Trimble: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Dr. Reid: I shall certainly give way to my right hon. Friend, if he will let me finish my sentence first.

Not only is there a time frame broken down into 12-month intervals, but it is open to anyone, depending upon their judgment in such matters, to declare that that time frame is a deadline. Indeed, before I give way I shall make a prediction: before we discuss this subject in the House next time round, many hon. Members, some on the Opposition side of the House, will declare the date of our next debate on the issue to be a deadline.

Mr. Trimble: The Secretary of State is making somewhat heavy weather of the deadline aspect, but

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before he started to do so he said that decommissioning had occurred partly as a result of pressure. That was also the position adopted by the Minister of State earlier—that decommissioning was produced by pressure from a series of events. Of course a deadline itself can provide pressure, so the Secretary of State is probably going too far in trying to rule deadlines out completely—although he is probably doing that simply for the purposes of the debate on the Bill before us.

May I put to the right hon. Gentleman the point I put to the Minister of State earlier? So far there has only been one act of decommissioning. The Government have announced a programme of normalisation and a series of events aimed at normalisation. Will the Secretary of State continue with that programme even if it is not matched by continuing events and progress on the decommissioning track? Would it not be in his interests, and in the interests of all of us, for him to be prepared to delay those measures until there is equivalent progress on the decommissioning track?

That might not be a huge pressure, but it would be some pressure. If there were any indication from the Government at this stage that they were prepared to put on pressure in the event of a failure to progress on decommissioning, there would be no need for others to put on pressure. I assure the Secretary of State that if he fails to apply pressure, I will put pressure on—at a time and in a manner of my choosing.

Dr. Reid: The right hon. Gentleman raises an eminently reasonable point and an eminently valid question, which deserves an answer a little longer than a curt yes or no.

Normalisation in Northern Ireland and its society is an objective that we all wish to see. It should be the objective of any civilised Government to achieve a normal society—but there is another responsibility for any civilised Government, which is to protect the lives of their citizens. In the promotion of human rights, the most fundamental right is the right to life, and the right to live free from threats to that life.

The extent to which we can normalise or reduce the military presence—which is not a cause of the troubles, but a consequence of the threat—depends, therefore, on the assessment of whether lives can be protected at any given level of military presence. Any decision that we take on the presence of military or security forces in Northern Ireland is dependent on an assessment of the threat, not on any deal being done. There is no automatic increase or decrease, no rolling programme upwards or downwards, irrespective of the circumstances. We can attend to the normalisation process only if there is a continuing reduction in the threat.

The right hon. Gentleman was correct in his implication—he did not say it explicitly—that one of the elements that allowed us to reduce the military presence and, for example, to take down the two towers, was the reduction in the threat as a result of decommissioning. There are other elements involved in the assessment of the threat, not least the dissident republican threat, in connection with which there have been some successes over the past few months. We continually analyse the threat and if, as a result of the advice that I receive from

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those who analyse these matters for me, I feel that there is leeway for reductions, I will take that action. If there were another act of decommissioning, for instance, that would allow some further reduction, but I always have to say that against the background of a threshold from the dissident republicans. That is as full an answer as I can give to the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Trimble: I am focusing on the Secretary of State's comment that the act of decommissioning was a circumstance that enabled an assessment to be made that the threat level was lower, and therefore facilitated certain normalisation measures. Equally, a failure to follow through on that initial act of decommissioning or to make further progress could be regarded as a significant event relating to further acts of normalisation. Although the Secretary of State did not make it explicit, it seems to be implicit in what he is saying that it is open to him to regard a failure to continue to decommission as a basis on which to make a judgment regarding further normalisation. I would ask him not to leave that simply as a possibility, but to consider using it in a way that would effectively put pressure on republicans. The significant effect of that would be that, if the Government were taking action, it would reduce the pressure on others to act, but if the Government were not acting, it would become inevitable that others would have to do so.

Dr. Reid: I hear what the right hon. Gentleman says, and I take no great issue with his logic. There are two aspects involved in the assessment of any threat; one is intention, and the other is capability. While I fully understand the great stress on quantity—the capability issue—in General de Chastelain's report, people should never forget that an essential element in assessing a threat, or the lack of one, is people's intentions. That was also significant as regards the decommissioning event. The prolonged period during which it was obvious that what had started as a process was never intended to be a process is, therefore, an issue that one would have to take into account in assessing the threat.

The only other point that I would make in counterbalancing that is that the threat from the Provisional IRA that the right hon. Gentleman is talking about is by no means the only threat in Northern Ireland. We see threats from loyalists and, particularly in the border areas and south of the border, from republican dissidents. I would like to take this opportunity to say that those who so avidly seek the demilitarisation of areas such as south Armagh should place the responsibility for the necessary consequential presence of the military and security forces in south Armagh where that responsibility lies. At present, that lies largely, though not exclusively, with those dissident republicans who insist on maintaining the intention of murder and mayhem in Northern Ireland in order to impose their will.

I have given as full an answer as I can to the right hon. Gentleman on this issue.

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