Skip to main content

Belfast Agreement

Volume 597: debated on Wednesday 24 February 1999

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

3.10 p.m.

rose to call attention to the value of the Belfast Agreement 1998 (the Good Friday agreement), and to the dangers inherent in failing to secure from all its participants the prompt and complete implementation of all its provisions; and to move for Papers.

The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, we all await with fascination and anxiety the unfolding of events in Northern Ireland. There is an argument that when matters are so uncertain, when the stakes are so high and many of the factors so sensitive, Parliament should bide its time and hold its tongue. I acknowledge that argument, but I do not share it. I am delighted to see that at least 16 Members of this House wish to speak in this debate. I am especially delighted that they include my noble friend Lady Park, who is newly restored to us following a serious operation.

We should, of course, be understanding of the restraints that circumstances impose upon Northern Ireland Ministers. We should acknowledge the complexity of the interacting forces and issues with which they have to deal. But I do not think that we are obliged, in order to be responsible, to hold back at this time from comment and serious questioning. After all, for all the progress—and it is great and highly creditable—the scene is deeply fraught with danger and anxiety. Indeed, it may well be a good thing for others outside this Chamber and outside these islands to have an opportunity to gauge the strength of feeling and opinion that exists. It may even be an advantage for Ministers to have an opportunity to explain, to use a Northern Ireland form, where we are at.

The Belfast agreement was concluded 10 months ago and it dominates the scene today. I have more than once heard the noble Earl, Lord Longford, describe the agreement as the best thing that has happened to the island of Ireland for a very long time indeed. I cannot rival his experience, but with plenty of Irish blood myself as well as English blood, I respectfully agree. It was a great achievement on the part of all the participants. I pay particular tribute to the determined impetus given by the Prime Minister, and by Dr. Mowlam. I also pay tribute to the political courage that has been shown, notably by Mr. Trimble and Mr. Seamus Mallon. Neither has been content to stand in the trenches that are so familiar to their parties.

There are many facets to the value of the agreement, but at the head and forefront I place the fact that, today, all parties agree, and all participants agree, that the future of Northern Ireland will be determined only by the wishes of most of the people who live there—wishes that they are to be able to express freely and with no one leaning on them. That is a great advance from the days when the Irish Government insisted on the claim to the whole island. While that claim pertained, very many unionists only looked across the Border with distrust and indignation. That was in part an explanation, and a wholly understandable one, for a continuing siege mentality, a mentality that was greatly stimulated by the way in which the Anglo-Irish Agreement was negotiated in total secrecy.

There is another plus, and it is again democratic in character. Republicans have traditionally and contemptuously dismissed Northern Ireland as an illegitimate, invalid, failed statelet. But by negotiating the agreement and by participating in the resulting elections, they now accept the validity of a legislative assembly for Northern Ireland. That is so notwithstanding the fact that the Assembly has, and looks like continuing to have, a majority of parties supporting the Union, and that that Assembly will be the basis for an executive committee that will govern Northern Ireland democratically. To have the validity of all that accepted by nationalists, not to mention republicans, is an advance indeed. The agreement will also allow common cause to be made more effectively between North and South on economic, social and other matters that extend across the border; and that is valuable too.

Achieving these changes has made very heavy demands upon the credulity and nerve of all in these islands who cherish the rule of law or who have bitter memories of lawlessness, or who are sceptical of tigers purporting to change their spots. They have had to take on trust Sinn Fein's assertion, as well as the assertions of those loyalist parties affiliated to equally evil paramilitary organisations, that they are now in truth committed to non-violence, and to wholly peaceful and democratic means of pursuing their political objectives. Those words come from the agreement itself and they describe the fundamental principle underpinning it. That commitment is demanded of all participants.

It was very difficult for people to generate that trust, and it has been harder still to sustain it, in the light of several deeply worrying factors. The first was the failure, by the time of the agreement, to make even a start with the decommissioning of illegally held arms. The independent commission under General de Chastelain was already empowered; but with one welcome but small exception, the LVF, that failure has been maintained.

The next factor was the repeated infliction by paramilitaries on both sides, politically represented in the talks, and in the Assembly, of so-called punishment beatings, better described as hideous mutilations. A revolting example is reported as occurring in Beesbrook, South Armagh, only last night when death threats were carved on the arms and legs of a woman by eight men who had burst into her home. I wonder whether the Minister is yet able to tell the House what group is thought to have been responsible.

The motives for these attacks have generally been no less political than the motives of those who were responsible for the bomb at Canary Wharf or, on the other side, for the massacre that took place in the bar at Grey Steel. Euphemised as "civil administration", their purpose has been to elevate their perpetrators in their own communities above the scrupulously disciplined RUC. There have also been the banishment, or exile, orders issues by both loyalists and republicans. They represent a very serious intrusion and assault as well. It was reported in The Times a couple of days ago that 64 people, including 15 families, were exiled by loyalist and republican paramilitaries in January alone. As many as 18 more have had to leave this month. They are usually given 24 or 72 hours to get out. I wonder whether the Minister can confirm those figures.

