House of Commons
|Session 2006 - 07|
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Public Bill Committee Debates
Draft Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997 (Amnesty Period) Order 2007
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Glenn McKee, Eliot Wilson, Committee Clerks
attended the Committee
Fourth Delegated Legislation Committee
Wednesday 7 February 2007
[Mr. Martyn Jones in the Chair]
Draft Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997 (Amnesty Period) Order 2007
That the Committee has considered the draft Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997 (Amnesty Period) Order 2007.
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Jones, this afternoon. A draft of the order was laid before the House on 11 December 2006. Before I turn to its substance, I should like to say one or two things about the context in which we are having this discussion and about the Governments position on decommissioning more generally.
Decommissioning has played, and continues to play, a key role in building the trust and confidence that is essential for political progress in Northern Irelandand it is working. In September 2005, the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning confirmed that the IRA had put all its arms beyond use. The IICD report published at that time stated that it had
determined that the IRA has met its commitment to put all its arms beyond use in a manner called for by the legislation.
Subsequent IICD and Independent Monitoring Commission reports have confirmed that the Provisional IRA no longer has the capacity or will to engage in paramilitary activity. That is a substantial change in a relatively short period, and I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the Committee welcome it. It is essential, of course, that loyalist paramilitary groups engage with the IICD as well, to make the transition from conflict to peace.
Finally, on the context of the order, I shall refer to wider political developments since the last time that such an order was debated in Committee. The 2006 parading season in Northern Ireland was the most peaceful for many yearsno troops were needed to patrol the streets of Belfast on 12 July for the first time in more than 30 years. An agreement was reached at the St. Andrews talks, and we now stand on the brink of an election in Northern Ireland on 7 March, with the prospect of the restoration of devolved government on 26 March. And, only recently, the Sinn Fein ard fheis made an historic commitment to support policing and the rule of law. By any measure, those are historic developments on which we need to build.
The order appoints 20 February 2008 as the date before which the amnesty period identified in a non-statutory decommissioning scheme must end. The current date is the 23 February 2007. Therefore, if we want the decommissioning arrangements to continue,
All the decommissioning arrangements being debated this afternoon fall within the overall framework agreed in section 2 of the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997, which, of course, allows for the extension of the decommissioning period every year, until 27 February 2010. We have introduced the order because the Government want to secure the decommissioning of all weapons in Northern Ireland.
I am pleased to report that discussions are ongoing with the Ulster Political Research Group and the Progressive Unionist party, which represent the two main loyalist paramilitary groups in Northern Irelandthe Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force respectively.
I am also pleased to confirm that the IICD has confirmed that it has direct contact with the UDA and some indirect contact with the Loyalist Volunteer Force, although it reports that the UVF has yet to get back in direct contact with itsomething that it, and we, would wish to happen. To enable those discussions to bear fruit and lead to further decommissioning, we need to provide the necessary statutory framework. The order will do that.
Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): I, too, welcome you to the Committee, Mr. Jones. It seems that some hon. Members are doing little other than Northern Ireland business this week. I am pleased to respond to the Ministers wider remarks. Of course, we recognise that the situation in Northern Ireland isvery different now even from 18 months ago, as the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said this morning. We welcome that the IMC recognises that the IRA has given up all its arms. Of course, it is essential that that remains the case, that it does not attempt to obtain further arms and that the waras it puts itis over for good, regardless of what happens to the political process. That must be the case. It is not conditional; it has to be over for absolute good.
I echo what the Minister says: we have constantly called forI have personally done so, as has my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington)the loyalists to give up their weapons entirely. There is absolutely no need for illegally held weapons in a civilised society. As part of the democratic process, all criminality and all paramilitary activity should be ended. There can be no question about that.
