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11 Feb 2003 : Column 811—continued

3.17 pm

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford): Let me begin by endorsing what the Minister said about General de Chastelain. I have got to know him quite well over the past year and a half, along with his two deputies—one American, the other Finnish. I formed the highest regard for them. They are men of fine

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professional standing, who have been prepared to give up much of their lives to contributing to the attempts to solve the often apparently intractable problems of Northern Ireland. We are all very much in their debt.

Obviously, we will not oppose the order. I cannot imagine any sane or rational person wanting to do so. We support decommissioning. It is clear that in a decommissioning process there must be provision for people to take part in that process, and to hand over weapons without immediately suffering penal consequences. We want, above all, decommissioning: we want the achievement of the peace process. It would therefore be perverse to deter people from handing over weapons by allowing them to feel that they might immediately be subject to arrest and personal prosecution on some related matter.

Nevertheless, as the Minister says, it is very disappointing that we must renew the existing legislation. According to the Belfast agreement, the whole process of decommissioning should have been completed within two years—that is, by 2002. We are now in 2003: it is three years late. That is an extremely unsatisfactory state of affairs.

Of course the moral responsibility lies with the paramilitary organisations. On one side is the IRA. Sinn Fein-IRA is a party to the agreement. The Sinn Fein section of the Sinn Fein-IRA movement formally signed up to it, but the whole purpose of the agreement, and of treating Sinn Fein as a kind of proxy, was that it stood for the republican movement as a whole. So there is no doubt whatsoever that it has defaulted on this major, absolutely key undertaking in the agreement. Indeed, it continues to default on it, despite two acts of decommissioning that, as we all know, add up to only a small fraction—nobody knows quite how small—of the total armoury. On the other side, there has been only one, purely symbolic act of decommissioning by any of the loyalist paramilitary organisations. Those that signed up to the peace process have been in breach of it by not carrying out decommissioning. Frankly, those that did not sign up to it have betrayed the people of Northern Ireland by not contributing to what is clearly the best chance for a peaceful and normal future for Northern Ireland that any of us have seen, certainly in our lifetimes, since the troubles began.

The moral responsibility clearly rests on the shoulders of the paramilitary organisations, republican and loyalist. However, as I said yesterday—I hope that the Minister will recall it all too clearly—the Government bear a large burden of responsibility because of the many tactical errors that they have made. They simply have not used the leverage available to them. They gave away the prisoners without any decommissioning at all. Giving away such a major card without anything to show in return was extraordinary. It was an absolutely shameful act of negligence on their part.

As I said yesterday, what was equally extraordinary was giving concessions to people who had not fulfilled their obligations under the Belfast agreement. They were rewarded by being given more goodies and benefits. For example, special status was granted in this place for Sinn Fein MPs. There was the promise of an amnesty—even though we managed to prevent its being implemented—for on-the-run terrorists. As I said yesterday, thank God we succeeded in opposing that amnesty, because as a result that important card

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remains in the Government's hands. However, we should give no credit to the Government for that. Indeed, they have made a whole series of mistakes, and they should acknowledge that fact. I hope that they will not continue to make them and, above all, that we will now see a greater degree of clarity and decisiveness on their part. There should be no more talk of inch-by-inch progress, as if one can somehow make progress in implementing Belfast in a partial way. The mechanism whereby it was deemed sufficient to secure partial acts of decommissioning or other partial acts, to which the Government respond with a concession of their own, has not worked at all. As I said yesterday, it is clear that we now need a global, comprehensive and definitive settlement.

In Belfast before Christmas, the Prime Minister apparently talked bravely about a fork in the road, but so far that fine rhetoric, which I welcomed at the time, has not been reflected in action. I was particularly concerned at the Minister's response when I asked her yesterday, across the Dispatch Box, whether she would define the "acts of completion" that the Government talk about. I asked her to call a spade a spade and say that those acts of completion have to be nothing less than the completion of decommissioning, as provided for in the Belfast agreement, and the disbandment of the IRA by Sinn Fein-IRA. She simply said that she could not offer a better definition than the Prime Minister did, when he used the phrase "acts of completion". Well, she could define it better than the Prime Minister—by speaking of decommissioning and disbandment.

Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, Cathcart) rose—

Mr. Davies: No, I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman now.