It is small wonder then, in the light of those factors, that the agreement's provisions for the early release of prisoners convicted of terrorist crimes were the most difficult of all for people to accept and support; as I did myself, and continue to support. The agreement provides that all those convicted of scheduled offences committed before the date of the agreement and serving sentences of five years or more shall be eligible for early release, provided that the organisation to which they are affiliated has established and is maintaining a complete and unequivocal cease-fire. As your Lordships know, many of those prisoners who in the view of the Government are now eligible under this enacted scheme have been sentenced either to life imprisonment or to very long determinate periods in prison for offences of the utmost gravity. Yet the declared intention and expectation is that all shall be released by next summer.

That was far different in character from a change made by the previous government in the Northern Ireland (Remission of Sentences) Bill 1995. That measure merely restored to Northern Ireland the same level of remission, namely 50 per cent., that is the norm in England and Wales. It had no application at all to murderers or other lifers, many of whom—were it not for the present agreement—would not have been released until about 2010.

However, if the 1995 scheme is seen, as I have heard argued today, nevertheless to have been a concession, it was certainly a concession that bought nothing, because within a few weeks the IRA let off the bomb at Canary Wharf and brought their cease-fire to an end. If there is a lesson there, then so be it.

What is beyond doubt is that the Belfast agreement makes a vastly wider concession, in totally different circumstances. That is doubtless why the Prime Minister, when campaigning in the referendum for a "yes" vote, along with all other party leaders, sought to coat the pill so thickly with reassurances and safeguards.

I acknowledge the reality that without such provision for early release of prisoners it is unlikely that there would have been any agreement at all. But such is the gravity, to say nothing of the potential danger of overriding the sentences of the courts to this extent, that a most rigorous scrutiny surely has to be maintained on what is delivered in return.

The Prime Minister said, during the referendum campaign, that as time went on the test for a complete and unequivocal ceasefire would get more rigorous. It would be helpful if the Minister could say whether that has happened, and if so, how. He said, however, that from the outset in making an overall judgment on all the relevant information the Government would look to see whether an organisation was committed to the use now and in the future of only democratic and peaceful means to further its objectives.

He also said that account would be taken of whether an organisation had ceased to be involved in any acts of violence, or preparation for violence, and whether it was co-operating with the commission. Violence would have to be seen to have been given up for good. Those safeguards were vital. "We will make them stick", the Prime Minister said. They would he enshrined in legislation.

For my part I do not doubt for one Minute that the Prime Minister meant all that completely sincerely, for it was the very least that could justify the drastic measure that had been agreed. We are told that the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 now achieves those limitations. We are told that, on that basis, the Government's judgment remains that on all sides a complete and unequivocal ceasefire is indeed being maintained. I hope that the Minister will be able to help as to how that conclusion is reached in the context of what I have described. It is a conclusion that causes me and many others much anxiety.

For my part, I tried to express it in this House in the context of prisoners as long ago as 30th July last year. When I did so, it was not an attack on Ministers but an expression of opinion, just as in our time those noble Lords' belief that the renewal of the anti-terrorist legislation, or some of it, was wrong and unnecessary was no more than an expression of opinion.

The Government do not cease to assert that the agreement must be delivered in its entirety. My Lords, just so. But we understand that no fewer than 54 mutilation attacks have been made this year alone as against 236 last year. The Minister might be able to confirm those figures; and from the chief constable we learn that the political parties represented in the assembly are responsible for them.

I have already referred to the exclusion orders. Does it make a difference that the attacks are on victims within what are called "their own people"? It is hard to see how in those circumstances the maintenance of a complete and unequivocal ceasefire can be discerned. For my part, I should welcome the Minister's assistance on that matter too.

Then there is the very important matter of the decommissioning of arms. With the welcome exception of the LVF, there has been none whatsoever. Yet, if you hold stocks of semtex, for example, how can you claim that you are not involved in acts of preparation for violence, for that can have no possible defensive purpose. I realise that the agreement sets no date by which the decommissioning must begin; nevertheless, is it not inherent in the spirit of the agreement that decommissioning should have proceeded in parallel with the enormous changes that have been initiated in pursuance of the agreement? I think of the inquiry into the future policing of Northern Ireland, the equality commission, the British-Irish Council, and so forth.

What worries people is that it seems so hard to establish with clarity what significance the Government attach to the mutilation assaults and the banishments carried out at the direction of the organisations whose prisoners continue steadily to be released. I suggest that the Government have had from the outset a lever to hand that could well bring about the discontinuance of the outrages that typically have left men and women with shattered legs or emasculated or dead.

That lever is constituted by the power and the entitlement that the Government have under the agreement to discontinue the early release of prisoners until such time as an indication is given that these attacks are finished for good. I submit that to use that lever would have been to apply the agreement, not to walk away from it. I greatly fear that if the Government persist in denying the validity of the lever, then public confidence will slip away just as the lever itself will slip away, with the continued early release of the prisoners.

