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Lord Renton: My Lords, your Lordships may be surprised at my taking part in a debate on Northern Ireland at all for it is nearly 40 years since I had a ministerial responsibility before there was a Northern Ireland Office and when the Home Office was the link between the Stormont government and the United Kingdom government. For three and a half years of that time I played a part in forming that link. Since then I have been to Northern Ireland a number of times and I have taken a close interest in Northern Ireland affairs. I should like to say first of all that I naturally support all the efforts that the Government are making.

I have only two points to raise, but they are fundamental. First, I remain of the opinion I formed when I had that responsibility many years ago that the main reason for the IRA's effectiveness is the financial help it has received, mainly from the United States. I know that British Prime Ministers from both parties have made representations to Presidents of the United States about this important and delicate matter. I do

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not ask the Government for a specific reply today on the issue; I merely say that they should continue to concentrate on it if they wish to achieve peace in Northern Ireland.

The Government may not be in a strong position to answer my second point. We are discussing an order that specifies that decommissioning must take place by February 2002. If there has been no decommissioning by then, what sanction is there to enforce it?

Baroness Blood: My Lords, I shall not rehearse what my noble friends from Northern Ireland have said. Everyone knows that Northern Ireland is awash with guns, but we are also awash with words. I do not oppose the order. We have talked about its effect. In Northern Ireland it will be viewed in two ways. One side will say, "We have pushed the deadline back almost another year", and the other side will say, "There you see, they are winning again".

We have to be careful about what we say because in Northern Ireland words can be every bit as dangerous as guns. Less than a fortnight ago, the Secretary of State assured the people of Northern Ireland that decommissioning was on track for June. People took that on board. Now, although the process is still on track for June, there is a provision to push the date back. We have to be careful about how our words will be interpreted.

Throughout Northern Ireland we are fed a daily diet of what she said, what he said, and what it means. Will the Minister assure me that the Secretary of State will go out of his way to explain exactly what the order means to the people in Northern Ireland who are interested?

The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, said that debates on Northern Ireland are always doom and gloom. My response is simple: why should I be ecstatic about having a normal life? I am a United Kingdom citizen, just like everybody else here. I expect to have a normal life. I do not expect to have to say that I am glad that this happened or that happened. We do not have normal life in Northern Ireland. We have gangsters, thugs and drugs and the place is awash with guns. We must do something about that. Pushing the deadline back year after year will not solve the problem. We have a saying back in Northern Ireland that nothing concentrates the mind like a hanging. We need to get to that.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I am grateful to all those who have participated. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, for supporting the extension order, subject to his point about the date, and I am also grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Smith, Lord Dubs and Lord Rogan, for supporting the order. I shall certainly take the advice of the noble Baroness, Lady Blood, to be very careful about what I say in my reply.

A number of noble Lords have asked why the extension should be until February next year. The noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, asked why we did not extend it indefinitely and the noble Lord,

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Lord Glentoran, and others asked why we did not opt for a shorter period. The primary Act gives the Government power only to extend until February 2002. We have not abandoned June as our target date for decommissioning. But it is a target, not a deadline. That is why we need the extension order. If decommissioning is to happen, the order is essential to ensure that the necessary immunities remain in place after 19th May, when they would otherwise expire.

We are still committed to making substantial progress on decommissioning by the end of June. However, it is a voluntary process that involves loyalist paramilitaries as well as the IRA. The Independent International Commission on Decommissioning reported on 22nd March, just a few days ago, that the loyalists will not decommission before the IRA. We need to provide a context in which all paramilitary organisations are able to give up their weaponry. That is what the order is designed to do. We could not effectively achieve that if June was the deadline, given that the loyalists will decommission only after the IRA. In those circumstances, looking at the issue in the round, the sensible course appeared to be to extend it until February. However, I must make it clear that we are still committed to making substantial progress on decommissioning by the end of June.

Anyone who wants to know what will be achieved by the end of June should ask the commission. It is very important that credible progress is made at the earliest possible moment.

General de Chastelain has always said that he would tell us if he and his colleagues concluded that decommissioning was not going to happen. They have not yet so told us, so we think that it is worth going on.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, referred to the pressures on the RUC and the loss of experienced officers. He is right to refer to that, but it is worth seeking some encouragement from the nearly 8,000 applications that have now been received in response to the first recruiting campaign for 240 vacancies in the new Police Service of Northern Ireland.

The noble Lord, Lord Smith, asked us to estimate when substantive decommissioning would begin. As I said, that is a matter for General de Chastelain and his commission. However, we are clear that a creditable start to decommissioning must be made soon.

The noble Lord, Lord Smith, and others asked what we would do if decommissioning was not completed by next February. As I said in answer to the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, the present legislation runs out in February. It would be for Parliament to consider nearer the time what provision, if any, should apply for decommissioning thereafter. It is too soon to speculate today on what we would do.

The noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, invited me to speculate about certain contingencies and asked what plans the Government have made. He also asked me to take inspiration from the 1979 Conservative Party manifesto. With regret, I fear that I must decline that tempting invitation.

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The noble Lord also referred to the sealing of the border in certain circumstances. I assure him that the Government have no intention of taking any risks with security and do not in any way underestimate the continuing threat. That is why we still have 13,500 troops in Northern Ireland. That is considerably more than the 8,000 that we would require for a normal peacetime garrison.

Nevertheless, we should not underestimate the difficulty of sealing the border for any length of time or the disruption that would be caused to normal social and economic life. It would be an admission of defeat if such a measure became a routine part of life in Northern Ireland.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead: My Lords, I apologise for interrupting the Minister at this late stage in his speech. I thought that I had made it clear that the Irish army and police had sealed the frontier efficiently. I simply said that what they can do on one occasion, surely they can do with equal efficiency on another.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I entirely understood that point. My response was that it would be a great disruption of normal life for Northern Ireland if sealing the border in those circumstances became the norm.

The noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, talked about smuggling and the noble Baroness, Lady Blood, referred to organised crime. Since September 2000, my right honourable friend Adam Ingram, the Minister of State, has been chairing a task force to counter the threat of organised crime in Northern Ireland. The work of that task force is already well under way.

Last week a number of important developments took place. On 23rd March, my right honourable friend in another place launched the first threat assessment of organised crime and announced the strategy that is being adopted to confront that threat. On 19th March he announced a small business payment assistance scheme and introduced the Northern Ireland launch of a nationwide initiative, "Bank Note Watch". A private sector consultation exercise was also initiated.

The noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, asked whether it was true that no weapons had been destroyed in the course of the decommissioning process. It is not quite true. In December 1998, the Loyalist Volunteer Force destroyed some weapons under the supervision of the commission. The commission described it as,

    "a small but significant quantity".

Nevertheless, the fundamental point that the noble Baroness made is that progress has been very disappointing. That obviously remains true.

The noble Lord, Lord Rogan, made the point that the non-renewal of the amnesty will mean the end of the de Chastelain mandate. That is not so. The mandate of the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning flows from the international agreement--Treaty 54 of 1997--between the United Kingdom and the Republic

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of Ireland. The Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997 and this series of amnesty orders have no direct bearing on the establishment of the de Chastelain commission. I hope that I have answered all the main points raised during the course of this short debate.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

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