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Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997 (Amnesty Period) Order 2000

8.23 p.m.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 1st February be approved [9th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the order appoints 23rd May 2000 as the date before which the amnesty period identified in a non-statutory decommissioning scheme must end.

The amnesty period is the time during which firearms, ammunition and explosives can be decommissioned in accordance with the scheme, thereby attracting both the amnesty and prohibitions

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on evidential use and forensic testing of decommissioned items provided by the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997.

Section 2 of the 1997 Act requires that a scheme must set out the amnesty period and that it must end before 27th February 1998 (the first anniversary of the Act's passing) unless the Secretary of State, by order, appoints a later day.

My right honourable friend the Member for Redcar, when she was Secretary of State, made two such orders. Under that made last year, the amnesty period will expire at midnight on 23rd February this year. The purpose of this order is to extend that period until midnight on 22nd May this year. This date derives from the time-frame set out in the Good Friday agreement for the decommissioning of all paramilitary arms.

We must press on to resolve the real difficulties that exist and restore full cross-community confidence in the institutions in Northern Ireland. The way forward is, of course, the implementation of every aspect of the Good Friday agreement, in full. The subject of the draft order before your Lordships tonight, namely decommissioning, is a central element in the process. It was an absence of progress on decommissioning which, as your Lordships know, contributed substantially towards the decline in trust and cross-community confidence among the community in Northern Ireland.

Clearly, if that confidence is to be restored progress needs to be made on this aspect of the agreement, just as it has been on every other aspect. People need answers to the legitimate questions posed by the honourable Member for Newry and Armagh. Will decommissioning occur and, if so, when?

Now, more than ever, it is essential that we move ahead to establish consensus on the way forward and rebuild confidence in the process. There can be no doubt in anyone's minds that decommissioning is central to this.

In order for the commitments on decommissioning to be fulfilled in accordance with the terms of the agreement, the Government must play their part. In the agreement, the two Governments undertook to take all necessary stops to facilitate the decommissioning process, including bringing the relevant schemes into force by the end of June 1998, which we duly did. If we are to fulfil our commitment under the agreement it is essential that we extend, through this order, the period during which the scheme may declare an amnesty.

As part of the Government's commitment to the full implementation of the agreement, it is essential that we continue to provide the means by which terrorist weapons can he taken out of circulation. This amnesty period order is central to those arrangements. I commend it to your Lordships. I beg to move.

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Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 1st February be approved [9th Report from the Joint Committee].--(Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton.)

Lord Molyneaux of Killead: My Lords, it is perhaps appropriate that the following debate deals with Wales, an important part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. If I may, I shall sit here, keep quiet and hope that I shall learn something from the words of wisdom of so many respected friends on this side of the House and on the other.

Introducing this order on 14th February in another place, the Minister of State, Mr Ingram, understandably set its renewal against recent happenings. He rightly defended the decision of the Secretary of State to suspend the operation of devolved government in Northern Ireland. I, too, would support that decision realising, as I do, that it resulted from much wider considerations than possible impacts on, for example, the Ulster Unionist Party. On that flimsy basis, the Irish Government and other nationalists bitterly attacked the Secretary of State. They accused him of making what appeared to them a premature decision without attaching sufficient weight to yet another vague, last minute, IRA statement. The reality is that the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State had already been in possession of information on the short-term and long-term strategic intentions of the IRA based on decisions taken in the first week of January this year.

It was against that background that during the passage of the suspension Bill I moved an amendment requiring that the statement on suspension be made within 24 hours of Royal Assent; in fact the announcement was made within 21 hours.

One has to ask, how could the Prime Minister or the Secretary of State have failed to take decisive action, knowing beyond doubt the real intentions of fully armed terrorist organisations?

It has to be placed on record that those senior Ministers did not fail in their duty to protect and safeguard the future, and their determination was reflected in the closing words in that speech by Mr Adam Ingram in another place only a week ago.

The Government can now expect a co-ordinated assault on their position by various terrorist organisations, backed by other people who ought to know better. Noble Lords will know that the main target will continue to be the Royal Ulster Constabulary, with the intention of destabilising the entire community in Northern Ireland. The Government will need to consider the dangers of seriously damaging the morale and efficiency of the one guardian of the peace now that it is known that armed terrorism is, unfortunately, going to be an enduring feature of the landscape. Equally irresponsible would be that which is termed "normalisation of security", when normality is no longer on the agenda.

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In a very real sense, the order is rendered irrelevant by terrorist decisions, which they probably intended as new millennium gifts to the people of the United Kingdom.

The Secretary of State has been prudent in damping down demands for a headlong rush into more summitry, for example in the form of yet another review. On Saturday last he recommended a period for reflection, rest and sleep for possible participants in any future discussions. The same restorative might be beneficial to the general public after three years' battering by spin doctors who skilfully manipulated the news industry, one has to say a very willing and eager news industry. Their victims now deserve to be treated as adults. They know that there are alternatives. For example, one such alternative exists in Wales, about which we will hear shortly.

Next on the agenda, in a very practical sense, should be further early development of local democracy, where Northern Ireland councillors have made great strides in participation and co-operation across the divides, to an extent which compares very favourably with their counterpart councillors in Britain. After 25 years, surely even the Northern Ireland Office must be convinced of the wisdom of building from the ground up, particularly when there is tangible proof of the soundness of conventional methods of construction.

Lord Glentoran: My Lords, having heard the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, I should like to say that his contribution is very welcome. I strongly believe that this order is very necessary. It is really a tidying mechanism. Most of my views, which are not totally different from those of the noble Lord, are to be found in Hansard for Thursday, 17th February. Decommissioning is something that we all crave, but some of us are more optimistic about that than others.

I take this opportunity to include a statement that I have been repeating since the days of my maiden speech. There are two ways of approaching power-sharing and devolution of power in Northern Ireland: the alternative to approaching it from the top downwards is to build from the bottom upwards.

I do not believe that we have come to the end of the current peace process. This order tidies up the amnesty arrangements. It is the right order, which will enable Her Majesty's Government to do all that is possible to facilitate decommissioning.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, has raised the very important issue of normalisation and security. I repeat the assurance that I gave noble Lords last Thursday that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State will take decisions on security measures following full consultation with the Chief Constable and the GOC. The paramount concern is safety. The Chief Constable has stated publicly that he does not believe that there is any immediate danger of the cease-fires breaking down. There has been no indication from paramilitary groups that they intend to end their cease-fires.

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The security forces in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland will continue to use all the powers at their disposal to locate and recover illegally-held armaments and pay tribute to the RUC and the Garda Siochana for their continuing efforts to frustrate those wedded to the violence of the past.

This is a temporary pause in the operation of the institutions and will afford a breathing space, an opportunity to take stock. It is crucial that we make the most of this opportunity to regenerate confidence in the institutions and the overall political settlement. There can be no doubt that decommissioning is central to building that confidence. Equally, there can be no doubt that the amnesty provisions contained in the order will play a fundamental part in making the decommissioning possible.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran for his support. Like the noble Lord, I am certain that we all pray for the peace that is so desperately needed by the people in Northern Ireland. I commend the Order to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

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