In conclusion, it is only fair to note from the Belfast Telegraph in recent days that there are welcome signs that the UDA has declared an end to beatings, in north and east Belfast at least, and that the IRA—although they have made no declaration—appear this month to be desisting. If that is true, it is very welcome as far as it goes.

But those who direct the paramilitaries have shown in the past that they can turn them on and off at will. It would help if the Minister would give an indication as to how the Government assess this latest, and, I repeat, welcome development. After all, we are approaching the deadline for the establishment of the executive council.

If such violence were resumed, would it still have no consequences for the early release of such prisoners? I referred at the beginning not only to the great value of the agreement but also to the anxieties that trouble so many people. I hope that the Minister, whom we all admire, will be able in his reply to allay those anxieties, at least in part. I beg to move.

My Lords, before we begin the list of speakers, I draw noble Lords' attention to the fact that when the clock says "07", the speaker is into his eighth minute. There are now only five minutes to spare in the whole debate.

3.26 p.m.

My Lords, the opportunity given to the House by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, to discuss the Belfast agreement is most welcome and timely. In asking noble Lords to give attention to the value of the agreement, the Motion allows us all to reflect on the truly magnificent job that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has done since her appointment following the general election in 1997.

Together with her colleagues, Dr. Mowlam has shown courage and not a little patience, as she has sought to bring about the hope that is the real value of the Good Friday agreement.

The value of the agreement is clearly recognised by the people of Northern Ireland and, I suggest, the whole island of Ireland. It is recognised by many more who live many miles away from those troubled shores. Those who have witnessed the violence that has caused great suffering to so many understand and recognise the value of the Good Friday agreement. It is so valuable that it has to be nurtured, encouraged and supported by all who want to see the hope it represents turned into reality.

Such a transition will not happen overnight; it will have to be worked for. That is what the Secretary of State and her colleagues are doing, day and night: toiling to make the agreement work.

The Motion in the name of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, also calls attention to,
"the dangers inherent in failing to secure from all its participants the prompt and complete implementation of all its provisions".
In making such a call we must also recognise the dangers inherent in seeking to make progress at a faster speed with the attendant risk of not getting the process of implementation right. We would do well to reflect on the substantial progress made since the agreement, to my mind a truly historic agreement, that was arrived at last April.

I have no doubt that the Minister, my noble friend Lord Dubs, will later in this debate outline in some detail the real progress that has been made since the signing of the agreement.

Following the strictures from my noble friend Lady Farrington, I shall try not to go into great detail. I shall draw attention to a number of important issues, two of which were touched on by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew: first, the establishment of the new Northern Ireland Assembly. A few years ago such a thought would have been unspoken; we would not even have considered the possibility of getting a new Northern Ireland Assembly. We have had the election of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. Agreement has been reached on the future structure of the Northern Ireland departments and arrangements, together with the functions of the first North-South implementation bodies.

Reviews of policing and criminal justice are under way. Those of us who have made visits to Northern Ireland and have friends in various sections of its community welcome with open arms a review of policing and criminal justice and the progress that has been made in setting up the human rights and equality commissions. That is real progress which a few years ago would have been unthinkable. All of this progress, and more, is made possible by the Belfast agreement of last April. If implementation takes more time than any of us would like we would do well to remember the almost three decades that preceded the agreement. No one can pretend that implementation will or can be an easy process. Hearts and minds must come to terms with the new situation that the agreement heralds. Like the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, I recognise how difficult that is for people who have suffered family tragedies and witnessed the mutilations to which reference has been made. While that is very difficult, families who have suffered so much have hope. Understandably, that is not easy for them but that hope is there.

Throughout the past 30 years there has been a bi-partisan approach in this Parliament to the difficulties and suffering of the people of Northern Ireland. It would be a tragic mistake if that joint approach was put at risk at this vital moment of history. I earnestly hope that the prize of long-term stability and peace will be sufficient for all of us to give wholehearted support to those who at this very moment seek to overcome the very real problems that remain to be resolved.

The value of the Belfast agreement is recognised by the people of Northern Ireland who have so much to gain from the hope that it holds out for them. The price of failure is too dreadful to contemplate. It is the duty and responsibility of all of us to see that it does not fail. If that means that we must follow the example of the patience shown by the Secretary of State and many others who are working to make progress, surely that is a small price for any of us to pay.

3.32 p.m.

My Lords, I too thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, for initiating this debate. As a former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland he can take credit for helping to pave the way for the Good Friday agreement. As some of us will remember, in 1996 in particular he showed immense courage in pursuing what at the time was a highly controversial policy. It can be truly said that he is one of the several architects of the Good Friday agreement who deserves the commendations of this House. Northern Ireland has never been short of men and women of outstanding courage. Clearly, the names of Mr. Hume, Mr. Mallon and Mr. Trimble spring to mind, but there are many other unknown and unrecorded heroes and heroines who have done their best to try to bring about reconciliation in that country. My noble friend Lord Redesdale and I are aware that we cannot be good substitutes for our noble friend and former spokesman on Northern Ireland, Lord Holme, but we shall do our best.

