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2.47 pm

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): On 11 February 2003, the Minister said:

We are here 12 months to the day after she made those remarks. Others, including me, made similar hopeful comments, but sadly we seem to be living in a groundhog day environment where we discuss this same piece of legislation every year.

In the euphoria following the Good Friday agreement, there was clearly an expectation that decommissioning could occur by the latest date set down in the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997. However, as it has taken almost that long to achieve the beginning of decommissioning, it will take longer to achieve total decommissioning. Logically, therefore, the amnesty must be extended.

It is worth remembering that this process goes all the way back to 27 February 1997, before this Government were even in office. It is not a failure—perhaps that is too strong a word—of a party, but a failing of our

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Parliament as a whole that we have not found a way to cause the paramilitaries to feel the need to decommission.

The step of decommissioning weapons was a long time coming, and it is impossible to overestimate the significance of the moves that have already taken place. It has always been recognised that decommissioning is a process—no one ever expected the IRA to decommission all its weapons at once. We had some almost comical debates as we imagined large articulated lorries turning up with massive amounts of munitions all in one go. That was not going to happen, so we always expected the process to be staged. However, the Good Friday agreement mentions the total disarmament of all paramilitary groups, for which we obviously aim.

Although the decommissioning that took place before the elections last year was welcome and significant, as yet we are nowhere near the total decommissioning that we all support. At the time, it felt to me—and, I am sure, to others—that some decommissioning was prompted by political expediency because Sinn Fein felt compromised by other matters around the world and revelations about the IRA, and that it responded to the pressure through acts of decommissioning. Nevertheless, the IRA must recognise that, by holding on to its weapons, it is holding matters up in Northern Ireland and working against the interests of the communities for which it claims to fight. The same must also be said of loyalist paramilitaries. We cannot focus solely on the IRA.

That leads to my first question. Has contact taken place between the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning and any of the loyalist paramilitary groups? Incidences of loyalist violence are increasing and we cannot expect genuine dialogue on loyalist decommissioning while such violence continues. However, we are aiming to achieve the total decommissioning of all paramilitary weapons.

Secondly, if the interaction between the IICD and the paramilitary organisations is unsatisfactory, what leverage can the Minister apply to the paramilitary organisations and some of their political representatives to make them understand that they are harming their self-interest by not participating actively or more actively with the commission?

David Burnside: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the result of the recent Assembly elections sent a clear and unambiguous message from the Unionist community in that only one Unionist representative linked to a terrorist paramilitary organisation was elected? The Unionist community said, "We don't want you on our backs; we don't want terrorism and we don't want paramilitary organisations." Unfortunately, a large section of the republican community voted for Sinn Fein, which still has its private army.

Lembit Öpik: The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. Without going into a detailed analysis of the outcome of the election, support for the Democratic Unionist party suggested some frustration with the process among former Ulster Unionist party voters, some of whom probably switched. The Government's postponement of the elections was

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counter-productive if they had hoped to assist one party or another. I do not believe that they had a strategy overtly to help the DUP to increase its numbers in the Assembly, though I stand to be corrected if that view is cynical.

Lady Hermon: I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for taking a second intervention so quickly. Does he accept that the Government threw away their major leverage over the republican movement by granting the elections last October? It is a great shame that his party and its sister party in Northern Ireland accepted that decision. [Hon. Members: "It is democracy."] With the greatest respect to others who sit on this Bench, could I please finish? [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. We must not have sedentary interventions when an hon. Member is addressing the House.

Lady Hermon: I am most grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for being rescued.

How does the hon. Gentleman believe that the Government can now pressurise or apply any leverage to the republican movement to decommission its weapons? I am sorry that his party supported holding elections last autumn.

Lembit Öpik: One word comes to mind in defence of holding the elections: democracy. However much we may like or dislike an outcome, using the date of an election in Northern Ireland to try to achieve a specific result is an unsatisfactory strategy. I sometimes also find it frustrating that the Prime Minister can choose the date of general elections. We must clarify whether the Government achieved the opposite of what they hoped by postponing the elections. I said just that in this Chamber when the postponement was announced early in 2003.

My second point, which brings me back to what I wanted to say, is that the biggest pressure in favour of decommissioning by the paramilitary organisations is the political opportunity presented to Sinn Fein, republicans and loyalist paramilitaries through their political representatives. It is perfectly obvious that were there a significant resumption of violence, for example, by the IRA, Sinn Fein would pay a heavy price for it, and the same is true on the loyalist paramilitary side.

Mrs. Iris Robinson (Strangford) (DUP): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that since the Democratic Unionist party became the largest party in our democracy on 26 November, no concessions have been given to Sinn Fein-IRA?

Lembit Öpik: I can see where the hon. Lady is going with that comment, and I accuse her of being a little cheeky in trying to take the credit for her party on that basis. I shall leave it to her and her colleagues to explain why they feel that that they have had such a significant influence.

Mr. Peter Robinson: The cupboard was bare.

Lembit Öpik: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says from a sedentary position. The Government's cupboard

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of creativity, however, is almost infinite when they put their mind to it, so there may also be other reasons at play.

I am encouraged by the strategic approach taken by the Democratic Unionist party, because I believe and I certainly hope that the expanded DUP will now live up to the opportunity that it has in a democratic context to participate in the resumed Assembly in Northern Ireland. Although it may find it uncomfortable to consider that it may ultimately need to negotiate some kind of arrangement with Sinn Fein, in the context of today's discussion, that kind of dialogue increases significantly our chances of getting the kind of decommissioning that we want. As has been said previously, jaw-jaw is better than war-war. If people feel that genuine concessions have been made in the past, and they are frustrated by that, I simply point out that to a large extent the fortunes of Northern Ireland lie in the hands of the elected representatives.

Clearly decommissioning is therefore in part a consequence rather than a cause of what goes on in the democratic institutions in Northern Ireland. It is therefore all the more frustrating that things are not in place and operational at the moment, not least because I seem to spend half my life in Statutory Instrument Committees. I enjoy the company of Ministers and Northern Ireland Members, but 8.55 in the morning is not my preferred time to sit discussing details of orders and so forth. I would prefer to be in my office preparing for government.

The hon. Member for South Antrim (David Burnside), who intervened on me previously, also made an interesting comment on 11 February last year, when he intervened on the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), who is sorely missed from the Conservative Front Bench, and asked:

That will be an ongoing issue. I have flagged this up before, and I shall mention it again: one of the problems is that we will never know when full decommissioning has taken place unless we trust the word of the people who have the weapons. Even within that quotation, the lack of trust is evident. One imponderable for a Government of any colour is the fact that the decommissioning process requires a degree of trust that currently does not exist. That points once again to the need to have an effective political structure in which that trust is enhanced.

To respond briefly to what the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) said on behalf of the Conservatives, I ask myself the question: what would I do to try to generate trust? In the round, we must recognise that providing Sinn Fein with office space and some of the other changes that have been made were an effort to try to build trust between this place and those who probably exert significant influence on at least some paramilitary groups.

In fairness to the hon. Member for Aylesbury, I should say that he agreed with me that whether those changes should be made was a matter of judgment; but as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland I would probably have made similar decisions. The good news

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for the hon. Gentleman is that when he becomes Secretary of State in, say, 2035, he will not be faced with the same problems, because I will have solved them in the preceding Liberal Democrat Administration.

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