Ministers continue their engagement with the Ulster Political Research Group and the Progressive Unionist party in support of their efforts to encourage loyalist paramilitaries to leave conflict behind and adhere to democratic principles.
While I welcome the news that the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Red Hand Commandos are saying that they will now decommission their arms, is it not still of great concern that the Ulster Defence Association has not done the same? All three organisations are involved in criminality, drug dealing, extortion and loan sharking. Will the Minister give an undertaking that action will continue to be taken against them when they have committed crimes?
The UVF’s announcement was a welcome step forward. Of course we want to see full and verifiable decommissioning, and last week’s discussions with General de Chastelain and representatives of the UVF were another welcome step. However, the right hon. Gentleman is right to say that we cannot tolerate either paramilitary activity or criminality by either of those organisations, and I assure him, and the House, that law enforcement in Northern Ireland will continue to bear down on them.
I join the Minister in welcoming the UVF’s statement of the first steps towards a complete winding down of its organisation. However, he and the House will recognise that it fell short in decommissioning terms by only putting weapons “beyond reach”—beyond whose reach is not clear. Can the Minister inject some urgency into the issue, and indeed into the issue of the disbanding of the army council of the IRA? It is essential that all paramilitary organisations go completely out of business, and are seen to be doing so.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that there must be a sense of urgency in relation to any organisation or individual still involved in paramilitary activity. I hope that those on either the dissident republican or the loyalist side who are still engaged in paramilitary activity will recognise what a fruitless waste the violence and conflict of the past 40 years has been, will see the hope that democracy is bringing to Northern Ireland, and will desist from their activities and join the peace process in a meaningful way.
May I echo my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay), and say how important it is for all loyalist paramilitary organisations to decommission? Indeed, as was said by the right hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), the weapons must be destroyed and verification must take place. The Minister slightly pre-empted my question by referring to de Chastelain, but could he give a little more detail about the engagement that has taken place between the so-called loyalist paramilitary forces and the general?
The hon. Gentleman will understand that Ministers are not privy to the detailed discussions that take place with the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning, which is headed by General de Chastelain. The general has had that meeting, however, and I hope that it will lead to a new phase in which the UVF engages meaningfully with the IICD, decommissioning becomes verifiable, and we have not only the promise that weapons are beyond use but confirmation that they are.