I remember long ago, as Minister of State responsible for Northern Ireland, visiting the Province and becoming dimly aware of how deeply divided were the two communities in tradition, culture and history. When one looks at the Good Friday agreement one should never forget what a huge gulf of history has been bridged by it. Therefore, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Clarke of Hampstead, that this is a pearl without price.

Having said that, I should like to say a few words about one aspect that is not normally touched upon in Northern Ireland debates. I address my remarks particularly to those in the nationalist community who still have the vision of a united Ireland. One of the most striking features of the Republic of Ireland is the way in which it has managed to put the past behind it and to build a future that is much more promising than the past. The remarkable economic achievement of the republic clearly displays the way in which that country looks to the future and has in the past 25 years moved from a gross national product per capita that is 60 per cent. of that of the United Kingdom to one that is equivalent to 90 per cent. I believe that that was one of the bonuses of the Republic of Ireland moving on from its very troubled history and addressing and making the most of the prospects that lay before it.

I turn to the Good Friday agreement and the issue of decommissioning, which was dealt with by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew. The most difficult dilemma faced by the Government is that described by Gerry Adams (rather unexpectedly) as the division between those who are pro-agreement and those who are anti-agreement. The very issues that have placed the Good Friday agreement under strain are ones which are pursued by those who look for nothing so much as the failure of the agreement. Those responsible for the terrible mutilations—and the whole House will share the outrage expressed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, at the most recent of those mutilations in Beesbrooke—will also be conscious that there are many evil men and women whose greatest desire is to destroy the Good Friday agreement because it does not serve their purpose. The difficult road down which the Government have to travel is, at one and the same time, to encourage those who have signed the agreement to carry it out not only to the letter but also in the spirit while yielding nothing to those on both sides of the communities in Northern Ireland who wish to destroy it.

Like the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, noble Lords may take some comfort from the decline in the number of, yes, mutilations rather than punishment beatings that has occurred recently. They will also ask themselves whether this is a continuing and steady decline or merely a short incidental alteration in what has been a very frightening escalation in recent months. I urge noble Lords to consider very carefully those who are responsible for these terrible acts and do not wish to see the rule of law re-established in the Province. I also echo the comment of the noble and learned Lord in regard to exile. When one considers other parts of the world, exile is called by another name; it is known as ethnic cleansing, which all of us bitterly condemn.

Northern Ireland has an amazing tradition in both communities and has the potential to become an example not only to itself but, in a world troubled by profound religious and ethnic conflicts, to other parts of the world that have also embarked upon peace processes. That is why the Good Friday agreement is so crucially important not only for Northern Ireland but far beyond. I commend the Secretary of State and the Minister for the ways in which they have continually pressed forward with the Good Friday agreement.

I very much hope that some of the recent intimations suggest that more and more people begin to understand how vital it is to ensure that this agreement survives and is then built upon. I hope that in the good spirit in this House for the establishment of a stable and lasting peace in Northern Ireland we shall be able today to give strength and hope to those who have so courageously fought for that agreement and are now trying to build upon it.

3.38 p.m.

My Lords, I thank my noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew very warmly for his generous words. I am glad to be back.

The Belfast agreement has set in train many seminal social and political changes. What the two governments and the Assembly can do they are doing. The major change without which nothing will really work is the removal of paramilitary weapons from Northern Irish politics. That, alas, is the one thing which is not set in stone in the agreement as a pre-condition. It was an assumption which was expected to have the same force but which does not. The parties are merely committed to using their influence but, as Martin McGuiness pointed out only a month ago,
"Sinn Fein made it abundantly clear to both Prime Ministers during the Stormont talks that [it] could not deliver IRA disarmament".
He said on the same day that there was "no prospect whatsoever" of the IRA surrendering arms to secure Sinn Fein/IRA's entry to government and, therefore, absolutely no point in the two governments pressuring them because "it would not work". Gerry Adams reinforced that when he said that the IRA was never a party to the agreement—I thought that was why Sinn Fein was in the talks—that Sinn Fein had no power over the IRA and that for it decommissioning meant only the abolition of the RUC and the withdrawal of all British forces. In those circumstances it is difficult to see what President Clinton can do to change the situation, as it is reported he hopes to do next month on St. Patrick's Day.

It is not of course impossible that the IRA might, as a gesture, then order one of its surrogates such as the Continuity IRA to give up some token weapons. I hope that we shall remember then the dangers of believing such a token gesture. I hope, too, that the opportunity will not he lost at any White House meeting to ask what, if anything, the American Government are doing about the continued fund-raising for the Continuity IRA. When I asked the Minister about NORAID funding in November, he had no information. Perhaps it might be sought on this occasion.

