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Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement on Northern Ireland and the report of the International Body on Arms Decommissioning made in another place by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. The Statement is as follows:
"That is one of the reasons why we and the Irish Government established the international body to provide an independent assessment of the decommissioning issue as one track of the twin tracks initiative John Bruton and I launched last November.
"The Body's remit was to identify and advise on acceptable methods of verifiable decommissioning, and to report on the commitment of the paramilitaries to work constructively to achieve that. We set the Body the challenging target of reporting by mid-January. I am extremely grateful to Senator Mitchell, and his colleagues, for the energy and determination with which they have completed their task.
"The Body's main conclusions are: that the total and verifiable disarmament of all paramilitary organisations has nearly universal support and must continue to be a principal objective; that to reach an agreed political settlement and take the gun out of politics, all parties should commit themselves to, and honour, six principles embodying the path of democracy and non-violence--those principles include the total and verifiable disarmament of all paramilitary organisations, the renunciation of force and the threat of force, agreement to abide peacefully by whatever agreement is finally reached, and an end to so-called punishment killings and beatings; that there is a clear commitment on the part of those in possession of illegal arms to work constructively to achieve full and verifiable decommissioning as part of the process of all-party negotiations. The Body makes a series of recommendations on the modalities of decommissioning of illegal arms. It emphatically declares that there is no equivalence between such arms and those held by the security forces. It rightly emphasises the need for independent verification; and that other confidence-building measures are needed,
"The Body also records its conclusion, on the basis of its discussions, that the paramilitaries will not decommission any arms prior to all-party negotiations. The House will note that the Body did not conclude that they cannot decommission but that they will not. The House will draw its own conclusions. Although the Body makes no formal recommendation on this point, it suggests an approach under which some decommissioning would take place during the process of all-party negotiations.
"If all concerned were to accept those principles, and honour them, as the International Body also rightly emphasises, that would be a significant step forward. Even more significant would be if, in addition, all parties, particularly Sinn Fein, also joined the two Governments in supporting the wide principles of consent set out in the Downing Street declaration.
"The Government also welcome the Body's broad recommendations on the modalities of the decommissioning process. We are ready to implement them. It is now for those in possession of illegal arms to say whether they will accept and act on them. We look forward to an early and definitive response from the paramilitaries on both sides.
"We welcome, too, the emphasis on other confidence-building measures. If the paramilitaries give up their present practice of keeping themselves ready for a return to action, that will be a most welcome sign of real commitment to peaceful methods. Otherwise, gun-law continues to hang over the heads of the people of Northern Ireland.
"There is therefore much in the report that we can welcome and endorse. But the practical problem remains: how to bring all the parties together. Self-evidently the best way to generate the necessary confidence is for the paramilitaries to make a start to the decommissioning process. We see no reason why they should not.
"There can be no justification for the maintenance of private armies by those who claim to be committed to exclusively peaceful means. Opinion polls in both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic have shown overwhelming public support in both communities for decommissioning before talks. We shall, therefore, keep up the pressure for an immediate start to that process.
"However, I am not prepared to accept that any one group should, through its intransigence, stand in the way of peace and a comprehensive settlement for the people of Northern Ireland. We will not be deflected
"One of the confidence-building measures taken up by the International Body is the idea of an election. The Body made clear that a broadly acceptable elective process, with an appropriate mandate and within the three-strand structure, could contribute to the building of confidence.
"The Government believe that such an elective process offers a viable alternative direct route to the confidence necessary to bring about all-party negotiations. In that context, it is possible to imagine decommissioning and such negotiations being taken forward in parallel.
"The election proposal originated in Northern Ireland and, as recent opinion polls have shown, has widespread cross-community support there. A number of parties, including those led by the honourable Members for Upper Bann and North Antrim, as well as the Alliance Party, have put forward proposals for some form of elected body as a means of getting all parties talking together, even if the paramilitaries persist in their refusal to decommission prior to negotiation.
"It is true that other parties have registered their concerns. They will certainly need to be addressed. We will discuss urgently with all the parties how to overcome them. But in a democratic system like ours I cannot see how elections could be regarded by any of the parties as a side issue or as a block to progress.
"As the Mitchell report says: 'Elections held in accordance with democratic principles express and reflect the popular will'. So let me make it quite clear to the House that we are ready to introduce legislation, and to seek both Houses' urgent approval for it, in order to allow an elective process to go ahead as soon as may be practicable. I would hope that that will attract support right across the House.
"To sum up, we believe that, in the light of the Mitchell report, there are two ways in which all-party negotiations can now be taken forward. Both are fully consistent with the six principles set out in the report.
