Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East) (DUP): I do not expect the Minister to have the answer to my question at her fingertips, but I hope that an answer can be given later in the debate. There is a feeling in the community that the existence of provisions such as this order allows the police to stand back from doing the job of seizing weapons and of having them decommissioned in that way. What amount of weaponry has been seized by the security forces as a result of searches since the Belfast agreement process got under way? How does that figure compare with the amount seized in a similar period before the agreement was reached?

Jane Kennedy: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for saying that I might not have the relevant information to hand. I shall see what I can produce before the debate ends. However, I strongly refute the notion that the police are holding back from looking for and seizing illegal weapons. I know that they have had success as recently as last week or the week before, when they stopped a vehicle in Belfast that contained a rifle and other ammunition. They are to be commended for the actions that they take, because they are dealing with organised, well resourced and disciplined groups of dangerous people. The police undertake a difficult and dangerous task, and I know that all hon. Members support them in that.

Let me quickly answer the question asked by the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds). I remind him that I have been talking about the involvement of the Provisional IRA and the decommissioning event that took place on 21 October, so there is engagement with the commission by the Provisional IRA. Indeed, last year, the Loyalist Commission, along with Ulster Defence Association representatives, met the IICD, so there continues to be engagement. It is not as rigorous as we would want, and the process is not as swift as we would want, but there is engagement.

I remind the House that if decommissioning is to take place, we need to provide immunity from prosecution for those involved. We do that through the order, and I thus commend it to the House.

2.29 pm

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): I regret the necessity to have the debate and to renew the order because, as the Minister pointed out, that very fact means that the decommissioning process is still far from complete despite all the high hopes on both sides of the House back in 1997 and 1998. I believe, as I shall enlarge upon later, that the Government cannot escape a share of the blame for the failure to complete the work of decommissioning. However, I must accept where we are. In making a judgment about the order, it is better to have a decommissioning system—however imperfect it

11 Feb 2004 : Column 1452

is—than for no such system to be available. For that reason, I shall not seek to divide the House at the conclusion of the debate.

We are nearly six years on from a referendum in Northern Ireland during which people believed, and were encouraged to believe, that decommissioning would start in that year and be completed at some stage during 2000. It is nearly four years since the Provisional IRA made a statement on 7 May 2000 in which that terrorist organisation promised to put its weapons completely and verifiably beyond use, and to do so in such a way as to maximise public confidence. The pledge was pretty clear, but it has not been kept. Although I am not uncritical of some decisions that Ministers have taken, I make it clear that the official Opposition's view is that responsibility for the failure to decommission weapons and explosives clearly lies with the terrorist and paramilitary groups that hold those stocks of weapons and maintain private armies.

I acknowledge the difficulties faced by Ministers and the uncertainty of the information on which they have had to base judgments about their policies in Northern Ireland over the past few years. However, Ministers have at times thrown away some of the strongest cards that they had available to achieve the decommissioning of weapons and to bring about an end to paramilitary activity. The most obvious example was the early release of terrorist prisoners. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay), the then Conservative spokesman on Northern Ireland, moved amendments to the Bill that became the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 that would have linked prisoner releases explicitly to the terms of the promises that the Prime Minister made to the people of Northern Ireland during the referendum campaign in 1998.

That was perhaps the most egregious example of Government misjudgment, but a further example is the special status given in Westminster to Members from Sinn Fein who refuse to take their seats. We had the proposed amnesty, which at least is now held in abeyance, for terrorists who were on the run. However, where do we go from here?

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I know the views that the hon. Gentleman holds and respect his right to differ from my position. However, would he at least entertain the possibility that many of those events were matters of judgment, rather than principle? For example, when it came to giving office space in Parliament, my feeling was that bringing Sinn Fein closely into the peaceful parliamentary process would put increasing pressure on it to ensure that the paramilitaries would stay in line.

Mr. Lidington: I accept that those were matters for judgment, as the hon. Gentleman said. My argument to him and others is that, at the time the decisions were taken, there was considerable debate and a division of opinion in the House over the merits of the judgment that the Government, with the hon. Gentleman's support, made. I would argue with no sense of glee but with deep regret that what has happened has vindicated the judgment of those of us who felt at the time that we were granting concessions to republican militants without any certainty that they would deliver on the

11 Feb 2004 : Column 1453

pledges to disarm and to end paramilitary activity that they entered into at the time of the Good Friday agreement.

The Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997 established a framework for decommissioning before either the democratic parties in Northern Ireland or the paramilitary organisations had agreed to any targets or timetables. Those targets came in later, following the Belfast agreement and the establishment of the two-year time frame. So, first, we need a firm sense from the Government that there will be targets and timetables, and that the Government will exert all the pressure they can on paramilitary organisations—republican and loyalist alike—not just to decommission their weapons within a clear time scale, but to cease all paramilitary activity and to dismantle the organisations of terrorism. If those bodies or their political representatives are being honest with us all in saying that they are now committed to constitutional politics and to exclusively democratic and peaceful means, they have no need of private armies or stocks of weapons and explosives.