The Minister touched on the Sinn Fein ard fheis, which was held recently. I was a little bit disappointed by the Secretary of States response to me in the Chamber this morning, when I said that I welcome the statementevery right-thinking person would do sobut that it must be backed up with action. Over the weekend, the press in Northern Ireland reported that the IRA had carried out an investigation into the
I repeat that I welcome the statement made at the ard fheis, but the words mean nothing in themselves if the IRA is not prepared to hand over that file or to tell the police whom it believes carried out the Northern bank robbery. I am not saying that the IRA carried out the Northern bank robberyalthough the Government and the Police Service of Northern Ireland are. Surely, if that is the case, the IRA must deliver on the ground what it promised for two reasons: first, as I said earlier, so that the people who are involved in those crimes are brought to justice; and secondly, to give confidence to the constitutional parties in Northern Irelandas represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valleythat they can be trusted on their word and that they are a party now fit to share Government with. We need to see a little bit more movement than we have seen already, but I welcome the progress that has been made and the words uttered so far.
We are again debating such an order. I supposethat, in an ideal world, such an order would not be necessary, but none of us lives in an ideal world. After a long period of unrest in Northern Ireland, the situation there is certainly not as we would wish, so we have to accept the order. Of course, as ever with such orders, we do so with some reluctance. However, I recognise that, because we have not made as much progress as we need to make, the order is necessary, so I have no hesitation in supporting it.
Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down) (SDLP): It is with great please that I participate in this debate, Mr. Jones, under your expert guidance, tutelage and perhaps correction.
Consideration of the order is a repetition for all of us and it is difficult to find something new to say about it. We are in the 10th year of the most extended period of remission from a cancer that has infected Northern Ireland for decades, if not centuries. Before, dealing with the order per se, I wish to say that I am slightly disappointed by the tone of some of the comments made by the hon. Member for Tewkesbury. I have been a strong public opponent of Sinn Fein and the IRA all my life; I make no compromise with them. However, I have to recognise that the decision made at the ard fheis on Sunday week was truly a huge change in centuries of attitude for the so-called rebellious in Northern Irelandfrom the United Irishmen of 98 to 1916 through to today, although I do not make any connection between some of the lofty ideals of the earlier rebellions and those that have blighted our society for the past 30 years.
I caution the Committee that we, particularly the Opposition, could again be entrapping ourselves in conditionality. Conditionality has been the trap into which progress has fallen for many years. We must give credit where credit is due. We cannot test absolutely the
I would like to think that the Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Fein will do the job on 26 March. That is what the order is all about. Those of us who live in the community know that it has been absolutely transformed in the past 10 years. It is hard to have any conception of what it was like to live before thento go out of the door every day and be stopped by the paramilitaries, the military or the police, and to have handbag and body searches no matter where we went. To go out for a nights entertainment was a danger in itself, whether one was in a rural or an urban area. The rejuvenation of economic development in Belfast and throughout the six counties has been remarkable.
We have an opportunity, and we are giving ourselves a further opportunity by extending the order. The10 years since 1997 have probably constituted the longest amnesty period in history, but, as is typical of Irish affairs, we are moving slowly. It is very important, because we have a lot of decommissioning to do. Let me give a practical example. In my home town of Downpatrick, there is a fortification attached to the police barracks that protrudes out into one of the main streets. The authorities cannot take it away, no matter how much I plead with them to do so, because they assure me that there is still a real threat from dissident IRA groups. I do not know whether there is a threat: I do not see it, but they presumably have intelligence.
The dissident IRA groups, the Real IRA, the Loyalist Volunteer Force and the Ulster Defence Association all have weapons. If those organisations are a threat, the weapons they have must be significant, and that is what worries me. My theme is that a blind eye has been turned. I do not mean that offensively. Perhaps I should say that there has been a focus only on Sinn Fein weaponry and capability. There has been no perceptible drive to encourage dissident republicans and loyalist paramilitaries in particular to complete their decommissioning.