"The first is for the paramilitaries to make a start to decommissioning before all-party negotiations. They can--if they will. If not, the second is to secure a democratic mandate for all-party negotiations through elections specially for that purpose.
"There are two routes to all-party negotiations and to decommissioning. The choice between them is ultimately for the parties themselves. I believe that the people of Northern Ireland have every right to expect that one or other of those routes will be taken and taken soon.
"The proposals that I have put forward today require all concerned to take risks for peace. We have done so before and will do so again, consistent with our principles. That is what is needed if we are to build on the achievements of the past two years.
"Let us never forget that we are dealing here with the lives of innocent men, women and children. We are dealing with their future and the future of Northern Ireland. In the end, our obligation as politicians is to the people we govern.
Lord Richard: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Viscount the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement made by his right honourable friend in another place this afternoon. I am sure that noble Lords on all sides of the House will want to join me in welcoming the Mitchell Report. I start by paying tribute to the work undertaken by Senator Mitchell and the other members of the commission which has produced this valuable and helpful report. They did a great deal of work and they did it extremely quickly. The House and indeed the country should be grateful to them.
The publication of this report is indeed a significant contribution to the Northern Ireland peace process. I would hope that all parties recognise its value and vote together on the basis of the framework which it provides. I agree very much with what the noble Viscount said; namely, that the British and Irish Governments must continue to co-operate and to liaise closely on developing the peace process further. We on these Benches support strongly the six principles underpinning the report. They contain a great deal to recommend them. I hope that the different parties to the conflict will respond positively. I particularly endorse the need for a commitment to democratic and peaceful means of resolving political issues. One of the report's main proposals seeks to bring an end to the so-called "punishment" beatings and executions. I think that noble Lords on all sides of the House will welcome what the report has to say about that. These acts are totally unjustifiable and indeed in reality they are terrorism under another cloak.
The essential matter now--as the noble Viscount the Lord Privy Seal said--is to build the confidence necessary for all-party talks to take place. The importance of this report is that it points to alternative routes towards building that confidence. I share the view that prior decommissioning would perhaps be the better way but the report concludes not that it cannot be done but that it will not be done. The report therefore suggests an elective route as an acceptable alternative. I wonder whether the noble Viscount the Leader of the House can say a little more about how the Government see that. Is
I wish to comment on the position of my party. We have consistently pursued a bipartisan approach in relation to the peace process in Northern Ireland. I should therefore make it perfectly clear now that we, for our part, would assist in the passage of any necessary legislation to enable this elective process to take place.
The report refers to verification of the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons. Will the noble Viscount the Leader of the House say a little more about that? Can he perhaps explain a little further the Government's thinking on how to move forward in this verification area? Any of us who have taken part in any negotiations at international level will know that verification is as important, or almost as important, as the actual negotiation and agreement itself. We on these Benches welcome this report. It points to an important way forward but in the end, as the noble Viscount the Leader of the House said, it will all depend upon the parties in Northern Ireland being prepared to accept that negotiations are preferable to continued conflict. The end result must also be acceptable to the people of Northern Ireland. Will the noble Viscount the Leader of the House confirm again the Government's commitment to a referendum on the final terms of any settlement that emerges? The search for peace in Northern Ireland is inevitably a long and difficult process. For our part, we offer it our full support.
Lord Jenkins of Hillhead: My Lords, the Statement is often opaque but as in my view it uses its opaqueness to end up more or less in the right place I am not disposed to complain too much about that. Her Majesty's Government have in my view had somewhat too rigid a position about arms decommissioning before talks. As a result their Northern Ireland policy--one of the few in which Mr. Major has shown much more courage than party tactics--has shown recent signs of running into the sands.
Ex-Senator Mitchell and his coadjutors--I prefer to call them that than the somewhat ominous collective term of "the Body", which runs as a heavy but I hope no longer appropriate refrain throughout the Statement--have not surprisingly endorsed that view. I think they have produced a good, sensible and speedy report which we welcome. Senator Mitchell has conspicuously not claimed too much for it. He has not proclaimed that he has a golden key and the guarantee to permanent peace in Northern Ireland, but I would certainly say that a rejection of the Mitchell Report by the British Government would have been a guarantee against such a permanent peace. The Prime Minister has not done that. Indeed, under his smokescreen he has done almost the reverse, and I welcome that.
The six principles offer much to the Unionist community and I believe that it may appreciate that. I certainly hope that will be the case. We, for our part, particularly welcome the opening up of the prospect of an electoral process. We lay more stress on our hopes for the future than on a too rigid but not very productive analysis of the understandable ambiguities of the Prime Minister's Statement.
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