Secondly, we need greater transparency. I do not propose to revisit in detail what happened in October, but it is clear that the absence of transparency has led to very widespread mistrust among the majority community in Northern Ireland of the good faith of the republican organisations. I do not know whether the three acts of decommissioning by the IRA so far have diminished its net stock of weaponry, because we do not know to what extent it has been adding to its armouries at the same time. The requirement for confidentiality is not written into primary legislation. My understanding is that that is part of the subsequent decommissioning scheme—the terms of which were negotiated between the present Government and their counterparts in the Irish Republic. It is time that the terms of that scheme, at least in respect of confidentiality, were reviewed. I would be interested to know whether the Minister has such action in mind, and what her assessment is of the views of the Dublin Government about the prospect of greater transparency in the decommissioning process.

Thirdly and finally, we must explicitly link participation in the government of Northern Ireland with the cessation of paramilitary activity and organisation. The Taoiseach, Mr. Ahern, has said trenchantly and repeatedly that political parties that are linked to private armies are not fit to serve in a governing coalition in the Irish Republic. We should adopt the same principle in the United Kingdom as that already followed by our European neighbours. That principle, which is good enough for Dublin, should apply in Belfast as well.

2.39 pm

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down) (SDLP): There will be very few in the House—in fact, none—who would not welcome the total decommissioning of weaponry and the disbandment of paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland. Indeed, the same sentiment would apply to the people of Northern Ireland, except to those who have the weapons. There are two reasons for the political stalemate in Northern Ireland. First, attempts to end paramilitarism, both

11 Feb 2004 : Column 1454

loyalist and republican, have failed and, secondly, some parties have failed to commit themselves unambiguously to the democratic power-sharing institutions endorsed by the referendums of 1998.

Decommissioning was negotiated into the Good Friday agreement, and was agreed by the parties and endorsed by the public. It is therefore an essential part of that agreement and is important to those participating under its auspices. It is not an optional extra that democracy or the people can afford to lose. At this stage of our political evolution, decommissioning is a demonstrably significant part of the required commitment to peaceful politics that, in turn, are necessary to secure trust between participating parties and communities so that we can achieve progress and make our institutions and Administration permanent. The problem with decommissioning is that, however we legislate for it, it is voluntary. It cannot be compelled under the terms of the agreement, but the police retain powers to seize illegal arms and weaponry.

In response to the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), there is a feeling, without any evidence or proof, that people are going soft on taking weapons and ammunition out of circulation. Either that is the case or there is a severe lack of intelligence—that point must be underscored. None the less, decommissioning is a voluntary exercise, and it is difficult to enforce. The Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997 provided a mechanism to facilitate decommissioning that was independent of Government and had such a standing that it was accepted by the public, who had confidence in it. Reference has been made to the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning under the leadership of General de Chastelain and the need for more transparency and less secrecy. The purpose of that body was to secure the trust of Government and the community in an independent international body, as it was known full well that decommissioning was not possible in practice if the people who were decommissioning weapons were exposed to the public eye—decommissioning under those conditions is just an idle wish. My party therefore had every confidence that the commission would act on our behalf and ensure that there was proper and meaningful decommissioning.

The primary responsibility remains, as I have said, with those who hold the weapons, although they have not excelled themselves in the five or six years since the agreement. In fact, their contribution, as we have just heard, has consisted of three acts of decommissioning, although the Minister will assure us that the last one in October was a substantive, meaningful decommissioning of light and heavy armaments. Decommissioning must be conducted in such a way that a report by the international commission can be produced to end the mistrust that has arisen. Such decommissioning can only be done by the paramilitaries, both loyalist and republican, who have the bombs, guns and weapons, and know where they are. We need meaningful dialogue to make such decommissioning imperative under the terms of the 1997 Act.

It is important that the process to re-establish the institutions in Northern Ireland, whether in the north, south, east or west, takes place as quickly as possible.

11 Feb 2004 : Column 1455

That is the only way in which to pressurise the voluntary—much as I hate using that word—act that decommissioning has to be. It must be made imperative, for credibility purposes, that the paramilitaries do it. There is an obscene situation on the island of Ireland, both north and south, whereby two sovereign Governments have in their midst a paramilitary army that is fully equipped and operating within their jurisdictions. That cannot, and never should be, acceptable in any democratic institution. It behoves both Governments to pay a great deal more attention to, and thereby to place pressure on, these paramilitaries to perform to normal civilised democratic standards.

The Minister referred not only to decommissioning, but to the other elements of paramilitary activity—extortion, protection rackets, drugs and all the rest of it. She will need to take into consideration a new element—what are euphemistically called the agencies of restorative justice, which is another name for thugs carrying out kangaroo court action in our communities. It is surprising that elected Assembly Members of other parties are now instructing victims of crime in my community, including old people, not to report them to the police under any circumstances, but instead to address the issue to so-called restorative justice bodies. If that becomes endemic, we will, as I have warned time and again in this House, have fascism exploding in our community. I should like to think that the Minister who is responsible for security and justice would pay more careful attention to what is happening on the ground as regards so-called punishment beatings and so-called restorative justice.

For those reasons, and to support the political process, my party will endorse the continuation of the order.

Next Section

IndexHome Page