It was interesting that both the UDA and the UVF were to benefit from previous legislation, such as the Northern Ireland Offences Act 2006 and the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997, even though they did not decommission. Not only did they not decommission, they said specifically and publicly that they had no intention to decommission. The response from the Government was nil. There was absolutely no comment from the Northern Ireland Office on the statement that the UVF and the UDA would not decommission.
I understand from the IMC that the Provisional IRA has now fully decommissioned. The Government and the security forces must therefore turn their attention to those organisations that will not decommission. Total normality cannot be achieved in Northern Ireland without demilitarisation in all its aspects. Certain republican communitiesI am not expert enough to comment on loyalist communities because I do notlive in onehave until now been threatened by godfatherism, extortion, protection, drugs, money laundering and all the rest. That must be stopped. I have not heard of an arms or explosives discovery of any significance in the past few years.
There is a lot to be done yet, but to underscore the point on which I started, the community in Northern
People who now allegedly support law and order have a wealth of information that should be available to the police. Human nature being human nature, I do not expect a huge surge of new information, as the hon. Member for Tewkesbury suggested might occur, but I think that there should be a cessation of all involvement in illegal activities. The communities should be freed to express openly their support for policing and to take their problems to the police, so that can return to normal society.
We totally approve the extension of the amnesty to February 2008, but I have one final plea. Although certain difficulties remain, minor preconditions must not stall us in reaching the partnership that would allow us to do two thingsto grow together as a community and to heal together as a community. I would like to think that, before my term in this House ends, I will be able to stand on the Floor of the House and say the community of Northern Ireland rather than the two communities of Northern Ireland.
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): It is an honour to serve under you, Mr. Jones. As you will know, due to minor boundary changes, I have managed to snaffle a small part of your constituency, so it is symmetrical and appropriate that you should have power over me today.
We have been here before, as the hon. Member for Tewkesbury pointed out, and I hope that we will not be here again, but it seems to me that the most implausible thing in Northern Ireland politics is deadlines. I remember the cast-iron nature of the original deadline for decommissioning, the amnesties and everything that went with it. Like many deadlines in Northern Irish politics, that fell by the wayside for understandable reasons. Although I do not condemn the Government for continually extending certain aspects of the deadlines, it is symptomatic of the deadlock that we have sought to work through in recent years.
Like others, I am more optimistic than I have been for a long time. I think that March will be a positive time, not least because I genuinely believe that Sinn Fein have made a qualitative shift in their feelings about policing. It remains to be seen, but I sincerely hope that that will make it easier for the loyalist parties in particular to find a way forward for power sharing, even if they do not feel particularly comfortable with their partners in that arrangement.
In that context, it seems that the call to arms in Northern Irish politics should be regarded as all but
The Independent Monitoring Commission has given us quite a lot of good news in the past few years. It appears that the Provisional IRA has at least decommissioned its weapons, though it made the effort to commission a few million Bank of Ireland banknotes for itself, which in theory could always be converted into weaponry at relatively short notice. Nevertheless, the underlying cause for optimism derives from the change in attitudethe decommissioning of the desire to wage war. That has been replaced with democratic processes, which, it has to be said, have served fairly well both Sinn Fein and those whom it represents.
It seems that the loyalist paramilitary groups have been rather more tardy in decommissioning. That is worrying, as is the continued belief of dissident republican groups that weapons are more effective than the ballot box. Without the order it is hard to see how Parliament could be regarded as sending anything other than a mixed message to those dissident groups. With the order, there is at least an avenue for such groups to take the sensible and constructive option of decommissioning, should they wish to do so.
Organised crime is another consideration, because we know that there is a relationship between paramilitary activity and such crime, including cross-border smuggling. I am less optimistic that the order will encourage those whose primary objective is illegal profiteering to hand in their weapons, but in as much as there is an overlap with the various people who dress up their paramilitary activities under the guise of ideological causes, those individuals may ultimately be persuaded by the force of the argument, or indeed by peer group pressure and by developments in Northern Irish politics, that their weapons are pointless.