However, Martin McGuinness said something ominous which should give us cause to consider whether another most important part of the Belfast agreement—security, policing and justice—is being neglected. He said that the key was the removal of the causes of conflict and gave warning of "big trouble" if the Patten Commission fails to recommend the disbandment of the RUC. He said:
"Any fair-minded reading of the Accord shows Patten has to produce a policing service acceptable to both communities, and that effectively means producing a new police service".
The agreement indeed talks about,
"enabling local people and their political representatives to influence policing policies".
It also laid down that such a force much be "free from partisan political control". But so far as the nationalists are concerned, that is evidently aimed at the RUC as at present constituted. The agreement wants a police force,
"accountable to the community it serves and representative of the society it polices".
I find it disturbing that when Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness refused recently to attend a meeting with the Secretary of State to discuss beatings by paramilitaries, Sinn Fein/IRA argued that paramilitary attacks were the result of a "policing vacuum" which will exist until the RUC is disbanded and replaced by a new and "acceptable" police service.

Now that Sinn Fein/IRA has secured the release of a significant number of prisoners, and apparently the Government as a matter of principle will not use the release of prisoners as a lever, I fear that its next and most dangerous objective will be the abolition of the RUC and the creation of a series of regional/sectarian people's police forces manned by former paramilitaries. Gerry Adams has already said that,
"changes in the RUC are not enough. The RUC is not acceptable. Reform is not an option. An entirely new and real policing service is required".
And of course Sinn Fein/IRA has ensured that the Patten Commission has met plenty of focus groups who say that not one existing RUC officer would be accepted into the new force. I hope and believe from the many tributes paid to the RUC by Ministers that, should the commission recommend the Sinn Fein/IRA formula, it would be rejected—although there are many possible changes which the RUC itself would probably welcome. One such increase is in the number of Catholics; but it was never the RUC's fault that there were so few. That sprang from the fact that it took a brave man to join and expose himself and his family to a lifelong threat of murder. However, I fear that in the talks in the White House Sinn Fein/IRA might develop the theory of the vacuum in policing to bargain for some major changes in the RUC which could destroy its capacity to provide reliable intelligence and could put whole communities at the mercy of the paramilitaries of either side. I believe the destruction of the RUC to be the prime target of Sinn Fein/IRA at present—apart of course from any warning shots that it may be intending to fire over our bows on the mainland.

Concessions on that front today might easily seem a small price for the Government to pay for a promise to take the guns out of politics at some time. But it would be letting the Trojan horse within the gates and would be a monstrous betrayal of ordinary people, the victims of paramilitaries. I realise that Ministers undoubtedly understand this. My concern is that the Americans may not.

It is a critical moment. Men and women, victims of both the IRA and the loyalists, are coming together across the sectarian divide in such organisations as FAIT. It is heartening to see that Members of another place have recently recognised the monstrous arrogance that allows the paramilitaries to send whole families into exile. So far as I know, the IRA has still done nothing about telling the families of those it murdered where the bodies lie; and it has certainly not apologised for murdering and beating the wrong people, as it has done. If given real encouragement, I believe that the ordinary man in the street is ready to give evidence to the police. But it must be admitted that it takes great courage and it is difficult for them to overcome the code of "no informing". It was shocking to see that witnesses to the murder, which we must now call manslaughter, of Garda Jerry McCabe refused to testify for fear of what would happen to them. That was in the republic where the Garda are their own, but the IRA still rules.

Let us make sure that we do not allow Sinn Fein/IRA to destroy civil liberties and public peace, not only through sending families into exile and carrying out murderous attacks on individuals, but by damaging, if not destroying, the framework of law and order within which men and women are entitled to live. I believe that the courage being shown by ordinary men and women and their readiness to cross sectarian lines demonstrates that they believe that they are living, or could live, in a different, less violent world. So much in the agreement is good, but people need positive, public support for every act of courage and readiness to use the law as it should be used, to bring evil men to justice. We should also be seen to be upholding the forces of law. I hope that Amnesty International will publicise to the world the hateful deeds of a small minority and destroy their image of brave freedom fighters once and for all.

3.45 p.m.

My Lords, we are all indebted to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew of Twysden, for providing us with the opportunity to take stock of progress in the implementation of the Good Friday agreement.

The noble and learned Lord correctly compared the rate of progress on sections of the agreement. The most glaring difference is that which separates the two aspects which, more than any others, have disillusioned a vast number of people—possibly the majority of the 71 per cent. who voted for the Good Friday agreement. First, I refer to the amnesty for convicted murderers. I use the term in its correct sense because that it how it is perceived by people throughout this nation; it is the way in which it is perceived throughout Northern Ireland. It is an amnesty for convicted criminals, convicted murderers. Secondly, there is the utter failure in the first year of the agreement to secure disarmament of terrorist parties. I use the words "terrorist parties". Hitherto there were terrorist bands, terrorist movements, but they are now terrorist parties because they are taking their place in the Northern Ireland Assembly and, if they get their way by certain means which I may mention later, they will be in the Executive Council of Northern Ireland without surrendering one round of ammunition.

