Skip to main content

Paramilitary Decommissioning

Volume 486: debated on Wednesday 21 January 2009

3. What discussions he has had with the Police Service of Northern Ireland on extending the deadline for loyalist paramilitary decommissioning. (248301)

I hold regular discussions with the Chief Constable on a range of matters, including decommissioning. Having weighed all the advice that I have received, including that from the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning, I have made it clear that we will not seek renewal of the order on decommissioning beyond the next 12 months.

Since the Northern Ireland peace process began more than a decade ago, the people of Northern Ireland have been promised a deal, which is to say a compromise on political issues in return for the decommissioning of the vicious paramilitary groups whose activities have scarred Northern Ireland for far too long. The public have delivered their side of the deal, so why are the Government prevaricating on their side?

Let us be clear about what the purpose of this process is. We all want to see every gun and every weapon removed from the streets. The decommissioning order provides an additional route towards seeking that goal. The record of achieving decommissioning over the years has been successful. I have to weigh the advice of the Chief Constable, as well as that of the IICD and the other bodies that give me security advice, about whether they believe that it would be useful to continue for another year to provide that additional way of getting weapons off the streets. It does not prevent the police from doing their work and removing those weapons, which are of course illegal, but if it provides an additional route that may be successful in removing the guns, it would be foolish of me to ignore that advice.

Is the Secretary of State aware that there is no belief in the community in Northern Ireland, in the PSNI, in the Police Federation or in the loyalist communities that decommissioning will take place between now and 2010? Is he aware that 29 police officers are under threat at the moment and that five face death threats from loyalists? The police say that they know where the weapons are. What democratic Government would stand back and allow those weapons to be used, as they were in Belfast, where four blast bombs were used last month, and in the many other crimes involving weapons that have also occurred? The community in Northern Ireland is subjected to extortion and the presence of brothels and drugs by the paramilitaries. We will not tolerate the extension if we can do anything about it. The Secretary of State should revisit his intentions in that respect.

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s advice and I am sorry that I am going to take this opportunity to disagree with him. In relation to the work of the PSNI, let me simply say that everyone in the House admires the bravery of the men and women of the PSNI, which continues to be quite extraordinary on the streets of Northern Ireland. In relation to the specifics, however, the PSNI’s record in combating loyalist criminality and paramilitary activity has been a very good one. In the last year alone, 15 loyalists were arrested and firearms, ammunition and explosives were seized. It acts on the evidence and material that it is given. Let me say to him that it is also very important to recognise that the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning, which has been very successful in bringing about decommissioning, continues to give me advice that we should prevail with one more year. I have made it clear that this is the last year; at the end of this 12 months, that is it—the end of this process.

The Secretary of State will be aware of the very strong opposition of the Police Federation to the extension of the decommissioning legislation, which comes after attacks on police officers and the intimidation of police and prison staff by those connected to loyalist paramilitary groups. My party is not convinced about the extension of this legislation. Can the Secretary of State give us any evidence that the loyalist paramilitaries are now in a position to decommission their weapons?

I will meet the Police Federation on Monday next week to discuss the representations that it has made on this matter. May I counsel the hon. Gentleman, his party and other hon. Members—I am slightly hesitant to say this, but I use my words very precisely and carefully—that the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning has confirmed to me that it is currently making meaningful progress, and I hope to report to the House in future on that progress?

The Secretary of State will be aware of the growing number of loyalist death threats to members of the PSNI. What message would he send out today from his office to those brave policemen? Will he ensure that members of the PSNI receive the same support and protection as the former Royal Ulster Constabulary did in the face of IRA death threats?

I am sure that all hon. Members would wish to express their gratitude to the men and women of the PSNI. It remains a matter of fact that the greatest threat to those officers, as expressed in the last year, has come from those paramilitary criminal organisations such as the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA. They are the organisations that have despicably, and in a cowardly way, attacked police officers at traffic lights when they were dropping off their children at school. They have fired shots into the chest of one police officer who is very lucky still to be alive. In another case, an explosive device was placed under an officer’s car and his partner was nearly murdered by it. PSNI members do very brave things for the people of Northern Ireland and this country every day, and we will do everything we can to protect the lives of those brave men and women.