For those reasons, we once again find ourselves renewing and supporting the renewal of an orderone that we hope will be able to lapse in the near future. The crucial change is the one I mentionedthe decommissioning of an attitude that embraces violence. When we achieve that, we achieve peace.
Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): Thank you for the opportunity to speak this afternoon, Mr. Jones. My party will support the renewal of the amnesty provisions as dealt with in the order.
As other hon. Members have said, renewal has become an annual occasion, which is a symptom of the lack of progress that has sometimes occurred. This year is qualitatively different, however, because of the progress made since the last extension of the order. I believe it was in July last year that the Provisional IRA issued a statement in terms that it was standing down its active service units and beginning the process of dismantling its paramilitary structures. The IMC reported last week that further progress is being made towards the day when the Provisional IRA will no longer exist as a terrorist organisation, which is
As other hon. Members have said, Sinn Feins conference met a couple of weeks ago and passed a motion supporting both the police and justice system in Northern Ireland and, notably, in the Republic. The terms of the motion cover not only the Police Service of Northern Ireland but the Garda Siochana and the courts on both sides of the border. I agree with the hon. Member for South Down that that marks a major shift, at least in mainstream republican thinking. In the past, it would have been unthinkable for many republicans that the republican movement should reach the point of endorsing the Police Service of Northern Ireland, together with what amounts to British justice in the form of the Northern Ireland courts.
The hon. Member for Tewkesbury was right to point out that there is some conditionality attached to the motion. We hope that that can be dealt with and resolved, because it is important that there is unequivocal support from all political parties in Northern Ireland that aspire to be in government. That does not mean that we give the police or the courts a blank cheque. I am sure that all of us here today have had to raise cases where we believe that the police may have treated someone unfairly, or that there may have been an injustice as a result of the judicial process. The system is not perfect. Yet it is important that those whose responsibility it is to make the lawthe Assembly is a legislative body and will be when devolution occursthose whose responsibility it is to govern should support the people who are tasked with upholding the rule of law. That is why the Democratic Unionist party made it a precondition of entering Government that all parties, including Sinn Fein, should give their support to the police and the ruleof law.
We are pleased with the progress that has been made. We have stated publicly that we recognise that what Sinn Fein has said in the motion is significant, but we need to see those words now matched with action on the ground and to see that Sinn Fein is genuine and demonstrates that clearly. There have been statements already: Gerry Adams, the Member for Belfast, West, stated that nationalists and republicans should assist the police in investigating crimes such as rape, burglary, car theft, and so on. We would like Sinn Fein to take the next step, which is to support the police in investigating organised crime and paramilitary related crime, because that is also important. We know that organised crime in Northern Ireland continues to be a major problem.
This morning I met representatives of the retail petrol industry in the Province, who pointed out that last year some 60 retail petrol stations closed in Northern Ireland. There are more vehicles on the road today than there have ever been in the history of Northern Ireland and more people are buying fuel, so why are petrol stations closing? It is because there is a huge black market controlled by organised crime, mainly directed by paramilitary groups. It is important
The Minister has set out the context of the order on decommissioning. I remember when we debated the initial primary legislation in the House in 1997. It was my first year as a Member of Parliament, as itwas for the hon. Members for Tewkesbury and for Montgomeryshire. For our entire terms as Membersof Parliament we have been talking about decommissioning and extending the amnesty period. It is necessary to extend that period if we want to achieve our objective, which is to remove all armed groups from our society and to remove the threat of terrorism from whatever quarter it comes.
