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Northern Ireland: Report of International Body on Arms Decommissioning

5.18 p.m.

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:

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    from our aim. It is now apparent that there may well be another way forward, consistent with the basic principles that we have always adhered to.

    "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.

    "For our part we, together with the Irish Government, will intensify our discussions with all the parties. I intend to meet the Taoiseach again in the middle of February to review progress.

    "The people of Northern Ireland are enjoying today's peace. They want it to be permanent. They also want and deserve political progress. It is time to

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    put old enmities aside and to allow the people of Northern Ireland and their representatives once again to have a normal say in their future and their affairs.

    "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.

    "I pledge that I will leave no stone unturned to deliver to the people of Northern Ireland on a permanent basis the precious privilege of peace that they have now enjoyed for 17 months."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

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

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it intended that the assembly resulting from such elections should have any negotiating role, or is it to have merely an advisory role? As regards timing, Mr. Trimble said this afternoon in another place that he would hope that these elections could take place as early as April or May. I wonder whether that sort of timescale is the one that the Government envisage for this part of the process.

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.

5.35 p.m.

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.

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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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