I am sure that the Secretary of State will agree that loyalist or republican paramilitary activity is unacceptable. Will he look again at extending this decommissioning period, because not a single political party in Northern Ireland wants it, and many of the police from whom I have had communications certainly do not want it? Is it not a very delicate matter to permit a further extension when we know that decommissioning is necessary and not to decommission is unacceptable?

The hon. Gentleman rightly draws attention to the very delicate balance on whether we will achieve more by renewing the order for a final 12 months—and it is a final 12 months—or by moving in the other direction. As I say, I have decided, on balance, that we should proceed in that way, but this is based on very specific advice from the commission. If that advice should result in an act of decommissioning, I say to the hon. Gentleman that if my not renewing the order were to result in those weapons not being destroyed and put for ever beyond use, I think we would be failing the people whom we are actually trying to protect.

Is my right hon. Friend not aware of the major concerns in nationalist communities among those who want to see the peace process move on—for example, by removing the peace walls—about the thought that there are loyalist paramilitaries with weapons preventing those developments? Will he reconsider his decision?

As I have said to the House, given the very specific advice I am being given by the commission that it is currently engaged in meaningful dialogue that will result in weapons being removed from the streets, if that is our goal, it would be very foolish of me to ignore that strong advice.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

May I join the Secretary of State in paying tribute to the bravery of the PSNI in the work it does? Does he not think, however, that that bravery deserves a bit more than a few nods and winks from these thugs and racketeers before he is prepared to extend for a further 12 months the 11 years that they have already had to decommission their weapons? He knows that we have rarely departed from our support for the Government in the peace process, but I put him on notice today that unless he comes up with something more substantial than he has done so far, he will put this measure through without any support from the Liberal Democrat Benches.

I hear the word of warning from the hon. Gentleman, and I take it seriously, but I would simply say this to him: we have succeeded in bringing about peace in Northern Ireland by all the political parties in this House working together. It is through that work that we have established the various bodies that have supervised and brought about the continuing peace process. If it is the view of the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning that we should prevail for 12 more months because it is currently engaged in meaningful discussions, I would urge him to think a second time as to whether now, rather than in the last 10 years, he chooses to ignore not my advice, but the advice of the commission.

Eleven years on from the agreement, it is unacceptable that there are armed gangs operating in any part of Northern Ireland. The Secretary of State has just mentioned new evidence that has convinced him that the amnesty should be extended. Will he give us some of that evidence now?

The purpose of sharing with the House the advice from the Decommissioning Commission is to encourage Members of this House to listen very carefully to that advice, as well as to me. I am not in a position to disclose the commission’s current negotiations, but I simply say to the hon. Gentleman that there are channels available to him through which I am prepared, and happy, to engage.

The Chief Constable has consistently said that anyone who has guns should give them up immediately. One officer has been shot in the back, and five have had to be rehoused. By extending the amnesty period, the Government are letting down local communities and the police who are trying to protect them. These are parasitical gangsters, drug dealers and protection racketeers. They do not deserve another extension. As we are strongly opposed to what is proposed, will the right hon. Gentleman consider withdrawing this statutory instrument?

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has a hearing difficulty, but as I have just explained to him, it is advice to us from the commission that has ensured that, on balance, we have made this decision. In my last answer, I made the offer to the hon. Gentleman to discuss further details with him, through the usual channels, but if he really thinks it would be helpful for me to make public now the content of discussions that might result in guns being removed from the streets, I have to question what his motives are. If his motive is to remove the guns, I suggest that he listens to the advice from the commission. On the other hand, if his intention is simply to proceed with a decision he made before that information emerged, I am afraid that even I am unable to help him.