I listened carefully to what the hon. Member for South Down said about loyalist paramilitary groups, and I entirely endorse his comments. We have a major deficit: on the one hand, the Provisional IRA has substantially decommissioned, has declared its intent not to return to violence and is dismantling its paramilitary structures; but on the other hand, the major loyalist paramilitary groups have yet to declare their future intent, have yet to decommission a single bullet and have yet to dismantle their paramilitary structures. Those loyalist paramilitary groups have stated time and again that their existence is a response to the IRA and that their raison dêtre is to protect loyalist communities from the threat from the Provisional IRA. They might say that there is an existing threat from the dissident groups, but I do not think that anyone believes that the security forces are not capable of dealing with that threat properly. No one has ever come into my constituency office and said, If it were not for the loyalist paramilitaries, the dissident republicans would be giving us a hard time. There is a threatwe acknowledge thatbut it is for the police to deal with it, supported, if necessary, by the Army.
Loyalist paramilitary groups really do need to move on decommissioning, and we urge them to do so. The hon. Member for South Down said that it is a problem. I am not seeking to score points, but we need to learn lessons from past mistakes. One of those mistakes, and one of the reasons that I voted against the Belfast agreement in 1998 even though I was there negotiating and wanting to move forward, was that no clear linkage was made between the release of prisoners and the decommissioning of weapons. In my opinion, that was our only opportunity to create the leverage that would put pressure on paramilitaries, particularly the loyalist paramilitary. It was clear that they were not going to get the kind of political reward that Sinn Fein stood to achieve if it completed its journey, ended its violence for good and committed itself to exclusively peaceful means. What was in it for the loyalist paramilitaries? An opportunity was lost in the Belfast agreement to have a stronger linkage between decommissioning and the release of prisoners.
It is acknowledged that the release of prisoners was difficult for everyone. It was a really tough moral issue
The Ulster Volunteer Force has indicated that it is having an internal debate. Let us hope that it moves to the point at which we will soon get an announcement of its future intentions, including what it intends todo with its weaponry. Similarly, the Ulster Defence Associationthe largest of the paramilitary groupsis having an internal debate. We want to encourage those organisations to take the necessary steps. Whatever justification they may have felt that they had for their existence in the past, I, as a Unionist representing the Unionist communitya community they claim to come from and to defend say to them clearly that in the new dispensation that we are trying to create in Northern Ireland, which I share with the hon. Member for South Down, I want there to be a day when we move beyond the debate about united this and united that to a united Northern Ireland. I want a Northern Ireland where there is one community; where people feel that they can live in peace with their neighbour and do not feel threatened; where they have confidence in their identity and in where they have come from and they can step out and engage across the community with others who may not share their culture and their identity. There is common ground where we can work. I want to see those things happening. The message that we want to send to the paramilitary groups is that their presence in Northern Ireland is a major stumbling block to achieving that objective. The kind of Northern Ireland that we want to build for the future really is a Northern Ireland that is free of paramilitarism.
By extending the amnesty, I hope that the loyalist paramilitary groups that have not yet decommissioned, and the republican groups that have not decommissioned, including the Real IRA and Continuity IRA and so on, recognise that the day of violence has gonethat the gun and the bomb have no part to play in resolving difficulties in Northern Ireland. There will continue to be difficulties and differences, but the way to resolve them is by exclusively peaceful meansthrough, I hope, the establishment over time of stable, durable political institutions that have the support of both sides of the one community in Northern Ireland.
As I said at the beginning, we are prepared, perhaps with a degree of reluctance, to support the extension of the amnesty for a further period, but we cannot extend
Paul Goggins: In opening my response to the various contributions, and prompted by the hon. Member for Lagan Valley, I pay tribute to those who have been engaged with these issues far longer than I have. I am still a relative newcomer; indeed, this is the first time that I have moved such an order. The hon. Members for Lagan Valley and for Tewkesbury and my hon. Friend the Member for South Down have been involved in these issues throughout their time in the House.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree, who is here today, also played a significant role. She may well have been in my position some time ago, moving similar orders. Other hon. Friends have played their part as well. The comments made this afternoon reinforce the seismic shift that has recently taken place in Northern Ireland, as does the fact that people who have engaged with the issues for so many years and through such difficult times are now recognising that things have moved on.
