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Volume 493: debated on Wednesday 3 June 2009

2. What assessment he has made of progress in decommissioning of arms by loyalist paramilitary organisations; and if he will make a statement. (277584)

I would like to take this opportunity to express the condolences of the whole House to the family of Kevin McDaid, who was murdered last Sunday week, and also to Damian Fleming, who was badly attacked and suffered serious injuries. The Government totally condemn those responsible for those serious crimes. The Independent International Commission on Decommissioning continues to make progress with those paramilitary organisations that have engaged with the decommissioning process.

I thank the Minister for his response, but the Independent Monitoring Commission’s assessment of the likelihood of decommissioning by the Ulster Defence Association is that it is difficult to judge what turn events might take and when. Given the qualified position of the Independent Monitoring Commission on judging such matters, what makes the Secretary of State think that any progress will be made within the next 12 weeks?

I am grateful for the interest that the hon. Lady and her hon. Friends take in this matter. We have to rely on the IICD for advice on such matters. Its independence means that we do not know what it is doing and where. I have meetings with it, and it has informed me that it continues to make meaningful progress in dialogue with the organisations concerned, but as I have said, if we can find another route for decommissioning, we should take it, which is why we have. Such a system is not adopted instead of law and order, and it does not allow people to retain their guns indefinitely, but it might be the only way to get them in. The House should be in no doubt: if the IICD tells me in August that it has not made meaningful progress, I am committed to ending the decommissioning process immediately.

I wish to associate myself with the Secretary of State’s remarks about the horrendous murder of Kevin McDaid and about Damien Fleming. That really was an horrendous setback for our society in Northern Ireland.

The Secretary of State informed us in October 2007 that meaningful engagement and negotiation had already taken place with the independent decommissioning body. On 1 April this year, he said that if

“there has been no meaningful progress”

in negotiation by the middle of August, he would terminate the decommissioning legislation. Can he tell us what he means by “meaningful progress”? Is it to be interpreted as the handing in of all weaponry by the UDA and associated loyalists by mid-August, and does it mean that there will be no more provocation in regard to the abandonment of the decommissioning legislation?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the role that he continues to play in helping to deal with the legacy of the past in relation to sectarianism. I acknowledge that in his opening remarks.

I do not think it is helpful for me to give the House a running commentary on how the IICD is progressing. It has an outstanding track record in achieving decommissioning on the part of paramilitary organisations since its establishment. If the IICD tells me, as Secretary of State, that it is making meaningful progress in dialogue with those organisations, I think that we have a duty for the next 12 weeks to stick with it in good faith.

I am sure the Secretary of State agrees that while decommissioning by loyalist paramilitaries is important, it is equally important for the weapons used last night in west Belfast to shoot a young man to be decommissioned, and for organisations such as the Irish National Liberation Army and other republican splinter groups to be brought into the decommissioning loop. It is important for their weapons to be taken out of society as well.

It is important for all weapons to be taken out of society. It is my view that none of these instruments, whether they be guns or whether they be knives, has any place in a normal, decent, civilised society. We have a duty in the House to ensure that we do everything we can to find every means possible to remove these weapons from the streets and from people’s homes. There is no doubt that they contribute to sectarian violence.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for what he has done in this regard. As Father Keaney, the priest who presided over the funeral of Kevin McDaid, said earlier this week, we must all see what we can do to remove

“the prejudices of the past”.

That is the action that we must take together, and I have no doubt that if we take it and maintain the political momentum in Northern Ireland, right will win and evil will lose.

I am sure that I speak for the whole House when I associate myself with what my right hon. Friend said about the death of Kevin McDaid, but is my right hon. Friend aware that press reports are suggesting that members of the police force texted loyalist groups to tell them that tricolours were being raised in the community, and is the matter being investigated?

I am aware of those press reports. Indeed, on Saturday evening this week I spoke to the Chief Constable, who had been made aware of the stories. He has investigated the matter, and I am glad to tell my hon. Friend that the Chief Constable can find no evidence whatsoever to support the allegations that were made in the newspaper.

Let me say again that the best way in which we can deal with sectarian violence is by confronting these issues, which are the legacy of the past. We must uphold law and order, we must be firm in our justice, and we must ensure that we do everything we can to send a clear signal to young and old people that guns have no place in Northern Ireland today.

Let me associate myself and my party with the Secretary of State’s comments about the murder of Kevin McDaid. It was a truly brutal and, indeed, evil act. Does the Secretary of State not accept, however, that its true significance lies in its demonstration that in the minds of those would style themselves loyalist paramilitaries, there has been no movement away from—[Interruption.]

Order. It is unfair. Hon. Members are speaking about Northern Ireland, which is a very serious matter, and there is a great noise of conversation in the Chamber.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

Does the Secretary of State agree that when de Chastelain reports in August, we do not want to hear about talks and progress? What we want is confirmation that the weapons have been decommissioned and that there will be no more chances after August.

I have made it very clear to the House that there will be no chances after August unless we are told by the IICD that there has been meaningful progress, so there is no question of the period being extended in the absence of that progress, but again I say that decommissioning in relation to sectarianism in Northern Ireland is only a part of the issue. In the words of the chief executive of the Community Relations Council, we must all talk now about the need for a shared, united society, stop the talk of us and them and unite to turn the hatred of the past into a society of cohesion and normality with no guns at all.

I entirely endorse what the Secretary of State said and condemn the cowardly and murderous attacks on Kevin McDaid and Damian Fleming recently. We hear what the Secretary of State has said about the decommissioning of the arms held by the so-called loyalist groups, but I remind him that, on Thursday 5 February, on behalf of Her Majesty’s official Opposition, I reluctantly agreed to support the Government in extending the arms decommissioning amnesty for the 12th year on the specific promise that there were moves to start decommissioning within weeks. That has not happened. Can the Secretary of State assure the House that if arms decommissioning has not taken place by the August deadline, he will make a statement in the House immediately?

I again say to the hon. Gentleman that we should remember that the work of the IICD has achieved a transformation of weapons held by paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland, not least those weapons held by PIRA. In a succession of instances with regard to decommissioning, that has led to the current state of play. I am grateful for his support this year on that matter, but it will not help the work of the IICD if I make a running commentary on information, including Security Service information. I simply say to him that I believe that it was the right thing to do and I believe that in August he will see the fruits of that labour.