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Standing Committee Debates

Draft Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997 (Amnesty Period) Order 2006

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First Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

The Committee consisted of the following Members:


Mr. Mike Weir

†Breed, Mr. Colin (South-East Cornwall) (LD)
†Coaker, Mr. Vernon (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty’s Treasury)
Dodds, Mr. Nigel (Belfast, North) (DUP)
†Engel, Natascha (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab)
†Flello, Mr. Robert (Stoke-on-Trent, South) (Lab)
†Fraser, Mr. Christopher (South-West Norfolk) (Con)
Jones, Mr. David (Clwyd, West) (Con)
†Jones, Mr. Kevan (North Durham) (Lab)
†Laxton, Mr. Bob (Derby, North) (Lab)
†Lepper, David (Brighton, Pavilion) (Lab/Co-op)
†Miliband, Edward (Doncaster, North) (Lab)
†Robertson, Mr. Laurence (Tewkesbury) (Con)
Rosindell, Andrew (Romford) (Con)
†Tipping, Paddy (Sherwood) (Lab)
†Wallace, Mr. Ben (Lancaster and Wyre) (Con)
†Waltho, Lynda (Stourbridge) (Lab)
†Woodward, Mr. Shaun (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland)
Alan Sandall, Mark Oxborough, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee

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Monday 6 February 2006

[Mr. Mike Weir in the Chair]

Draft Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997 (Amnesty Period) Order 2006

4.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Shaun Woodward): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997 (Amnesty Period) Order 2006.

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Weir. I thank you in anticipation for your guidance in our deliberations on the order, a draft of which was laid before the House on 17 January. Before turning to its substance, I shall set out the position on decommissioning more generally for the purposes of clarifying several issues and to provide the context for today’s debate.

I pay tribute to the work of General John de Chastelain, Andrew Sens and Tauno Nieminen. Decommissioning is a matter of considerable public interest. It has an essential role in building the trust and confidence necessary for political progress in Northern Ireland. There are several armed paramilitary organisations. To date, it is only the Provisional IRA that has seriously engaged in the process of decommissioning. Let me deal with that first.

In September last year, the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning reported that it and independent witnesses had

    ”determined that the IRA has met its commitment to put all its arms beyond use in a manner called for by the legislation.”

The British and Irish Governments welcomed that as a landmark development. They said that the significance of the IRA’s decommissioning needed to be acknowledged and recognised, and that it was, as the Secretary of State said at the time,

    “the clearest signal ever that the IRA’s armed campaign is over.”

Last week, two important reports were published, one of which was the eighth report of the Independent Monitoring Commission, to whose work I pay tribute, on paramilitary activity. A separate report was published by the IICD. The reports have rightly attracted considerable public interest. It may be helpful to the Committee if I set out some of the areas that, since publication last week, have given rise to considerable comment. It is important to set out the facts.

In paragraph 3.23, the IMC referred to

    “reports that not all PIRA’s weapons and ammunition were handed over for decommissioning in September.”

It stated:

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    “The reports are not able to indicate precisely what is the nature or volume of any remaining weapons but suggest two things: first, that there is a range of different kinds of weapons and ammunition; second, that the material goes beyond what might possibly have been expected to have missed decommissioning, such as a limited number of handguns kept for personal protection or some items the whereabouts of which were no longer known.”

It goes on:

    “We recognise that if these reports were confirmed”—

the critical words are “if these reports were confirmed”—

    “the key question would be how much the PIRA leadership knew about these weapons.”

In the same paragraph, the IMC states:

    “These same reports do not cast doubt on the declared intention of the PIRA leadership to eschew terrorism. For our part, we are clear that this latter is their strategic intent.”

In last week’s IICD report, attention was drawn to references to security sources having

    “intelligence to the effect that some individuals and groups within the IRA have retained a range of arms including handguns”.

That has given rise to speculation. For clarification, I remind members of the Committee that, last September, General John de Chastelain said that the IICD

    “could not guarantee that a small number of weapons might not have gone astray over the years as individual custodians died or the locations of some caches were lost.”

However, the IICD qualified that position in its recent January report. It said that

    “in the absence of evidence to the contrary our 26 September assessment regarding IRA arms remains correct”.

The crucial phrase there is “the absence of evidence”. Let us be clear: the IICD is satisfied that “all the arms” under the IRA’s

    “control were decommissioned in September”,

under the IICD’s supervision.

Nevertheless, there continues to be speculation about that point, and perhaps understandably, there has also been some concern about different interpretations by the IICD and the IMC. It might therefore be helpful if I remind Members of what John Grieve, one of the IMC commissioners, said last week, after everyone had had time to reflect on the content of the two reports. First, in relation to the work of the IMC, he said that

    “our job was to report on the continuing activities of the paramilitaries, and”—

I emphasise this—

    “we’ve paid very considerable tribute to the movement that’s been made.”

