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Northern Ireland

4.20 p.m.

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, with permission I should like to repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister.

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    "So there is a challenge here to all parties: to Unionists to agree to a power sharing executive; to Republicans not just to give up violence, but to decommission weapons in accordance with the undertakings of the Good Friday agreement; to nationalist opinion to support parties implementing this agreement and not support those who refuse to do so.

    "If last Friday's agreement is put through, we will know in days whether the paramilitaries are serious about decommissioning their weapons. After 30 years of bloodshed, grief-stricken families, terror-torn communities, is it not worth waiting 30 days to see if the undertakings made here are fulfilled? If they are, then peace will come--real peace. If they are not, then we will know that the challenge of true democracy was too much for those linked to paramilitary groups. Either way, we will know. So I say to people: discuss the detail. Debate it. Engage. But do not throw away the best chance for peace we will have this generation".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for repeating the Prime Minister's Statement in the way that she has. The whole House, I am sure, will understand the difficulties of this process and appreciate the efforts of all those who are negotiating in good faith to find a way forward.

It is, of course, some years since this process was begun by my right honourable friend Mr Major. We in the Conservative Party have supported the process all along. We continue to give full support to the Good Friday agreement. We are committed to making it work and seeing it implemented in full. I am sure that the Government will agree with me when I say that an essential part of the process is the decommissioning of all illegally held arms and explosives. So far it has not yet happened. I should have thought that parties genuinely committed to peace do not need weapons in their armoury.

Will the noble Baroness the Leader of the House agree with me that in matters such as this it is therefore essential to proceed with caution and with remorseless attention to detail? Does she agree that it is not appropriate to apply all the pressure on Mr Trimble? The democratic parties have already done all that was required under the agreement; and the Unionist leader has made the historic statement that he is prepared to sit with the political representatives of terrorist organisations provided those organisations show a genuine intent to disarm. Is the noble Baroness concerned that although the process of decommissioning is supposed to be completed within 10 months it is still to begin? The Government are asking the constitutional parties in Northern Ireland to take on trust claims by Sinn Fein--which does not, the House will remember, even profess to speak for the IRA--and by other political parties linked to paramilitaries that once they are in the executive, disarmament will begin.

It is for that reason that we have two main areas of concern. The first relates to the question of a guarantee. Is it the case that there is still no cast-iron guarantee that

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the IRA will decommission illegal weapons, although the Prime Minister has said that that will happen? Can the noble Baroness give the House more details about how soon decommissioning must start after the formation of an executive that includes Sinn Fein? Does she agree that, if the House is to be able to debate this proposal meaningfully--and I think that it should--we may need a more precise and transparent timetable from General de Chastelain on which to form such a judgment?

On a fail-safe guarantee, Friday's document said that, without decommissioning, the Government would:

    "suspend the operations of the institutions set up by the Agreement". Does the noble Baroness agree that that would penalise democratic politicians for the intransigence of terrorists--and, incidentally, give paramilitary organisations leverage over the continuance of the executive? Yet today the Prime Minister said that if the IRA does not express a willingness to decommission,

    "it is open to us all to formulate a new way forward without Sinn Fein". The key question that arises is: what do the Government mean? Do they mean an executive only with Sinn Fein or an executive without Sinn Fein if need be--because it cannot be both?

Will the noble Baroness also confirm what appeared to be the meaning of the Prime Minister's words this morning--namely, that without decommissioning he would seek the suspension of Sinn Fein or any other defaulting organisation from the Assembly and invite the Assembly to choose a new executive? Finally, will the noble Baroness confirm that, without decommissioning, the Government would not hesitate to stop the early release of terrorist prisoners onto our streets?

The Government have said that they will ask us for assistance with emergency legislation. On behalf of these Benches, I would like to say that we will work with the Government to provide a speedy approval for that legislation. First, is the noble Baroness in a position to tell us whether it will be primary or secondary legislation? Secondly--I say this in the knowledge that we have a great deal of business to complete before the Summer Recess--I think that it would be fair for there to be some negotiation with those individuals who find themselves on the Cross Benches, who have a great deal of interest in Northern Irish matters and who might have some difficulties with whatever arrangements I, or indeed the Liberal Democrats, come to.

