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Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, I am most grateful to both noble Lords who have spoken for the most constructive, generous and, if I may say so, extremely helpful reactions that they have given to my right honourable friend's Statement today. Once again I wish to echo the tribute that the noble Lord, Lord Richard, has paid to Senator Mitchell and his coadjutors for what I agree is a significant contribution to the peace process.

The noble Lord, Lord Richard, underlined most helpfully--if I may say so again--the importance of the continued co-operation between the two national governments. I was particularly pleased for the support that both noble Lords gave to the six principles. I wish to emphasise how important it is for all interested parties--the terrorist organisations on both sides of the divide--to take up the implicit challenge in the report of the six principles and not only to accept them in principle but also to take the advice proffered in the report that those principles should be--in the word that the Senator used--honoured.

I was also struck by the phrase used by the noble Lord, Lord Richard, that punishment beatings were not only unjustifiable but were also terrorism under another cloak. That must be right. I was also pleased that the noble Lord welcomed the proposition that we should look for alternative routes in order to keep the peace process going.

The noble Lord asked me a number of questions. We are not, of course, suggesting that any elected body should have a prescribed form as of now. It is important that the two tracks which the Governments on both sides of the Irish Sea adopted during the course of last year should be used fully in driving this peace process forward, and in particular that we should now use the political track to see what would be possible, and indeed what the modalities should be if we are to be able to explore constructively how the idea of an elected body could be taken forward. It is by no means clear that all parties would accept such an idea. However, I think it is at least cheering that so many of the interested parties have given a welcome in principle to this. It is now for the political track of the twin track approach to be used to see whether we can agree on the form the assembly should take, what its functions should be, what its numbers should be, how it should operate, the method of election and so on.

This is all to play for. I do not believe it is right that I should give any steer at this stage as to how that may happen. It is enough that there is an increasing interest in this regard. The fact that there is an interest underlines the importance that the communities in Northern Ireland attach to the peace process and that it should not be allowed to fail.

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As far as the timescale is concerned, we will do our best to enter into the negotiations as swiftly as possible. If there is sufficient agreement to enable us to introduce the necessary legislation we will do so as soon as possible. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Richard, for his undertaking to play a full and co-operative part in making sure that legislation is passed as speedily as possible.

It is worth emphasising that verification and methods of decommissioning are clearly set out in the report, both in terms of flavour and the possibilities that may be discussed. The Government have absolutely no difficulties with the possibilities envisaged in the report. We are entirely flexible, as long as we can be sure that adequate verification will be put in place. Noble Lords who have had a chance to read the report will know that one of the possibilities envisaged is that the terrorist organisations destroy their own weapons. We are happy to envisage such a possibility as long as adequate verification can be put in place. I believe that to be evidence of how constructive we wish to be.

I turn to the final question put by the noble Lord, Lord Richard. The Government commitment to a referendum is still in place. From the very beginning of this process my right honourable friend gave an undertaking relating to what was known as the triple lock. Any final agreement would be subject to the approval of parties, people and Parliament. The "people" element will be evidenced by a referendum. If there is an agreement we will proceed as swiftly as we can to implement it, and a referendum will be part of it. The triple lock is still in place.

I always listen to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, with the greatest of respect and, very often, amusement. I particularly listen to the noble Lord on matters Irish. One of the most interesting and gripping volumes that I have read--I confess that I have not quite finished it--is the noble Lord's biography of Gladstone. In that biography the mastery which he displayed in his study of Asquith is exceeded, if that is possible. Since Ireland plays so great a part in the latter section of that biography the temptation not to read today's papers but to concentrate on the noble Lord's book is not quite such a dereliction of duty as it might otherwise have been last night.

I am pleased that the noble Lord broadly welcomes what is proposed. If I have a small quibble, I believe that the noble Lord is a little unfair to suggest that the Government have adopted a rigid position, particularly when one considers that the latest opinion poll in the Province suggests that as high a proportion as 83 per cent. of the population believes that there should be some prior decommissioning before the terrorist organisations are admitted to all-party talks. I will not go back over that ground again. I merely express gratitude to the noble Lord for his intervention in our debates, with his considerable expertise on this subject, and the fact that he welcomes the electoral process as a way forward, particularly when I know that his party has been a keen supporter of it from the moment it was proposed.