Secondly, although both the IMC and the IICD flagged up the same issue—reports of weapons having been retained—John Grieve said on Thursday that

    “the key question would be, how much the Provisional IRA leadership knew about these weapons”.

It is important to understand that the Government are not complacent about this matter. Any reports of illegal weapons being held by individuals or groups are taken seriously by the Northern Ireland Office, and by the Chief Constable and the Police Service of Northern Ireland, and they will be followed up. Anyone in possession of such weapons is breaking the law, and we will pursue them and prosecute them.

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Let me again stress that the IMC, the IICD and the Government have no reason to doubt the IRA leadership’s commitment to the undertakings that it has given. We support the assessment that the provisional movement has made the strategic decision to pursue a political path. That assessment is shared by the Chief Constable and the PSNI. Indeed, the Chief Constable reaffirmed that point this week. He said that

    “there is no evidence or intelligence to suggest PIRA has any intention of going back to any form of armed struggle”.

He also repeated that, for him,

    “the mindset was more important than any decommissioning, albeit decommissioning was important for other reasons.”

We are fortunate to have an outstanding Chief Constable in Northern Ireland. He is also extremely wise. In the context of the reports, he said that he

    “hoped other political groups and others are mature enough to read the report in the whole rather than select individual bits.”

We all have a responsibility to do just that—to read the documents in full and not be selective. Overall, the assessments of decommissioning by both the IMC and IICD are positive, and they should stand. Let me again remind Members that the IMC says that it believes of the IRA that

    “there is a clear strategic intent to turn the organisation on to a political path and there is good evidence that this is happening even given such constraints as there may be on the leadership in this regard.”

It is my belief that this House should welcome the IMC report in its entirety. The commissioners have produced a valuable report, which, as I have said before, deserves to be read and digested in full. The report points to progress, indicating that organisational change is happening within PIRA in closing down criminal operations and clearing contraband goods. There are no reports of PIRA-sanctioned robberies in the period under review. There has been no intention to target members of the security forces for the purposes of attack and no authorised paramilitary attacks.

Those positive signs are undoubtedly indications of considerable progress, but equally, in the light of the reports, we recognise that there is still a mixed picture. It is not, as the Secretary of State said last week, a picture of perfection—and nor indeed did we expect it to be yet. It is reported that some PIRA members, or former members, are still engaged in criminality. We can make that assessment now because an independent report has been published and it is appropriate for us to do so. Again, however, context is important.

The IMC chooses its words carefully and deliberately. I draw the Committee’s attention to paragraph 2.6 of its eighth report:

    “The fact that these changes are likely to be complicated and to take time does not however detract from some key principles, which we have enunciated from the start of our work and which apply to all paramilitary groups.”

Critically, it says:

    “There can be no compromise over the need to adhere to the rule of law.”

In paragraph 2.7, it makes a critical distinction:

    “We recognise, as we always have, that in monitoring paramilitary activity it is essential for us to distinguish as clearly as we can between what has been done with the sanction of the leadership (and if activities have been sanctioned, at what level),
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    and what may have been done by Individuals (whether current or former members) acting on their own initiative or for their own benefit.”

As a Government, our position on criminality is absolutely clear, and it is the same as that of the IMC. There is an unequivocal need for people to adhere to the rule of law. Criminality, from whatever source, must stop and the law enforcement agencies will continue to bear down with increasing vigour on such activity. If the activity stops voluntarily, so much the better, but we are not going to wait for it to stop. As I have said, the Government are totally committed to tackling criminality from whatever source.

Before I turn to the substance of the order, I wish to make one general comment. This order has become something of an annual event. Having looked at reports of previous debates, I know that some hon. Members will be disappointed that we are once again discussing the need for the order. To some extent, in the past, such discussion has been rightly underpinned by an understanding that very little progress had been made on decommissioning, but we have to recognise just what huge, significant progress has been made, even though it is not a perfect picture and albeit in the context of an oil tanker that takes time to turn around. None the less, we should recognise what huge and considerable progress has been made in the last year. We need to remind ourselves of the distance that we have travelled.

The last such order was debated in the early weeks of 2005, in the immediate aftermath of the Northern bank robbery, when any political progress seemed unlikely. Today we are debating this order in a very different context. The IRA’s statement of 28 July was truly historic and the pattern and trend since then can only be described as broadly positive. There is more to do, but no one would have predicted at the time of the debate on the last decommissioning order last year that we could possibly have made the progress that we have made in the past 12 months. The decommissioning of IRA weapons was a huge, historic and major move. The Government said so at the time and, of course, we continue to stand by that assessment.