I have to say with regret that the greater part of the blame for failure attaches to Her Majesty's Government. It was in the power of the Government to establish a firm linkage between the release of murderers and a requirement to dismantle the apparatus of guerrilla warfare in the control of terrorist parties now masquerading as democratic bodies.

I have to say, frankly, that there is no confidence in the capacity or will of Her Majesty's Government to resist a ploy in the form of a token surrender of perhaps a dozen rusty rifles for the purpose of securing immediate access to membership of the Executive. We may hear more on that when it comes to the St. Patrick's Day celebrations in Washington and New York. Indeed, many who voted yes in the referendum suspect that the sordid deal has already been done and is simply being kept under wraps until next month.

The event will trigger a government initiative codenamed Normalisation; and that is another important matter. Indeed, some of it has already been implemented. I give a few examples: the discouragement, ever so subtle, of effective policing; pressure to dismantle fortified posts in police stations; phasing out security precautions throughout the commercial and industrial sectors; and what appears to be toleration of a campaign of exile. And those are just the beginning.

The bogus justification for the mistaken idea of normalisation is that peace has broken out. We are all thankful that the warfare in its earlier form is for the moment no more, but how can that be the main justification for the mistaken, phoney campaign of normalisation? How can that be when the main terrorist parties flatly refuse to dismantle their capacity to wage guerrilla warfare and when they consider that it might be useful to supply the terrorist muscle to augment their political demands at any given time?

Or how can peace be taken for granted when reconstructed terrorist machines, misnamed "splinter groups", now have the capacity and the equipment to launch a murderous campaign in both islands? And how can peace be assured when we have the most deadly threats in the shape of unidentified terror forces, whose existence I reported to your Lordships on 3rd September 1998? Did the Provisional IRA transfer at that time vast stocks of arms and explosives to those unidentified forces on the understanding that eventually they might be returned to their donors; namely, the Libyan Government? What we have seen of normalisation this far amounts simply to a lowering of our guard when it is clear that, unfortunately, terrorism can and probably will erupt at any time.

On 8th February 1999 in the debate on the Departments (Northern Ireland) Order (col. 87 of the Official Report) I questioned the wisdom of the increasing number of departments, from six to 11. I venture to applaud the Treasury—I gave it the benefit of the doubt—for its generosity in financing that. The estimated cost of running the Assembly was then some £14 million a year. Therefore, I trust that the Treasury will not be greatly alarmed by the report of a committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly which recommends that the figure be increased—and I gather that that has been authorised—from £14 million to £36 million a year, with, no doubt, costs escalating year by year. In others words, the Northern Ireland Assembly is overtaking your Lordships' House, which last year cost only £39 million to run.

Am I right in believing that the Assembly costs—two-and-a-half-times what was estimated only four months ago—will be met from the Northern Ireland (Appropriation) Order and therefore deducted from monies allocated to education, health, social services, agriculture and transport? Does this unexpected demand disturb the Minister and his ministerial colleagues in the Northern Ireland Office who will be blamed for the shortcomings? Would it not be prudent to transfer Assembly costs from the appropriation order to the Northern Ireland Vote, perhaps as an alternative to granting the Assembly tax-raising powers?

3.53 p.m.

My Lords, unlike the previous speaker, to whom we listened with accustomed attention, I have no particular connection with Northern Ireland. However, I wish to call your Lordships' attention to the fact that, although to us it is the most immediate and terrifying problem faced by the Government, it is only an incident in Europe's long history of ethnic and religious conflicts taking violent forms from time to time. I believe that lessons can be learnt from observing those conflicts.

One of the lessons I would learn is that the protagonists, if they feel strongly, are unlikely to get rid of the means of enforcing their will. Therefore, I have always doubted, and still doubt, whether there was a serious intention on the part of the IRA or its political wing to make it impossible for it, by the surrender of weapons, to recommence the struggle. As my noble friend Lady Park pointed out, it is therefore enormously important that the powers of the state, the powers of the police, should under no circumstances be diminished until there is evidence that the intention to renew an arms struggle has disappeared.

We are told—and it was mentioned by my noble friend Lady Park and others—that the negotiations balancing membership of the executive in Northern Ireland with the decommissioning of arms are to be tackled at a quasi summit in Washington. Indeed, the relations between Britain and the United States, normally close and intimate, as one would hope, have for a long time been bedeviled by the issue of Northern Ireland. I must admit a certain discomfiture, a certain anxiety, when I am told that President Clinton will be the dues ex machina for this process. A little while ago it was reported in the press, and so far as I know it has not been denied, that the American Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, addressing the Kosovo Liberation Army—which, mutatis mutandis, is not that unlike the IRA, although its case may be stronger—said that what it needed was a peaceful leader on the model of Gerry Adams. If the American Secretary of State believes that Gerry Adams is a man of peace, we shall not achieve much understanding at a meeting in Washington in which she, presumably, will play a prominent part.

