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12 Mar 2003 : Column 274—continued


4. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): What recent progress has been made towards decommissioning terrorist weapons. [101442]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Paul Murphy): The Loyalist Volunteer Force engaged in an act of decommissioning in 1998 and the Provisional IRA engaged in two acts of decommissioning in 2001 and 2002. However, no paramilitary organisations are currently in contact with the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning. It was clear to all involved in the discussions at Hillsborough last week that much more needs to be done to ensure that both republican and loyalist organisations complete the transition to exclusively peaceful means—real, total and permanent.

Miss McIntosh: I wish the Secretary of State well at this crucial stage of the peace process. Does he agree that we need not just a verbal commitment—from the IRA in particular—but visible proof of decommissioning, and does he share my disappointment that the IRA has not even been in touch with the commission to prove that it has started decommissioning?

Mr. Murphy: I thank the hon. Lady for her good wishes. It is indeed regrettable that no paramilitary organisation has been in contact with John de Chastelain's commission. I also agree that we must

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ensure that whatever acts of decommissioning take place occur in such a way that people across Northern Ireland can trust and have confidence in the process.

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down): Does the Secretary of State agree that the continued existence of paramilitary groups, armed and organised, is an affront to basic democracy in Ireland and the legitimate Governments of Ireland, north and south? Is not the decommissioning of all paramilitary weapons by all those groups an essential factor in the current negotiations if the current political impasse is to be broken, progress made and trust re-established? Will not a drip-feed of decommissioning for purely party political gain destroy any remnant of trust between the parties in Northern Ireland, destroy our devolutionary institutions and destroy political progress?

Mr. Murphy: I entirely agree. My hon. Friend will know, because both he and I were involved in the run-up to the Good Friday agreement in 1998, that decommissioning is very much part of that Belfast agreement, and that it is a vital element of the means by which trust and the institutions can be restored. Illegal weapons have no place in a modern democratic and peaceful society.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North): Does the Secretary of State agree that more mere statements and stunts from the IRA will do nothing to increase the confidence of the people of Northern Ireland that the IRA is committed to exclusively peaceful and democratic means? Will he now give details of the paper published for the Hillsborough parties but denied to the people of Northern Ireland and their representatives in the House—details, that is, of the concessions now on offer to IRA-Sinn Fein and approved between the Government and the pro-agreement parties, in return for IRA-Sinn Fein's doing what they should have done years ago and for which they should receive no reward?

Mr. Murphy: Of course it is important for us to tackle the whole issue of paramilitary activity, in whatever form. The Prime Minister has said, the Taoiseach has said, all of us who are involved in these issues have said, that it must end. As for the other issue, I ask the hon. Gentleman to be patient. It is pretty clear that he has only a few weeks to wait before the papers are published for everyone in Northern Ireland, and indeed everyone in the House, to consider.

The hon. Gentleman will know that the parties that drew up the agreement at Hillsborough wanted time to reflect on the details of the proposals, along with the membership. That is why next week we will consider postponing the election for a few weeks, so that discussions with the membership—including members of his party—can take place.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West): What assessment has the Secretary of State made of loyalist efforts towards decommissioning—and, in particular, of the recent announcement of a ceasefire by the UDA and the handing over of pipe bombs?

Mr. Murphy: I agree that we must address the decommissioning issue across the board, and that

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includes loyalist paramilitaries. We welcome the UDA's statement as far as it goes. I am also glad that over the past few weeks there has been relative peace on the streets of Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, those groups, together with all the other paramilitary groups, must engage with the international commission.

David Burnside (South Antrim): The Secretary of State is right to say that decommissioning is not enough to restore confidence in the peace process. Will he comment on his answer to me yesterday to a question about the break-in at Castlereagh police station, which was investigated by Sir John Chilcott? The Secretary of State said that he would inform the House when he has received the Chilcott report. According to my information, he has received the report—which incriminates Adams, McGuinness and Bobby Storey, the IRA's head of information and intelligence in Belfast—and it appears to me that there is a cover-up.

Mr. Murphy: There certainly is no cover-up, and I shall, of course, issue that report in due course, when it has been given to me. My office and my predecessor decided to commission it, and it will be made directly to me. I will inform the House at the appropriate time. There will be an opportunity in the coming weeks to consider all the issues, including paramilitary activity. In due course, I will inform the House when the report is ready.

Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, Cathcart): What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the threat posed to the peace process by terrorist groups such as Continuity IRA and the Real IRA, and what impact will that assessment have on the Government's plans for a reduction in the number of British troops in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Murphy: We in no way underestimate the difficulties posed by the continuing activity of so-called dissident republican groups. A fortnight ago, I visited Mr. Michael McDowell, the Minister for Justice in the Republic of Ireland, to see how we can co-operate to deal with dissident republicans. There is no place in Northern Ireland for dissident republicanism, and there is no place for violence. We shall certainly engage in ensuring that we work together with the Irish Government to do our best to overcome those difficulties.

Mr. John Taylor (Solihull): Will the Secretary of State confirm that decommissioning must indeed be visible, verified and complete before all parties can have the confidence to re-join the Executive in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Murphy: I repeat what I said to the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh): the importance of decommissioning in the political process is that it is an essential part of restoring trust and confidence in the politics of Northern Ireland across the board. [Interruption.] It is a hugely important issue, and it was part of the Belfast agreement. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. There is far too much noise in the Chamber.

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Peace Process

5. Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland): If he will make a statement on the peace process. [101443]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Paul Murphy): As a result of talks with the parties last week in Hillsborough, we believe that there is now a large measure of shared understanding among pro-agreement parties on the way forward in the restoration of stable and inclusive devolved Government. However, I repeat that this can be realised only in the context of a complete cessation of paramilitary activity.We need to give these developments every chance of success. To provide time for parties to reflect and to take soundings among their organisations, we propose to defer elections to the Assembly to Thursday 29 May, and we will introduce a Bill tomorrow to that effect. I am optimistic that these developments can deliver a breakthrough in the search for a lasting and stable settlement.

Mr. Carmichael : The little of last week's talks that is in the public domain is generally welcomed by Liberal Democrats, but what assurances has the Secretary of State been given that any acts of completion by paramilitary groups will include a statement to the effect that those who have been exiled from their homes will be free to return, without fear of threat or intimidation from such groups?

Mr. Murphy: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his party's support in this matter. The question of exiles was discussed at Hillsborough last week, and the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. Browne), is dealing with these issues with groups such as Maranatha. The fact that he is also the Minister with responsibility for victims shows that we see a correlation between these different issues. [Interruption.] This is a hugely important matter, and the hon. Gentleman can rest assured that we have been discussing it.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford): Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that special arrangements for on-the-run terrorists can—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. The Chamber is far too noisy, and it is unfair to those who are in for Northern Ireland questions. No private conversations should be taking place in the Chamber.

Mr. Davies: Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that special arrangements for on-the-run terrorists can be considered only in the context of the completion of decommissioning and disbandment by the relevant paramilitary organisations, and a judicial process? That process would involve a guilty plea before a court or a determination of the facts by a court, and a verdict.

Mr. Murphy: I agree. The act of completion on the part of the IRA is an essential precondition in relation to OTRs. I also agree that the matter should be dealt with in a judicial fashion rather than by way of amnesty.

Mr. Davies: That is very welcome confirmation that the Secretary of State now supports a judicial process.

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Will he have the grace to acknowledge that it is a thoroughly good thing that the Opposition were able successfully to oppose the unilateral offer of an amnesty made by the Government at Weston Park, as that would not have involved judicial process? The Opposition's action means that that important card remains in the Government's hands, and there is a chance of getting the judicial process that both he and I want.

Mr. Murphy: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we agree.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim): On 10 April 1998, the Prime Minister wrote to my right hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), the leader of the Ulster Unionist party, in the following terms:

Is the Prime Minister any nearer to delivering on his promises? When can we expect action to be taken to ensure that the Assembly will be effective if it comes together again?

Mr. Murphy: Of course, the issue of sanctions is very important. We discussed it last week at Hillsborough, and it is an important part of any agreement that might have to be forged in the weeks ahead. The hon. Gentleman knows that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister spent nearly 32 hours at Hillsborough last week and is deeply committed to the peace process in Northern Ireland.

Mrs. Iris Robinson (Strangford): Will the Secretary of State confirm that there will be no more tinkering with the date for the Northern Ireland Assembly elections, which are set for 29 May? Will he further confirm that he will ignore parties that will try, for selfish reasons, to get those elections postponed?

Mr. Murphy: The hon. Lady will know that the elections in Northern Ireland will be held on 29 May, as long as the House agrees to that next week. However, the elections were postponed for 28 days to allow all parties to reflect on the proposals and papers that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach will give to the people of Northern Ireland sometime at the beginning of April.

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