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5.43 p.m.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter: My Lords, I would be grateful if my noble friend would comment on paragraph 34 of the report, which reads:

    "The parties should consider an approach under which some decommissioning would take place during the process of all-party negotiations, rather than before or after as the parties now urge. Such an approach represents a compromise."

That is a clear recommendation by Senator Mitchell and his body, to use their own phrase. I thought from the tone of my noble friend's Statement that the Government were disposed to accept it. However, since he has not been quite explicit on the point and it is obviously of very great importance, I would be most grateful if he would comment.

Viscount Cranborne: I am grateful to my noble friend. The compromise that the Mitchell body suggests in paragraph 34 et sequentia is a matter that can arise, for instance in the event of all parties signing up to the idea of an elected body. Whether the elected body delegates some of its number to enter into all-party talks, which is one possibility, or does so itself--whatever device emerges for agreement--one of the matters to which it will have to address itself at a very early stage, as Senator Mitchell's committee makes perfectly clear, is the basis on which decommissioning should happen. It is possible that all parties will find the basis set out in paragraph 34 and following, but that will be for discussion at the time. It is worth underlining in reply to my noble friend that at no point does Senator Mitchell suggest that decommissioning should occur after agreement. I am sure that my noble friend will welcome that point.

Lord Mason of Barnsley: My Lords, I, too, welcome the report. I appreciate the effort and endeavours of the Mitchell team. I believe that the report will prove to be a useful document in future.

There has been no breakthrough on the decommissioning of arms but, thank goodness, there is still peace, albeit an uneasy one. All of us must be seriously concerned that the Provisional IRA still recruit, train, carry out dummy bomb runs to keep the militant element busy and kill and beat up their own kinsfolk to control and dominate their territories. Yet not one gun or one pound of Semtex has been surrendered, which is the crux of the deadlock. Is the Minister aware that, because of the absence of an agreement on the Washington third principle and the Government's repeated stand that there must be a token decommissioning before all-party talks can begin, the Government must painstakingly carry on and that the Mitchell Report is the base on which to found political and constitutional compromises in the future?

I was delighted to hear of the positive step that in the Government's mind there is now a possibility of legislation in both Houses--I say that it will be supported by all the major parties--a possibility of democratic elections and a democratically elected assembly in the Province. That will receive the blessing of both Houses and will get a speedy passage.

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Is the Provisional Sinn Fein prepared to tread the path of democracy? What are the real prospects of an all-party assembly? Some bilateral and trilateral party talks have taken place on these matters, and I believe that they could be expanded upon.

Finally, is the noble Viscount aware that there are enough proposals in the report, especially the six principles, to encourage a continuation of talks--searching for the compromises, allied with confidence-building measures which we hope will create circumstances and conditions to encourage the eventual decommissioning of all terrorist arms.

Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord whose record in the Province is well known to all your Lordships. He will have observed, I am sure, that Senator Mitchell specifically mentions the point that he first made. Indeed, it is clearly set out in one of the six principles to which he referred. Principle F states:

    "To urge that "punishment" killings and beatings stop and to take effective steps to prevent such actions".
Therefore it is perfectly clear that the senator and his two coadjutors would wholly agree with the noble Lord's remarks on that subject.

It might be worth reminding your Lordships of the Washington third principle: in order to test the practical arrangements and to demonstrate good faith, there should be the decommissioning of some arms as a tangible confidence-building measure and to signal the start of the process. It is worth bearing in mind that we are not talking about anything more than a clear signal of intent.

We stick to the Washington third principle unless there is an alternative available which satisfies the parties who are interested in this. I am pleased to hear that the Unionist parties have certainly in principle accepted that that is a possible alternative. Indeed my right honourable friend made it clear that the idea for an elected body originated in the Province itself.

I am grateful to the noble Lord for his welcome for an elected body. I should point out that we should be wary about calling this body an "assembly". As at present envisaged, this is an elected body whose function is clearly to give electoral decency and authority to the negotiations. If it is an assembly, it rather implies that it might have something to do with legislation, or indeed administration, which at this stage it certainly would not.

The noble Lord finally asked the all important question: are the Provisional Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA prepared to tread the path of democracy? That is the question that we must all continue to ask--and to ask insistently. Indeed, it is a question which Senator Mitchell and his two colleagues also asked through the means of the six principles that they have initiated. It is for all of us to continue to ask that question and to express the fervent hope that they will be able to give an answer which is strongly in the affirmative and indeed for them, in the words of the senator, to honour that acceptance.

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