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Belfast Agreement: Decommissioning

3.11 p.m.

Baroness Seccombe asked Her Majesty's Government:

The Minister of State, Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Lord Falconer of Thoroton): My Lords, the Government are in regular and close contact with the Irish Government and all of the pro-agreement parties to discuss the full implementation of the Belfast agreement. Progress on decommissioning is central to these discussions.

Baroness Seccombe: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. The election results have shown that confidence in the Belfast agreement among ordinary, decent, moderate unionists is at an all-time low. The reason is the failure of the republicans to honour the commitment on decommissioning that they made over a year ago.

I should like to ask the noble and learned Lord two questions. First, does he agree that full implementation of the agreement must include some decommissioning by 1st July and that unless that happens the peace process will be in ruins? Secondly, what do Her Majesty's Government propose to do to regain the confidence of those moderate unionists and nationalists who want peace above all else?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, in relation to both questions, the Government believe that the most important factor is to make progress on the implementation of the Belfast agreement. The majority of the electorate in the recent general election voted for pro-agreement parties. We believe that the Government have been given a clear mandate to continue to work to try to overcome the obstacles which still exist.

I agree with the implication of the question. It is increasingly apparent that people are becoming frustrated at the lack of progress on decommissioning. We believe that it is now time for the IRA to demonstrate its promised commitment to peace. Of course, decommissioning is essential if we are to make progress on implementing the remaining measures of the agreement. But I believe that one restores the support of moderate opinion by seeing the Belfast agreement being implemented.

Lord Rogan: My Lords, it is somewhat surprising that the Minister's response was so lengthy considering that no real progress has been made on decommissioning. Does the Minister agree with me,

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and share my regret, that the SDLP, the Irish Government and our Government failed to impress on the paramilitary parties in Northern Ireland the importance of decommissioning, a central tenet of the Belfast agreement? More than three years after the agreement was signed that has not been done.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, it is well known to the noble Lord that the Secretary of State has repeatedly made clear that he regrets the slow progress in relation to decommissioning. However, it is essential that we continue to try to make progress in relation to decommissioning and other aspects of the agreement which have not been implemented. In the recent election, the majority of the electorate voted for pro-agreement parties. Everyone has an obligation to continue to try to make the agreement work.

Lord Mayhew of Twysden: My Lords, do the Government accept that, by refusing to make even a start on decommissioning, the Provisional IRA must have intended that moderate and flexible unionism should lose out to intransigent and extreme unionism. It must have so intended because it was bound to happen. Surely it is now right for the Government to recognise by its staunch and sensitive support the extraordinarily courageous and statesmanlike conduct of Mr Trimble?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I entirely endorse what has been said about Mr Trimble. It is incredibly important that the IRA takes steps now towards decommissioning. Furthermore, the Government and pro-agreement parties have not given up on trying to make the Belfast agreement work.

Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, does the Minister accept that many on all sides of the House share the view that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, put to the House: that we should not lose sight of the crucial, central position of Mr David Trimble; and that all of us, whether nationalist or unionist, Catholic or Protestant, owe him a great debt for the personal courage he has shown in trying to press on with the Belfast agreement throughout these arduous months? If he were to be the principal casualty as a result of failure to decommission arms, it would set back the process, perhaps in a fatal way.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, David Trimble has been one of the people who has made the greatest contribution towards making the Good Friday agreement work. But as I have said repeatedly at this Dispatch Box, the Government remain committed to continuing to try to make the Good Friday agreement work. That, we believe, is what the majority of the people in Northern Ireland want.

Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the terms of reference of the Decommissioning Commission state that decommissioning consists of either turning in arms or

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seeing them destroyed with witnesses present? However, the Government persist in talking about progress being made. The progress has been two old gentlemen looking down a hole from time to time. That is not progress. Does the Minister agree that it would be a great deal better to be honest? The IRA, to do it justice, has always said that it would never decommission: that it would never give up one ounce of Semtex. Does the noble and learned Lord agree that they might secure greater support from the people of Northern Ireland if the Government were to face that fact and say that that is in effect what has happened? The IRA has secured the release of its prisoners, the virtual destruction of a good police force, has its men in government and a North-South dimension of some importance. Very little else has been gained and paramilitary violence continues against ordinary people in the streets of Northern Ireland. Would it not be better for us to stop pretending that any minute now the IRA might actually do something?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, the way to peace was mapped out in the Good Friday agreement. An essential part of that Good Friday agreement was progress on decommissioning. We are not giving up on trying to go down the route prescribed for peace in the Good Friday agreement. I fully accept what is implicit in the noble Baroness's question: that decommissioning is a vital part. But we think that the right course at this stage is to try to continue to get implementation of the Good Friday agreement. We believe that implementation of that agreement is what the people of Northern Ireland want.

Lord Glentoran: My Lords, on 14th and 20th May 1998 the Prime Minister made a series of promises, some of which he put in his own handwriting. The failure of the Prime Minister to deliver on any one of those promises has seriously turned off the unionist electorate. Whatever the Minister says, the electorate of Northern Ireland has moved away from the centre ground. Does the noble and learned Lord accept that Her Majesty's Government have to win back the confidence of the middle ground unionist voter in order to keep faith with the majority of the people in Northern Ireland and have some chance of bringing justice and peace to the majority--we hope to all--of the people in Northern Ireland?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, as I said in answer to an earlier question, I agree that it is increasingly apparent that the people of Northern Ireland are becoming frustrated with the failure of the IRA to demonstrate its commitment to peace. I say this again. Neither we nor the pro-agreement parties are giving up in our attempts to ensure that the Good Friday agreement is implemented. The people of Northern Ireland want proper implementation of the Good Friday agreement.

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Lord Dubs: My Lords, are the Government satisfied that sufficient pressure is being brought to bear on the IRA to decommission by the Irish and American Governments?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, all parties involved, including the Irish and United States Governments, are keen to see the Good Friday agreement implemented. That includes decommissioning.

Lord Jopling: My Lords, has the Minister's attention been drawn to the passage in Senator Kennedy's John Smith memorial lecture in London last November in which he said:

    "The decommissioning of weapons held by the IRA and by Loyalist paramilitaries is also essential to the success of the Good Friday Agreement, and it must be part of the overall implementation of the Agreement"?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, it has been drawn to my attention. The view that decommissioning is essential is shared by the British Government.

Business of the House: Summer Recess

Lord Carter: My Lords, it may be for the convenience of the House if I announce the dates of the Summer Recess. It will also be for the convenience of the Chief Whip. Subject, as always, to the progress of business, the House will sit at 11 a.m. on Tuesday 24th July and rise at the end of business that day. The House will return at 2.30 p.m. on Monday 15th October. I hope that that early announcement of the dates will enable your Lordships to make appropriate plans.

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