The fact that the Minister will not use the phrase "decommissioning and disbandment", and prefers the vague euphemism "acts of completion", is very worrying. What is more, I have noticed that the Government have slipped from using the definite article to using the indefinite form. Instead of speaking of the "act of completion" that is required, they speak of "acts of completion". If she thinks about it, that is not entirely logical. There must be one act that completes everything—there cannot be several different acts of completion. By using such a vague term, she implies a certain flexibility as to what might ultimately be considered as falling within that category. So when she should be sending a signal of clarity to paramilitary organisations, and to Sinn Fein-IRA in particular, she is sending one of ambiguity.

There may or may not have been a place for ambiguity in the Belfast agreement itself. Without some degree of ambiguity and fudging at that stage, the agreement may well not have been secured in the first place. Nevertheless, it is the seeds of ambiguity and the lack of clarity in the Belfast agreement that have led to many of the disappointments of the past five years. What is absolutely clear to the Opposition is that if there

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ever was a time for ambiguity, it has now passed. Now is the time for complete clarity. Now is the time to carry out decommissioning and disbandment.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Davies: No, I will not give way for the moment.

Now is the time for the Government to use the phrase "decommissioning and disbandment", and they should not be afraid to use it. As I said yesterday, if they want to use another word for "disbandment" I am perfectly happy with that, as long as it has the same degree of finality. The Government must now say what they mean. We do not want camouflage words, as I call them, which try to cover up the exact definition of the terms of the agreement. We must be absolutely clear about that.

Mr. Tom Harris: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Davies: No, I am sorry but I am not going to give way at the moment.

The second thing that we really need is a timetable. Indeed, we called for one some 18 months ago, when I first talked about a programmed process, leading to full decommissioning. It is clear that if we get the comprehensive and definitive settlement that we need in Northern Ireland in the next few weeks—in fact, we only have the next few weeks in which to achieve that—we will not be able to carry out everything in that package overnight. For example, it would not be possible to decommission entirely overnight. A reduction in the British military presence in Northern Ireland would be perfectly reasonable, provided there is a corresponding improvement in the security situation; however, that, too, cannot be carried out overnight.

It is in this regard that we will need a set timetable, and we will also need interlinkage. It must be made absolutely plain that if one party does not deliver what it is supposed to deliver under that timetable, other elements that that party might have been looking for will also not be delivered under that timetable. It must be made absolutely clear that such strict interlinkage will continue until the final and complete implementation of Belfast. We should not have any fudges about that, nor should we have any of the resistance that the Government have so far displayed towards the whole concept of a timetable. When the right hon. Member for Hamilton, North and Bellshill (Dr. Reid) was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and I used to use the word "timetable", the Government would often object and say that I was completely wrong. They said that we should not have timetables because they are inimical to progress in Northern Ireland. What nonsense! Of course, we would not have secured the Belfast agreement without a timetable, as I often told the right hon. Gentleman. I hope again that the question of the timetable will be clarified in the Government's mind. We need a timetable.

Thirdly, if the peace process is to be successful, what we do must be transparent. Nothing less will create the necessary confidence among other parties. People will not deliver their side of the bargain if they do not believe that others are going to deliver theirs. People need to feel

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confident that there has been a qualitative change in the situation in Northern Ireland, and that the peace process has come to a successful conclusion.

In the context of decommissioning, transparency means that acts of decommissioning will be more transparent than hitherto. I have discussed that with General de Chastelain in private. I shall not say what shape that conversation took, but I am sure that many people in Northern Ireland agree with that principle. If the Government are to succeed in negotiating what I described as the necessary, comprehensive and definitive deal, that deal must provide sufficient transparency in implementation so that public confidence can be maintained. Indeed, there is a statement on the record from the IRA itself saying that that organisation wished to decommission in a way that maximised public confidence. We should hold it to that. The same thing applies to the necessary decommissioning that must take place on the loyalists' side.

The other word beginning with "d" that the Government do not like is disbandment. That should also be subject to some sort of monitoring. Given the suspicions and difficulties evident in Northern Ireland, and the lack of performance, perhaps especially by republicans, we need more than a statement. Of course, we want a statement that the armed struggle is over and that the IRA has been disbanded. That is essential, but we also need assurance and some independent verification. We need verification of more than the decommissioning provided for in the Belfast agreement. We also need verification of disbandment.

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