I shall respond to a number of the points and questions that have been raised. I agree with the hon. Member for Tewkesbury, and I welcome the factthat he also underlined the changes, shifts and improvements that have occurred. I agree that decommissioning is only the start of a process that must become permanent, and that strong democracy and devolution underpin the long-term peace and prosperity that we wish to see for the people of Northern Ireland.
I am sorry that the hon. Member for Tewkesbury was disappointed by the Secretary of States response this morning, but I do not think that he could have been clearer. For the record, the Member for Belfast, West, Gerry Adams, in relation the McCartney case, has made it absolutely clear that
Anybody who has any information on the McCartney killing should give it to the police.
That could not be clearer. They should give information to the police if they have it. Others have commented on his general remarks about other forms of criminality. He has encouraged people to co-operate with the police when they are aware that a crime has taken place. That is how it should be. That is how democratic politicians should stand on crime and disorder. Let us hope that it leads to the kind of progress that we all wish for.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Down pointed out that he is a long-term critic of Sinn Fein. He has fought many elections and made his position clear over many years. The fact that he made thepoint about how substantial the change has been reinforces its significance. He mentioned a number of organisations and groups that still possess weaponry. All of them should be decommissioning. I agreed strongly with the hon. Member for Lagan Valley when
We all recognise that some groups are more likely to be encouraged by the extension of the amnesty than others. Those pledged to criminality and ongoing struggle, in their terms, will make their own decisions, but the amnesty will encourage those who are on the point of peace or the transition from conflict to peace to make the important decision that will mean so much for the peaceful future of Northern Ireland.
My hon. Friend asked specifically about what action the Government are taking to engage with the UDA and the UVF, in particular. I hope that I can reassure him by saying that the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson) has been taking the lead in bringing together Departments to reach out to those communities that perhaps, because of poverty and other forms of exclusion, are reluctant to come forward. They need to feel a partnership with the Government and others, so that they can see that there is no future in paramilitary activity. My hon. Friend is taking such action.
The police are also taking action and bearing down on criminality and paramilitary activity. They are trying to gain confidence in certain communities that, in the past, might have looked at paramilitary support for their communities, so that they turn not to those people but to the police. The work of the police is important, too. The discussions to which I referred earlier between the UPRG and the PUP are important. We want to open them up and keep communication going to encourage people to move towards decommissioning and a peaceful future.
I welcome the positive comments made by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire about the wider political scene. I was encouraged by his assessment. He has followed such matters closely over a long time. The prospects for March and the election for the restoration of devolved institutions are positive. I am sure that we all share his view and hope to see a successful outcome of the elections and a new Executive in place.
The hon. Gentleman emphasised the links between paramilitary activity and organised crimeindeed, so
It was encouraging that the latest IMC report concluded that PIRA has set its face against organised crime. Furthermore, it noted that the leadership of the UVF and the UDA are making encouraging noises and signs towards moving away from organised criminal activity. The message must be clear that there is no place for such criminality in Northern Ireland. We shall bear down against it.
The hon. Member for Lagan Valley used the phrase qualitatively different when describing some of the developments in the recent past, such as the statements by the IRA and the reports from the IMC. They are indeed qualitatively different, and it was good and encouraging to hear him use such language. He said that things that were once unthinkable are now happeningsomething that, again, should bring encouragement to us all.
The hon. Gentleman made the point that no institution is perfect, which is why it is important that the people of Northern Ireland know that there is a stronger degree of oversight of the police than in respect of any other police force in the world. That should encourage confidence in the ordinary people of Northern Ireland to know that law and order are on their side, to make sure that we have a peaceful and prosperous future, a future in which paramilitary activity has no further role to play.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the draft Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997 (Amnesty Period) Order 2007.
Committee rose at thirteen minutes past Three oclock.
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