The order appoints 23 February 2007 as the date before which the amnesty period identified in a non-statutory decommissioning scheme must end. The amnesty period is the time during which firearms, ammunition and explosives can be decommissioned in accordance with the scheme. The amnesty provides immunity from prosecution for the offences set out in the relevant schedule of the 1997 Act—offences that might be committed during a decommissioning process. Most such offences relate to the possession of weaponry, but others may stem from a person’s participation in decommissioning, centred not necessarily on the weapons involved, but on the behaviour that might have accompanied that participation, such as the withholding of information or the making of arrangements with terrorists.

Section 2 of the 1997 Act, as amended by the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning (Amendment) Act 2002, requires that a scheme must identify the amnesty period, and that that must end
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before 27 February 2003, unless the Secretary of State appoints a later day by order. The order currently in force appoints the 24th of this month as the day before which the amnesty period must end. The order before the Committee will extend that period by a further year.

Paragraph 8 of the IICD’s September report concluded that

    “the IRA had met its commitment to put all its arms beyond use in a manner called for by the legislation.”

The IICD has since confirmed that assessment. As I said at the outset, we also need to consider other paramilitary groups. The September report observed that the issue of the arms of loyalist paramilitary groups, as well as other paramilitary organisations, remained to be addressed. That is the fundamental reason why the Government are introducing the order—we are committed to securing the decommissioning of all paramilitary weapons.

Although last year saw the kind of progress in Northern Ireland that I have described, it also saw some of the worst violence there in recent years. I am speaking, of course, about the bloody feud last summer between the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Loyalist Volunteer Force, and the events that followed the Whiterock parade in September. The appalling statistics associated with those events are a matter of record in the House, so I will not rehearse them this afternoon. The security forces’ response was as robust as the situation demanded, but it was clear to the Government that a determined and sustained effort was necessary to engage with the wider loyalist community to bring those who feel disfranchised into the political process, and to address the grievances that were finding expression only in violence.

To that end we have developed a three-stranded strategy. First, my hon. Friend the Minister of State has taken the lead in engaging with loyalism, and has announced a delivery team to bring together all aspects of Government activity, and to address socio-economic issues in deprived loyalist areas. Secondly, the PSNI continues to make significant inroads into paramilitary and organised criminality, and local police continue to work to gain acceptability in challenging areas and to reduce the influence of paramilitaries in dealing with crime and antisocial behaviour. Thirdly, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has had useful discussions with representatives of the Ulster Political Research Group and the Progressive Unionist party, which represent the two main loyalist paramilitary organisations: the UDA and UVF respectively. Work with those groups is ongoing, with a view to helping them to make the transition from conflict to peace.

Decommissioning is a crucial feature of that transition. The IICD reports that the UDA and—albeit indirectly—the LVF are in contact with it, although the UVF has yet to re-engage. Ministers and officials will continue to press that point, but in parallel it is essential that we continue to provide the statutory framework necessary to make decommissioning a reality. That is what the order does.

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4.49 pm

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Weir, even though the issue that we are discussing is rather depressing.

I hope that my speech will be slightly shorter than the Minister’s, but I want to make some points. Last time the order was considered, the Under-Secretary at the time said:

    “I am very much aware of the anomaly in bringing the order before hon. Members today, given the recent statements made by the Provisional IRA.”—[Official Report, Sixth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation, 9 February 2005; c. 3.]

The situation has moved on. The IRA has since made another statement, which was considered significant. However, I have problems with the background that the Minister set out and with his interpretation of it. I happened to be in Northern Ireland when the IMC report came out a week ago. Much depends on how we interpret it, but the IMC said very clearly that it did not believe that all arms had been put beyond use—I use that phrase because the IRA used it, and I shall return to it. Although the Minister was quoting from the report, I am concerned that he is saying that the important thing is whether that situation was sanctioned by IRA leadership. I ask the Minister who the IRA leadership are. Do the Government still believe that Sinn Fein and the IRA are inextricably linked?

Mr. Woodward: I hope that the hon. Gentleman understands that the reason why I spent time setting out the order’s context at the beginning of the sitting was it that was necessary to do so in the light of last week’s events, and this was the first opportunity that we have had. I qualify what he said by reminding him that the quote on the question of authorisation by IRA leadership was not mine. It came from John Grieve of the IMC immediately after people like the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues raised the questions that he just asked. That was why John Grieve came forward to qualify the matter as he did.

Mr. Robertson: I accept that the Minister was quoting from the report, but if he quoted from it, presumably he accepts that part of it. I am trying to put that into context by asking who exactly the IRA leadership are. Are they not the same people who also purport to be constitutional politicians? Who is sanctioning holding back weapons?