Therefore, I very much hope that a great deal of attention is being paid by Her Majesty's Government and their representatives in the United States to trying to convey to American opinion—and there is evidence that it has moved over the years—the fact that this is an anxious and delicate moment; that by the demolition of the RUC we are perhaps being asked to give over a population, both Protestant and Catholic, to domination by movements which rely on armed force. As has also been said, we have not yet had a satisfactory explanation as to why it is possible in the United States to raise any funds for any element in Ireland. What would be thought if we in this country were raising funds to assist the curious movements which have now developed in the American West? The United States is our friend and perhaps the key to the solution of the problem, but unless it gets it right it can only make it worse.

3.58 p.m.

My Lords, I join noble Lords in thanking the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, for initiating this timely and challenging debate. As a former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, he and his good lady are much respected in the Province. Their strong commitment and sensitive and practical approach to long and deep-seated political and social problems greatly helped the Province survive ugly terrorist sectarian violence during his years there.

I welcome the fact that there are some 21 speakers. That will surely be of some help in raising the general awareness of the problems in Northern Ireland.

In November 1996, when the noble and learned Lord was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, he introduced the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Bill. The passing of that legislation in 1997 is an example of the high degree of parliamentary bipartisanship which has largely prevailed throughout Westminster over some 50 years of terrorism, violence, sectarianism and bigotry in Northern Ireland. That bipartisan approach has had a helpful and forceful influence on events.

There is no doubt about the ongoing difficulties and critical political issues that arise out of the 1998 Good Friday agreement. No words of mine today can do justice to the tremendous mental, physical and totally democratic commitment of Dr. Mowlam and her ministerial team or to the United Kingdom Government's support for the Good Friday agreement and the devolved Assembly. In a statement last Monday Dr. Mowlam said:
"It is too early to say whether Northern Ireland is a [working] example of conflict management and resolution. We still face many difficult problems that will take months even years to overcome. But I do think that the right way forward for Northern Ireland, as elsewhere, is an approach based on inclusivity, commitment to peace and democracy, public support and solid foundations of equality, justice and human rights".
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, called attention to the value of the Belfast agreement. I would have wished to quote paragraphs 2 to 4 of the Declaration of Support made by 108 elected Assembly representatives but, because of time constraints, I note only the following:
"I hold that [that] declaration pledges all Assembly Members to uphold the principles and precepts of parliamentary democracy and complete opposition to any 'use' or 'threat' of force by others for any political purposes".
All 108 have made their personal declaration of support to what is contained in the agreement.

A question arises about "credible decommissioning." On page 20 of the agreement there are six paragraphs under the heading "Decommissioning". Paragraph 4 states:
"The Independent Commission will monitor, review and verify progress on decommissioning of illegal arms, and will report to both Governments at regular intervals".
Perhaps it is now time to ask the commission whether it will consider producing such a report to be made generally available to the community. That would be most helpful at this time. It is a commitment that I feel should be undertaken by the commission.

The question is not just one of decommissioning but of the future for all the people of Northern Ireland. It concerns not only politicians, the political parties and their rank and file members. It is the future of our children, our families, our friends, our neighbours and our Province that is important. All peaceable people are at the heart of the present political issues.

The very nature of the Belfast agreement is its complexity. We are, as a community, required to build a climate of trust. Is it not the duty of every politician to declare wholehearted commitment to parliamentary democracy and to pledge to uphold the principles of justice in all aspects of community life? There should be full implementation of social equity and a commitment to a quality of mercy in the exercise of redress and in the face of human failure. The greatest contribution politicians and all in authority in our Province can make to lasting peace in the community is to work humbly and earnestly to build a better life for all in the Province.

4.5 p.m.

My Lords, I thank my noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew for initiating this debate. I know he does not need me to make points for him, but I was particularly disappointed to read the rather arrogant letter from the Minister in today's Daily Telegraph in which he claimed that this Government had done more than any other to reduce terrorism in the Province. I think that that is a bit of an overstatement.

The political process is in a dangerous stalemate caused by what is euphemistically referred to as the "decommissioning process" or, rather, the lack of it. Last year over 70 per cent. of the population in Northern Ireland voted "Yes" in the referendum because it offered hope of a better way: devolved government, power-sharing and a return to the democratic process, with the bomb and the bullet out of play. They did not, however, vote for peace at any price.

Those republicans who support Sinn Fein and the IRA and who voted "No" believe that a 32-county Ireland governed by their own particular brand of republicanism could be delivered by the bomb and the bullet. Their overall objective has not changed, but their strategy has moved from bomb and bullet to ballot box supported by bomb and bullet. The challenge today is the same as it has always been: to persuade Sinn Fein/IRA that this strategy can never work. They must wait for however long it takes for the demographic evolutionary process to deliver their objective.

