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Political Progress in Northern Ireland

3.46 p.m.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, before we move to the Statement on political progress in Northern Ireland, I take the opportunity to remind the House that the Companion indicates that discussion on the Statement should be confined to very brief comments and questions for clarification. Noble Lords who speak at length do so at the expense of others.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Lord Dubs): My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. The Statement is as follows:

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the assumption of a more active, assertive role by the decommissioning commission in circumstances which it recognises will be transformed by the full implementation of the agreement; Sinn Fein's acceptance that decommissioning is an essential part of the peace process, to be brought about under the aegis of the decommissioning commission in accordance with the agreement, and its acknowledgement that conflict must be a thing of the past; to the Ulster Unionist Party's recognition of the legitimacy of the peaceful pursuit of nationalist aspirations, and its commitment to the principles of inclusivity, equality and mutual respect; and to the IRA's acknowledgement of the Sinn Fein leadership, and its willingness to appoint someone as an authorised representative to enter into discussions with the decommissioning commission.

    "I plan to call a meeting of the assembly on Monday 29th November for the purpose of nominating Ministers in the new Northern Ireland executive. Assuming that Ministers have been nominated, Parliament will be invited to approve a devolution order under the Northern Ireland Act 1998 on Tuesday 30th November and powers will be transferred on Thursday 2nd December.

    "Like Senator Mitchell, I believe that with the institutions established and everything up and running, decommissioning will happen as a natural and essential development of the peace process. Sinn Fein has previously argued that decommissioning must take place in the context of full implementation of an overall settlement. It now has this in prospect as a result of the review. We are,

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    therefore, planning for success, not failure. But if there is default either in implementing decommissioning or, for that matter, devolution, it is understood that the two Governments, British and Irish, will take the steps necessary to cease immediately the operation of the institutions: the executive, the assembly, the North-South Ministerial Council, the British Irish Council, the Civic Forum and the North-South implementation bodies.

    "Nobody should doubt my resolve to ensure that no party profits from preventing progress in all aspects of the Good Friday agreement. Of course we are talking about voluntary action by all parties to achieve devolution and decommissioning. None the less, in terms of the steps taken and those in prospect, a heavy political price will be paid by those who default. Unionists, and indeed Nationalists, can be assured of this. It would pain me to do so, but I would not shrink from suspending the institutions if it proved necessary, thus restoring the status quo so as to consider how to rectify the default. But, as I said, we are planning for success, not failure.

    "Whether the agreement can move forward now depends on the meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council which has been called for this Saturday. I pay tribute to the courage and leadership of the right honourable Member for Upper Bann, who is advising his party to seize the opportunity which these developments present. For the Ulster Unionist Party it is a decision of historic importance. A great responsibility rests on it. I cannot take that decision for the UUP.

    "I would not for a moment overstate the merits of the deal which has now been secured. I would, however, say this. First, the Good Friday agreement is by any standard a good deal for Unionists. As the right honourable Member for Upper Bann said at the time, it secures the Union for as long as a majority of the people of Northern Ireland continue to support it. It brings government closer to the people in local institutions which will be responsive to local needs. It ends the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement and removes the territorial claim in the Irish constitution.

    "Secondly, I have already said I believe that in the new situation which devolution will create decommissioning will take place. No longer does the IRA rule out decommissioning by either the front-door or the back-door. I do not believe that the Republican movement would have raised expectations as it has if it did not intend to deliver.

    "Let us be clear about one thing. The process so outlined may not be perfect but if it is not attempted there will be no chance whatsoever of any decommissioning. The right honourable Member for Upper Bann's critics have offered no alternative way of meeting their objective, and it is certainly not for want of asking. We will know before long if the IRA and the Loyalist paramilitaries are engaging constructively with the decommissioning commission. Their representatives should be

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    appointed within hours of devolution. The commission will arrange early meetings with all the representatives of the paramilitaries. They will issue a further report within days of these meetings. General de Chastelain is an internationally respected figure. We can be sure that he will tell it as it is and will set the highest standards.

    "Finally, let me say to those who are embarking on this journey in good faith that they will not be left on their own. If all our expectations of the Good Friday agreement are not met, I will be seeking a way forward in co-operation with those committed to the process based on the principles of this agreement. We stand on the brink of a remarkable transformation in Northern Ireland. There are already signs of growing economic confidence. The security situation, while not perfect, has been transformed. Bombs and barricades no longer interrupt daily life and people once again are able to lead a normal existence. We must not go back to the bad old days, and, with a settled political future in which the needs of both communities are met in a fair and equal society, we will not have to.

    "The alternative is to hold back, to risk the renewal of instability and all that that brings, never to know whether decommissioning would have occurred and to create an overwhelming sense of disappointment and uncertainty which could not be more harmful to Northern Ireland's interests now and in the longer term. In my judgment, that is no real alternative at all. People in Northern Ireland are demanding a safe, secure future for their children. It is the job of politicians to create that for them. We must give peace a chance. I commend to the House the steps that are being taken."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.55 p.m.

Lord Glentoran: My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made by the Secretary of State in another place earlier this afternoon. Like him, I pay a real and full tribute to the work of Senator Mitchell who has unstintingly given his time to help hold together the peace process in some very difficult times. Without his seemingly limitless patience we would not have made anything like the progress that we have, not only over the period of the latest review but ever since he was first asked to look at the issue of decommissioning in 1995.

Will the Minister acknowledge that throughout we, too, have been strong supporters of the Belfast agreement and that our overriding objective since April of last year has been to see it implemented in full? Will he also appreciate that our disagreement with the Government has been when we believe that the agreement is not being implemented in full, with no decommissioning, no end to violence and, at the same time, the early release of 300 prisoners?

However, we believe that in the past three months real progress has been made in the review that we hope will lead to the achievement of our twin goals of devolution and decommissioning. We welcome the

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encouraging statements by Sinn Fein and IRA as far as they go. As my right honourable friend the Leader of the Opposition said last week, we have always made clear that we can support the establishment of the executive so long as it is accompanied by the beginning of a credible and verifiable process of decommissioning.

Does the noble Lord accept that devolution and decommissioning must take place virtually simultaneously and that this means that the IRA must appoint an interlocutor as soon as the executive is set up? Does he also share our concern about the reported comments of senior Republicans, Pat Doherty and Martin Ferris, over the past few days in the United States? Will he echo the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party in calling on Mr Adams totally to disassociate himself from these comments and clarify the situation once again?

We are being asked to take much on trust. Does the Minister agree that, in the words of the Anglican Primate, the noble Lord, Lord Eames,

    "if arms decommissioning does not take place within the timescale that is being mentioned at the moment, then the world's condemnation will rest on those who have not delivered"?

Will the Minister state clearly that in the circumstances of non-delivery of product by the IRA he will give his full backing to Mr Trimble, whom we admire for his courage and applaud for taking such a huge political risk? Furthermore, does he agree that the appropriate course of action would be for the Secretary of State, supported by the Irish Government, to invite the formation of a new executive composed only of those parties who have committed themselves, in the words of the agreement that we all support, to,

    "exclusively democratic and peaceful means"?

We dearly want this peace process to succeed. But we might still all be wrong. We might yet be let down. If that happens, will the Minister agree that it should be the paramilitaries and their political mouthpieces who face the penalties, not those who have courageously followed the democratic process?

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