4.32 p.m.

Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank: My Lords, from these Benches, I thank the Leader of the House for repeating in your Lordships' House the Prime Minister's Statement in another place--even if, to be realistic, nothing that we are likely to say here will determine in any way the immediate events in Northern Ireland. We congratulate the Prime Minister on everything that he has done personally to resolve the crisis, just as we applauded John Major from these Benches for his brave attempts to solve the problems of Northern Ireland.

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As for the Statement, we agree with what the Prime Minister said about the Good Friday agreement. We agree also about the three principles to which all parties were committed on 25th June and with the current challenge to those parties that progress represents.

I think it is correct to say that those of us here must recognise that it is desperately difficult to trust Sinn Fein in the present circumstances, given its past record. However, this must be done, given the situation that has now been reached based on the assumption that its leadership genuinely wants the Good Friday agreement to work. Indeed, I think that the evidence of the Statement and all that has happened in the past few days shows that we are very close to the further agreement that would make the Good Friday agreement meaningful. It should be possible to find a way in which the timing is such that the gap between setting up the executive and the commencement of decommissioning is so narrow as to be almost simultaneous.

I see in the Statement reference to "within a couple of days". That is reassuring to a degree, but I wonder whether, in practice, it might become an even shorter period. It would be a tragedy for the people of Northern Ireland who want peace if their leaders cannot now go the whole way regarding the agreement presented to them. They must--here we reach an inevitable cliche--have a leap of the imagination and an act of courage in which personal reputations do not matter because peace does.

I have three questions to put, perhaps tentatively, to the noble Baroness the Leader of the House. First, can she say something more about the present timetable for decommissioning? If the executive is set up on 15th July, when is it assumed that decommissioning will begin? Is it the two days referred to in the Statement--which seems to be a shorter period than mentioned hitherto? Secondly, if Sinn Fein fails to deliver, would it be open to the executive to continue without Sinn Fein? As I understand it--perhaps the noble Baroness will clarify this point--it will be open to the rest of the executive to choose what to do or for the Assembly to make that decision.

The third point is a difficult one, and I may be very wide of the mark. Would it not help if General de Chastelain made more frequent reports so that, if the worst happened and decommissioning stopped, action with regard to the executive would be immediate? At present, I think that he is expected to report every three months; a shorter interval might be helpful. However, none of this should be taken to be any attempt to negotiate. It is uniquely the case that, as in times of war, the Government must be supported in their endeavours to reach objectives that we all share.

4.36 p.m.

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords for their support of the broad outlines of the Statement. I shall of course echo back to my right honourable friend the Prime Minister the words that have been spoken about his role--particularly last week, with his strenuous efforts on behalf of the agreement. I of course acknowledge the

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enormously important work of the right honourable gentleman Mr Major in beginning this process. One of the tremendous virtues of the process so far has been the bipartisan nature of the efforts that have been made. I am grateful to the noble Lord for confirming that that will continue. We obviously hope very much that it will do so both in words and in practice.

As the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, has said, we are all united in our broad aims of trying to achieve an inclusive executive in Northern Ireland for a devolved form of government and to achieve decommissioning. Both noble Lords rightly place great stress on the nature of the decommissioning process and the timetable--or the "sequencing" as it is called in the Northern Ireland jargon--of the decommissioning and the establishment of the executive. I remind the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, that there was no decommissioning precondition in the Good Friday agreement, but there is an obligation. That obligation is reinforced and made much more explicit by the statement of Friday.

I think that one point has changed, which was emphasised in the Statement: we are no longer dependent upon trust--I agree with those who are suspicious of trust in this area--but upon action. As I repeated in the Statement, that action is set out clearly in the timetable that has been agreed with General John de Chastelain about the benchmarks that he will require on the decommissioning beginning immediately after the executive has been established.

Of course, there are always concerns about whether any group of people represented in the political process is speaking for the paramilitaries, on either side, whom it claims to represent. However, I think that the House will have noted the words of my right honourable friend the Prime Minister this morning--uttered not in the other place but in an interview--when he said he believed that last week he was listening to the authentic voice of the IRA. However, as I have said, this is not a time to depend solely on words. We can, in this instance, depend on the actions that have been set out in the agreement and which are put forward clearly in terms of a time frame.