I return to what I said about putting weapons beyond use. I do not believe that all the weapons that were put beyond use are still beyond use. I do not believe that we are talking about a few handguns still in existence; I believe that the number of weapons is far higher. I am also concerned about the money still missing from the Northern bank robbery. I accept that some of it was probably put beyond use by the Government’s actions, but by no means all of it. Millions of pounds are still unaccounted for. What has happened to that money? Where is it going? Is it buying more arms? That is a possibility.
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Decommissioning is important, but only as long as the weapons stay decommissioned and no further weapons are bought.

The Minister spoke about trust and confidence in the process. That is important, but it seems to me that there is a difference with regard to how General de Chastelain and the IMC interpreted the situation. I understand that they had access to the same briefings and reports, and I wonder why there is a difference. That does not build trust and confidence, and I am afraid that the Prime Minister did not build trust and confidence by saying at the start of the process that arms decommissioning would happen before prisoner releases, because that was not the case.

I ask the Minister to be sympathetic to those of us on the Conservative Benches who have concerns about exactly what is going on and about building trust and confidence. I am also concerned that Sinn Fein, whose members are supposed to be constitutional politicians, is not taking part in police boards. Why is it not engaging at that level? It can only be because it is still inextricably linked to the IRA, and the IRA is still involved in criminality. To my mind, that is why it is not involved in those boards. I should be pleased to see it engaging at that level, but so far—the Minister might have more news on that matter than I do—there is no sign of it. I met the chairman of the Policing Board last week, and he told me that Sinn Fein is not involved and has no intention of being involved.

I have raised a number of our concerns, but I do not wish to detain the Committee for much longer, because other hon. Members want to speak. I return to what the Minister said. To paraphrase, the mindset is more important than the actual decommissioning. I think that that is fairly accurate.

Mr. Woodward: I was actually directly quoting the Chief Constable.

Mr. Robertson: Right, but I think that I paraphrased the Minister fairly accurately, even though the words were the Chief Constable’s. My point is that the actions determine the mindset, and the IRA’s actions are very questionable. I share the Minister’s sense of hope, but I am afraid that at this point I cannot share his sense of optimism. That said, I think that this is the last time that the order can be extended, so, with a heavy heart, I will support the Government on this occasion. However, I ask him to take on board my concerns, which are also held by many others, both in Northern Ireland and in this country.

4.55 pm

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall) (LD): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Weir.

I do not want to repeat what the previous speaker said, because I agree with him; many of us will agree with many of his sentiments. However, I also welcome the fact that there has been progress, however much some—perhaps on the Government side—may want to over-emphasise it, and however much opponents will inevitably try to underplay it. We have to recognise that progress has been made; we want it to continue and hope that it will do so over the next year.
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If we have to reconsider the whole issue in a year’s time there will be a sense of failure, because although we all recognised that this would be a process, I do not think that 10 years was ever envisaged as the period for it.

I want to re-emphasise a couple of points. The IRA statement was indeed a historic milestone, because it made it known to us that all arms were to be put beyond use. I am not quite certain what part of the words “all” and “arms” were not understood, but most of us would think that “all arms” meant all arms. There did not appear to be any caveats, exceptions or considerations; it was a bold statement saying “all arms”, yet there was always deep suspicion that not all the arms were beyond use. There is growing suspicion, and perhaps even evidence, that they were not. Such pronouncements have always had to be taken on a certain amount of trust, otherwise they would not be worth very much at all. Perhaps we have invested too much trust in the statement; perhaps it would have been almost better if it had had some caveats. “All arms” seemed to most of us to mean all arms, but it does not appear that that has been the case.

To a certain extent, a feature of the whole Northern Ireland peace process has been what may be called constructive ambiguity, but there has been rather too much constructive ambiguity about many of the words, which were deliberately understood somewhat differently by either side. However, it is rather difficult to have constructive ambiguity about “all arms”. I wonder whether, in dealing with the IRA and loyalists, there could be much tighter wording, and whether we could get rid of constructive ambiguity and have some proper definitions and wordings to which sides could sign up, so that we could actually understand exactly what they were saying and what they meant.

I reiterate what was said by the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) in respect of subsequently acquired arms. Even if people were to think that all existing arms had been decommissioned, they might not feel that that included any subsequently acquired arms. Quite clearly, most sensible and honest people would say that if some one was decommissioning all their arms, they were not intending or proposing to acquire any further arms. I hope that that is so, and that when there are tighter definitions and a clearer agreement of the wording, that point will be made absolutely clear. I hope that it will be clear that decommissioning means the end of illegal arms, and that the term will not in any way suggest that subsequently acquired arms will be outside any amnesty.

I hope that if there is a requirement to re-examine the order in a year’s time, when it will cease, we can do so having made much more solid progress, and having trust in that progress.

5 pm

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