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House of Commons

Wednesday 26 October 2005

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—


1. Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): If he will make a statement on the decommissioning of IRA weapons and explosives. [20234]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Peter Hain): I congratulate the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) on his appointment to the Privy Council. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."]

General de Chastelain's report that the IRA's arsenal of weapons had been decommissioned marked a landmark in opening the way forward to a peaceful and democratic future for Northern Ireland, coming as it did after the IRA's statement in July.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: I join the Secretary of State in congratulating the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) on his Privy Councillorship—much deserved and, if I may say so, long overdue. [Interruption.] Indeed, the right hon. Member for North Antrim. May I ask the Secretary of State how General de Chastelain and the two witnesses could be so certain that all the IRA weaponry and explosives had been put beyond use? How and why did the intelligence services downgrade their estimate of weapons and explosives? Is it not time that the Government stopped pandering to the terrorist thugs of Sinn Fein-IRA and provided equality of treatment and fairness for the Unionist population?

Mr. Hain: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks about the hon. Member for North Antrim—

Sir Nicholas Winterton: The right hon. Member for North Antrim.

Mr. Hain: I am not sure that the hon. Member for North Antrim has taken the oath yet, but I stand to be corrected on that. Hopefully, he will have done so by the next Northern Ireland questions.
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I quote—it is important for the House—from the statement made by the independent international agency for decommissioning. It determined that

Everybody understands that General de Chastelain and his fellow commissioners are people of total integrity and independence. They have made the position absolutely clear and I have just quoted them.

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): I thank the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) for their remarks. I am grateful to them and to the House for their reception of me this day.

I remind the Minister that the general and the two witnessing clerics put it firmly on the record that the arms that they saw decommissioned were largely old arms. The priest who was there said, "If you put them to your chest and pulled the trigger, they might kill you." That is a serious statement, which was added to: the real modern weapons formed a tiny percentage of the arms. Does that not worry the Secretary of State? We know that the IRA has modern weaponry, which needs to be put away. It is essential that that is done.

Mr. Hain: It is indeed essential that all weapons are put away, to use the hon. Gentleman's phrase. I think he will agree, however, that the statement made by General de Chastelain and verified by the two independent clergymen was emphatic that the IRA's arsenal had been put beyond use. We must recognise that that was the view of the independent commission.

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): The IRA's failure to decommission is what caused suspension in the first place. Now that the IRA has decommissioned, does the Secretary of State recognise that we should be clearly on a countdown to restoration of the institutions? In order to give the public confidence in that regard, does he believe that the politics of the concession of the weak, with parties doing handstands one week and head staggers the next, combined with a budget that hits the weak with a tax hit for years, is the best way to give the Northern Ireland public confidence that we are moving to taking responsibility ourselves?

Mr. Hain: It is crucial that the Independent Monitoring Commission's reports—the first one, which I published last week, and the one expected in January—become a bible for testing whether the promises to end paramilitary and criminal activity have been delivered on the ground. So far, so good. If and when that is clear, there will be no reason for parties not to engage in discussions towards the resumption of power sharing. The draft budget that I published yesterday, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, proposes a massive increase in health spending: an extra £450 million, and a massive increase in education spending—an extra £100 million. Yes, rates will go up by 19 per cent. to fund new child care support, new skills and science investment and new investment in renewable and clean energy, but I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman welcomed that as it will assist the most vulnerable in Northern Ireland.
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Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): Does the Secretary of State accept that it would do much to restore public confidence if those who inflicted such terrible misery with the weapons that have been decommissioned expressed some regret or remorse?

Mr. Hain: Yes, I do.

Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend expand on a statement that he made the other week about on-the-runs legislation, which is obviously about people who have committed crimes, but, at least as important, what will be done about people being forced by terrorists to leave their homes—people who are exiled and have been for many years?

Mr. Hain: When we are ready to bring proposals for dealing with on-the-run suspects to the House, we will do so in the usual way, and we will have a chance to discuss them then. Exiling and punishments must stop. The IMC report showed that such activity had largely died out, but we are keeping a beady eye on it, because exiling is a pernicious practice, and if the IRA meets the terms of its commitments made on 28 July, exiling should stop, just as much as punishment beatings, targeting, intelligence gathering, and all the rest of it.

Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): The Liberal Democrats of course welcome the decommissioning of IRA weapons, as was confirmed by the de Chastelain commission on 26 September, but does the Secretary of State recognise that the long delay has damaged the peace process? Does he agree that one way in which the IRA could help others to gain trust is by publicly stating that anyone who has been exiled from their home by the IRA during the troubles is free to return home safely and without retribution?

Mr. Hain: I agree. The hon. Lady makes an important point on exiling. Yes, it would have been much better if decommissioning had occurred much earlier; if it had, there would be less suspicion within Northern Ireland, especially within Unionist communities, about the IRA's real intentions. However, the decommissioning and the statement made before it are an historic event. A year, or even two years ago, no one would have said that it would have been possible. It has now happened.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): I associate myself and my hon. Friends with the Secretary of State's congratulations to the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley).

I welcome the act of decommissioning, but does the Secretary of State agree that over the years the Provisional IRA has accumulated enough money from bank robberies and other crimes to afford to re-arm itself, should it ever choose to do so, and that what we therefore need now is not the decommissioning of weapons and explosives only, but the decommissioning of the IRA's paramilitary organisation and its command structure, so that we can start to believe that this step by republicans is permanent and irreversible?
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Mr. Hain: I understand the hon. Gentleman's points and I welcome the fact that he too regards the decommissioning that occurred and the statement on 28 July promising an end to armed struggle—in the IRA's own words—as very significant, as the IMC statement made clear when it was published last week. It is interesting to quote from that statement. In respect of the Provisional IRA it says:

So there is still something going on. That is why the statement in the report in January is very important.

Mr. Lidington: But as the Secretary of State indicated, the IMC declared in its report that it was too early to tell whether the steps that republicans have taken are indeed permanent and irreversible.

Will he explain why he has rushed to restore the Stormont and Westminster allowances to Sinn Fein, given that the IMC, which he prayed in aid, explicitly refused to make that recommendation? Should not Sinn Fein have to wait until it agrees to play by the same democratic rules that we expect of every party in Britain and every party on the island of Ireland?

Mr. Hain: Sinn Fein has committed itself to maintaining and playing by those rules. We will have to judge whether that is fulfilled. I thought that it was the right decision. I am sure that if, in those circumstances, the hon. Gentleman had been standing in my shoes at this Dispatch Box, he would have taken the right decision. It is for the House to decide what it does about the Sinn Fein allowances, which were suspended earlier this year. However, I thought that it was right to recommend to the House that Sinn Fein's allowances in the Assembly be restored in view of the enormous historic progress that has been made, which, to be fair, the hon. Gentleman has welcomed.

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