Both noble Lords were concerned about when the fail-safe agreements will kick in if anyone defaults on the agreement. As my right honourable friend said in the Statement, if default occurs, the institutions would be suspended automatically while we find a way forward. However, as he also said, there would be two vital differences from where we are now. The blame for default is clear and the parties are free to move on in an executive without the defaulting party. I hope that it is explicit to noble Lords who raised the issue that the situation could be taken forward without Sinn Fein being part of the executive. I hope that I have reassured noble Lords about the Statement's interpretation in parts of the media that some parties might be penalised if the paramilitaries did not decommission.

It is worth repeating that the parties have the option of excluding any party from the executive if it does not meet its commitments. Only if that does not happen would the Government here take action to suspend the

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institutions. That would be a drastic step but it would be prompted by a clear breach of faith by the party responsible.

The point about the arrangements for the failsafe on the executive is clearly set out and would kick in immediately if there were any breach of the undertakings under the de Chastelain benchmarks. The noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, wanted more detail about the timetable. I repeat that the first report on decommissioning will take place in September. There will then be a report on the decommissioning process at three-month intervals until May 2000 is reached.

The point of the reports is to enable the fail-safe arrangements, which will be brought forward in the legislative process, to take place. I can confirm to the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, that that will require primary legislation. I take the point, as I did last week when we spoke of the possibility of there being a Statement and order on devolution, that Cross-Benchers should be included in the process. As I said to the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, when he raised the point last Thursday, I am sure that the usual channels will extend their consideration to the Cross-Benchers in this particular instance.

The noble Lord raised the issue of the prisoners, which is always an extremely difficult issue. He is only too well aware that the release of the prisoners is dependent on whether organisations are maintaining complete and unequivocal ceasefires. I am sure that he will have noted the statement of the chief constable last week that nothing the Secretary of State has done in this context was in his view inappropriate on the basis of the briefings he had been given about the security situation and the ceasefire.

I say to noble Lords in general that the anxieties which surround the whole issue, specifically as regards prisoners and more broadly as regards trust, are more than clear to those who have followed the history and been involved in the political decisions for so long. I re-emphasise what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, in his concluding remarks, that it would be a tragedy if we reached this point and then, in the words of the Prime Minister, had to rewind the whole process. I simply echo his words that this is the best hope for a generation and hope that the legitimate anxieties can be assuaged.

4.43 p.m.

Lord Mayhew of Twysden: My Lords, will the noble Baroness the Leader of the House accept that one can have only admiration for the Herculean character at the efforts of the Prime Minister and of the Taoiseach in seeking to secure from all parties fulfilment of their obligations under the Good Friday agreement? Every one of us must hope to see an agreed and fair way forward.

However, will the noble Baroness also agree that there has developed what was described on the BBC at lunchtime today as a fog of confusion as to what really is on offer? For that reason, the fail-safe agreement to the deal promulgated on Friday speaks of the Government's commitment to the automatic and

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immediate suspension of the Assembly, the executive and other institutions in the event of certificated failure to meet an obligation to decommission. It will be automatic and immediate, which is all one gets from the agreement of last Friday.

However, today, again on the BBC, the Prime Minister said that it would be open to the Unionist and other parties to go forward with devolved government without Sinn Fein and that he would expect them to do so. Does the Minister agree that that is a very different outcome and, to those who do not wish to see improper influence being accorded to terrorists, a very much more acceptable outcome? That is not least because if the Unionists were to suffer the loss of devolved government, which to them has been such a special prize, it would be deeply unjust if the cause were simply the failure of the IRA to decommission.

Does the noble Baroness agree that it is necessary for the Government to make more sharply clear that they would invite the parties to proceed on the executive without Sinn Fein in those circumstances and to continue to repeat that? I am sure that she will agree with me that the public's fear that the Government are being taken for a ride by extraordinarily adroit politicians and practitioners on the Republican side are rational and never ever to be underestimated.

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