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11 Feb 2003 : Column 822—continued

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): The hon. Gentleman accepted that a person with a past must have a future; but, surely, performing symbolic acts of decommissioning at the same time as commissioning new weapons in Florida gives the lie to any intention of going down the road of peace.

Lembit Öpik: It depends on how far one wants to go with the analogy. For example, I have met people who want to give up smoking. They keep saying that they want to give up smoking, but they still go out and buy a packet of fags for weeks after they have made their new year resolution. There is probably a similar tendency towards the use of violence and towards holding on to the means of violence. Decommissioning is such a big step for people who have become used to using violent methods to achieve their objectives that I am not surprised that there are probably significant internal arguments and divisions within such organisations. The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, but I hope that he will also accept that it is in the nature of the human condition to take time to move away from things that were closely cherished as weapons, tools or modus operandi in the past.

The other interesting point that the right hon. Member for Upper Bann made was to highlight the contradiction between the Government's approach to disarming Iraq and their approach to disarming the IRA and loyalist organisations. He drew the conclusion that this inconsistency meant that perhaps there needs to be a tougher policy in Northern Ireland. I suppose that I would take another view. I suggest that the great irony

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in this situation is not the approach taken in Northern Ireland, but the approach to Iraq that has apparently been foisted on us in the United Kingdom by the Prime Minister and others.

We have learned in Northern Ireland that negotiation and shouting is a more effective means of progress than threats and shooting. It is a terrible tragedy that, despite the laudable achievements of this Government and, to some extent, the previous Conservative Government in achieving peace through peaceful means and through the threat of violence but not its application, we may be thrust into a war that is based on the exact opposite principles. It is a terrible inconsistency and it might be worth the Prime Minister looking at the recent history of Northern Ireland and learning that one does not make progress in reducing terrorism or international threats by waging war oneself. If I say any more about that, you, Madam Deputy Speaker, may rule me out of order. However, I ask the Minister to consider whether she can act as a useful conduit between the wise sages from Northern Ireland in this Chamber, those who take an interest in the subject and the Prime Minister, who seems to forget the lessons of history.

I also want to highlight the importance of the International Independent Commission on Decommissioning. We have already heard praise of General de Chastelain, who has the unenviable job of trying to make sense of the subject in a practical way and—this may sound familiar—of issuing reports to Government about the degree of decommissioning that has taken place. I am interested in some of the suggestions that we have heard in the debate about how things might be done better. The Government need to remain flexible, because improvements could be suggested by any side. They could come from the Conservatives, Ulster Unionists, the Democratic Unionist party or others.

At present, however, we have the least worst way of approaching the matter. It has delivered some progress and, although there is a depressing underlying level of violence in Northern Ireland, there has been a measurable decrease in violence overall and in the numbers of bombings and shootings that have been carried out in the name of the causes that the paramilitaries claim to hold. I am optimistic that we have made progress, and I would be loth for a dramatic shift to take place that led to the hardening of policy or to the withdrawal of opportunities. We are making slow progress.

The Liberal Democrats will support the order. However, as I said last year, I hope that we will not be here again next year doing the same thing. However idealistic it may be to believe that decommissioning will happen in the next 12 months, we have to assume that even most of those involved in the paramilitary organisations have realised that their representatives have made far more progress in the interests of their respective causes and the people whom they purport to represent through peaceful means than they ever will by using the arms that they seem so loth to give in.

4.4 pm

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East): Madam Deputy Speaker, you are most fortunate to be presiding over your second Northern Ireland debate in a short period. You must be the Speaker's favourite to be appointed again.

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There are some common strands between this debate and last night's debate, because the issues have a common source—the Belfast agreement. I feel the same exasperation as the Liberal Democrat spokesman, who referred to the ritual of coming to the House to debate these issues. It could be described as a Westminster farce that runs and runs. It is a timely and periodic reminder of the failure of the Government's policy and the process in which they have invested so much. It is right that periodically we see the embarrassment not just of the Government but of the leader of the Ulster Unionist party. Although he may be trying revisionism today, having told us about all the mistakes and errors that everybody else has committed, he failed to tell us that it was he who accepted them all the time, did not point them out at the time, and tried to sell them to the people of Northern Ireland. That suggests that he was suckered at the time. Having dismissed the advice of other Unionists in Northern Ireland, including some members of his own party, he now finds out that they were right and he was wrong, and is seeking to retrieve from the ashes a semblance of dignity. However, the Northern Ireland electorate have caught on to him, both on that and on many other issues.

