Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness O'Cathain: My Lords, can the noble and learned Lord say whether it is true that, as the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux said, not one single ounce of Semtex--or, indeed, one bullet--has been surrendered? Further, can he confirm that, as the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, said, not one weapon has been handed over? In all conscience, if that has been the position since 1997, the amnesty order having been extended to June 2001 and now to be extended to 27th February 2002, cannot we just say that this is a charade?

I am not so sure that it is such a bad thing, as everyone is saying. I guess that there has been some sort of reduction in the ghastly killings in Northern Ireland that have taken place since 1969. Perhaps we must have this fig-leaf going on indefinitely, in perpetuity. Is it not a bit of a charade to say that we shall extend it now until 27th February 2002? Could we not just extend it indefinitely?

Lord Dubs: My Lords, it seems to me that every day that devolved government goes on working is a day that contributes to peace. The longer we have devolution working successfully alongside a peace process, albeit with flaws, the better the chance of winning through in the end. Further, based on my experiences in Northern Ireland, it is my firm belief that both sides--that is, both the Ulster Unionist Party and Sinn Fein--have very little margin for political manoeuvre. The difficulties of the Ulster Unionist Party are open and transparent; indeed, we can all understand them because they are the subject of public debate. However, the difficulties that Sinn Fein faces

3 Apr 2001 : Column 735

in terms of its own organisation and its relationship with the IRA are not quite so obvious because it keeps them secret. I believe that Sinn Fein's difficulties are every bit as great as those of David Trimble as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party.

It would be a disastrous outcome for the peace process if there were to be a bigger split in the IRA than we have already seen through the hiving off of the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA. If Gerry Adams were to lose control of a larger proportion of the IRA membership, that would spell doom to the peace process. We should be more understanding of the difficulties that he faces within his organisation than is perhaps obvious in public utterances. Although I have no evidence, I suspect that some of the difficulties about achieving decommissioning are that the leadership of Sinn Fein, who, I believe, do want peace, feel that they have very little margin for manoeuvre. That is why the decommissioning process is taking such a long time. I believe that there has been a small amount of decommissioning by the LVF, but clearly there has not been the substantial element of decommissioning that we would all have wished.

I do not believe that the process is a charade. I believe that it is an important process. Enormous progress has been made in Northern Ireland since devolution but it is not reflected in the speeches that we have heard this afternoon. For the majority of people in Northern Ireland there is peace and more prosperity, and the economy is doing well. We should not so readily dismiss the gains that have been made because not everything has yet been achieved. Decommissioning is important and, of course, it is right that the Government should pursue it.

The two greatest threats to the agreement are the paramilitaries on both sides who are not on cease-fire--we know who they are--and if we were to lose belief in the peace process. The order is important because it is a sign that decommissioning must take place. However, we must not lose faith in the peace process. That is what we are offering the people of Northern Ireland. It is important that they understand that we realise their difficulties but we also understand the enormous progress that has been made.

Viscount Brookeborough: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, he implied that some of us spoke in a totally depressing manner and did not appreciate that any good had come out of the agreement. I think that I speak for all of us who come from Northern Ireland. We all appreciate very much what has come out of it, perhaps more than is realised. However, what we cannot do--dare I say it?--is waste people's time going over that kind of ground when we are talking about decommissioning and the problems brought about by it.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I understand what the noble Viscount says. My point is simply that in this and other debates on Northern Ireland not much is said about the progress that has been made and the improvement in the quality of life that has been achieved for the bulk

3 Apr 2001 : Column 736

of the people in Northern Ireland, even if, understandably, the debates concentrate on the progress that has so far not been achieved.

3.45 p.m.

Lord Rogan: My Lords, this order is a facilitating measure that provides a legal climate in which decommissioning could take place.

By suspending the normal criminal law, and providing an amnesty for those who become involved in the process of decommissioning, we remove an important legal barrier and facilitate that process. In this sense I endorse the order, but my support is qualified and I shall return to my reservation shortly.

We are all aware of the importance of decommissioning, of its importance in the political process and of its status as a central plank of the Belfast agreement. Many government Ministers, both in this House and in another place, have on numerous occasions confirmed that Sinn Fein and the IRA are inextricably linked. Sinn Fein and the IRA are one and the same organisation with an interchangeable membership, as the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, indicated earlier. Indeed, according to some of last Sunday's press, it has an interchangeable leadership also.

All the signatories to the agreement--that includes Sinn Fein/IRA--in paragraph three of the decommissioning chapter,

    "accordingly reaffirm their commitment to the total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations . . . to achieve the decommissioning of all paramilitary arms".

In order fully to implement the agreement it is necessary that actual decommissioning takes place. The process of decommissioning was to take place within two years of the signing of the Belfast agreement and be completed by May of last year. This aspect of the agreement precipitated the second and third incarnation of this order, with the third such order merely extending the amnesty from February to May of last year in accordance with the agreement.

This short extension of the order to bring the legal deadline in line with the political one seemed to have been a factor in republicans beginning to recognise their commitments under the agreement and in their giving an undertaking to put weapons completely and verifiably beyond use.

With expectations of definite progress at that point, in May last year, the fourth incarnation of this order was approved. It is the expiry of the extension provided by the fourth order that necessitates the extension provided by this order before us today.

Regrettably, the potential provided by last May was not realised and Sinn Fein/IRA did not engage with the independent international commission to discuss the methods and procedural aspects of decommissioning with a view to putting their weapons beyond use.

Another year on we see a belated gesture by Sinn Fein/IRA of an undertaking for further contact with the decommissioning body. This further contact, just shy of the June deadline, has created renewed expectation for closure of the decommissioning issue.

3 Apr 2001 : Column 737

I have a reservation with respect to the extension period of the amnesty in this order to February of next year. I feel that it has the effect of to an extent distracting attention from the clear June deadline. I am aware of the argument that if republicans meet the June political deadline the legal period for an amnesty will need to be such as to permit loyalist paramilitaries to follow. Indeed, hopes of loyalist decommissioning have been increased by the de Chastelain report of last month. That report, referring to recent contact between de Chastelain and the UVF and UFF noted the progress on modalities, on which there was general agreement, and in the renewed commitment of those organisations to the principle of decommissioning.

Such references were unfortunately conspicuous by their absence in the general's report on recent contact with Sinn Fein/IRA--only a basis for further discussion was evident.

An end of the legal amnesty and facilitation period in June would have gone some way to concentrating the minds of those who have the ability to bring closure on the issue of decommissioning. References to the June target date should not be misconstrued. June is both the target and deadline for product on this issue. Without that necessary progress June will signify the expiry of de Chastelain's mandate without renewal.

This order has a simple effect prolonging the amnesty period to the maximum provided for under the 1997 Act, but it must not be forgotten that this extension will not be necessary without progress in terms of product by June. I am hopeful that the Minister can reassure me that he too shares my focus and emphasis on the June deadline and the necessity for further progress by this date.

Although slow progress on this issue has been made so far, I share, with the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland, the hope that by June we shall be in a position where full implementation of the Belfast agreement is a reality and there is closure on the issue of decommissioning.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page