While I have some respect for the Decommissioning Commission—those of us who have met its members recognise that they are genuine and want to do their job—I question the Government for handing out money week after week for it to do absolutely nothing. It must be frustrating for people to hang around the not very salubrious building in which they are housed, hoping that someone just might give them a phone call one day and tell them that they can come along and spot something for themselves. I agree with the shadow Secretary of State that we are witnessing the result of sloppy negotiations. There was no direct tie between decommissioning and the important issue of prison releases. There was a clear comparison, as both were to take place over a two-year period, but there was no requirement that one should be linked to the other.

If that was the result of incompetent negotiations, it was also the result of ensuing incompetent action by the Executive. The Government had it within their power to ensure that the two were linked, and that action on prison releases was linked to a requirement that the republican movement hand over its illegal weapons, which it is still using in Northern Ireland. There has not been enough recognition in this debate that the Provisional IRA is still an active organisation and is still shooting. One has only to look at the statistics in the Chief Constable's report to see just how active those guns are, even in current circumstances. We had better remember that those are not symbolic items, as the Liberal Democrat spokesman told us; they are lethal weapons, used to kill and threaten and to extract concessions from the Government.

Mr. Tom Harris: Does the hon. Gentleman set any store by, or place any value on, IRA and other paramilitary ceasefires that have been in effect both before and since 1997? Does he accept that, internecine warfare in those paramilitary groups notwithstanding, the quality of life of the people whom he represents is materially better and more secure as a direct result of the Government's policies and the Belfast agreement?

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Mr. Robinson: I wish the hon. Gentleman would come to Northern Ireland with my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) or me. I would take him to Cluan Place in my constituency and my colleague would take him to a number of spots in north Belfast so that he could ask the people there whether life has improved for them.

We are speaking of an illegal organisation that should never be rewarded for stopping, slowing down or pausing from doing that which it should never have been doing in the first place. The number of acts of terrorism has been steadily increasing since the signing of the Belfast agreement. The statistics are there for the hon. Gentleman to see. Although the propaganda might suggest that he is right, the facts on the ground tell a very different story.

The propaganda exists because of how much is invested by political leaders in the process—by the Prime Minister, who made pledges. He came to Northern Ireland at the most critical period of the referendum and personally signed large billboards pledging that certain things would not happen until decommissioning occurred. Those pledges were broken. He came to the Dispatch Box in the House and made it clear to the then Leader of the Opposition that decommissioning was a requirement before various things would happen in terms of Sinn Fein being rewarded. Again, that undertaking was broken. Those undertakings were passed on to the people of Northern Ireland, and on that basis many of them may have supported the Government's policy.

The Leader of the Ulster Unionist party, although he did not exactly use the words, admitted that he had been suckered as well, and that he had taken the commitments made by Sinn Fein and retailed them to the community in Northern Ireland. Many of us will recognise now—I shall come to the Minister of State's remarks about the DUP's position in relation to Sinn Fein—that there is one certainty: no one should ever take the word of Sinn Fein-IRA about anything that they might do. They have promised much and delivered very little; some say nothing.

There is no requirement whatever on Unionists to say what they might do for Sinn Fein until Sinn Fein has done it. It is up to them to take the actions necessary to meet the Government's criteria, set down not just by the United Kingdom Government, but by the Government of the Irish Republic, even before the Belfast agreement, when they said that for anybody to be involved in the political process in Northern Ireland, there was a requirement for them to be committed to exclusively peaceful and democratic means. That is a requirement placed on Sinn Fein, not on others. The pledges of the Prime Minister and the promises of the leader of the Ulster Unionist party were broken.

As regards decommissioning, all we have had from the beginning of the process are two acts—of quite what, nobody knows, because nobody has been specific about it. The first event, on 23 October 2001, was described by the decommissioning body in the following terms:

Following that statement, my colleagues and I went to meet General de Chastelain and his team and asked them whether they regarded their meeting with us as significant. He said that he did, so that might give the

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House an indication of the significance of the event that he had witnessed involving any weapons being put beyond use. But it was enough for the leader of the Ulster Unionist party who, with the broadest smile that any of us have seen from him in many years, came out to say:

He heralded it as a great day and a great beginning. Now—[Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, North is right. The leader of the Ulster Unionist party at least recognises now that that and the further act that occurred on 8 April 2002 were simply stunts and gestures by the Provisional IRA.

The hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) put his finger on the key issue. If decommissioning is a matter of confidence—if it is to give people confidence that the IRA and Sinn Fein have put violence behind them and want to walk a democratic path—the key issue is whether their stockpile of weapons has reduced since the beginning of the process. Although in October 2001 and April 2002 something occurred—quite what we do not know, because it has never been specified by the decommissioning body—the reality that we are all certain of is that the IRA and Sinn Fein have brought more weapons in. A body that on the one hand says "We have got rid of some of our weapons", but that on the other hand is bringing them in, not just from Florida but from elsewhere, and ends up with more guns than it had at the beginning, is hardly likely to bring confidence to the Unionist community.

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