Adams and McGuinness say that they cannot deliver decommissioning. I do not think that they can, even if they want to, which I do not believe they do at this time. The Secretary of State has at times recently—unwisely, in my opinion—allowed herself to appear to be far too close to the "Gerry and Martin" show and too soft on Sinn Fein/IRA. We know that she has always had their guns in her back, metaphorically speaking, but that is precisely why she cannot, and should not, expect David Trimble to share executive power with Sinn Fein/IRA without disarmament—I use that word advisedly—being well and truly under way; otherwise the majority of the population—namely, the unionist voters—will soon believe that David Trimble is suffering from the same treatment and he will lose their support and confidence, which he needs for his power base. Fortunately, at this time the Secretary of State has the full support—or so we are led to believe—of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, the Prime Minister of Ireland and the President of the United States in resisting this expectation. And she must resist it.

However, delaying devolution will create more problems. Some might have been avoided; others not. A look at the calendar of projected events shows a date for devolution of 10th March 1999. I understand that that is likely to be put back. There is no date for the removal of Clauses 2 and 3 from the Irish Constitution. Perhaps I may quote from the Irish News of 27th April:
"changes in articles 2 and 3 would only come about when all other aspects of the deal had been put in place".
Where are we in respect of that? The Belfast Telegraph of 2nd May 1998 states:
"the new version of Article 29, which ensures that changes to Articles 2 and 3 will not come into effect until the Agreement as a whole is ready to come into effect following the passage of constitutional legislation at Westminster".
What else do we have to do to satisfy the Irish Government?

The marching season opens at Easter—it may be a bit early, but that is when it starts—and Drumcree has not gone away. Not only has it not gone away, but there is strong support for the Orange Order's right to march across all Loyalist terrain.

The Patten report on the RUC is due in June or thereabouts. Again, many of the unionist population and the forces themselves are intensely suspicious of its outcome. It is a pity it was not delayed a little. The date set in the agreement by which decommissioning is to be completed is two years from the date of signing on Good Friday 1998—I presume April 2000—but, as we know, there is no start date. Prisoner releases started immediately after the signing of the agreement. We all understand why they had to start, but their triumphalism has certainly sickened us.

I am a little concerned about the process and transparency of the prisoner releases. For example, I am told that the commission has little authority. The decisions as to who is released and when are almost always made by the Northern Ireland Office. What tests are carried out to see whether those being released have any dangerous personality disorders? Are they prone to pyschopathic behaviour? Have they criminal tendencies? Are they involved with drugs and so forth? Will they be good members of the community when they come out? And perhaps most importantly of all, what proof is available to show that they comply with the agreement and no longer have any affiliation to any paramilitaries?

The aim of my speech this afternoon is to try to point to what might lie ahead this summer if the miracle of decommissioning—I pray that it does—does not happen. David Trimble and the unionist majority are under seige while the Parades Commission tries in vain to manage the marching season. The RUC will be under seige, on one side from Patten and its side effects; on another from policing marches and trying to control the ever-increasing organised and local crime; and on the third, and perhaps the most sinister side, from the strategy of Sinn Fein-IRA and its campaign to discredit and embarrass the RUC whenever it can, particularly in areas it wishes to control.

I believe that the Government are doing their best to deliver, but they must prepare for the worst and the difficult summer ahead. That means winning back the confidence of the unionist population.

My Lords, I must stop the noble Lord. There will be no time for other noble Lords to speak.

My Lords, the Government must ensure that nothing is said or done to undermine the morale and capacity of the RUC. They must persuade the Republic Government that it is time they altered their constitution in relation to Articles 2 and 3, and continue to make it absolutely clear to Sinn Fein-IRA that there is only one way—decommissioning and ultimate disarmament. Those measures will go some way to redressing the balance.

4.13 p.m.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, in his opening remarks quite properly described the advantages that will come from this agreement if it follows through. He mentioned the agreement of the South to relinquish its claim on the North. That is most important and is already apparent in that Dublin and London are working much more closely together. That is good news and it is much more likely that, by working together, they will be able to pursue this problem to a sensible conclusion.

Only last week the Taoiseach made very clear that decommissioning must commence before Sinn Fein can be accepted as Ministers. That was an interesting point. He only said, of course, what everybody else knows to be true, but for him to say it was a landmark.

In Northern Ireland we desperately need the Assembly, though perhaps not with the £36 million cost attached to it. We desperately need democratic government. How far do we have to go to find an area the size of Northern Ireland where nobody has been able to vote for their government for almost 30 years? The decline in standards of administration and decision-making are only too clear. If Sinn Fein will not decommission then arrangements must be made to proceed with the Assembly and devolved government with it.

The agreement is designed to move towards peace in stages, in a maximum period of two years with early release of convicted terrorists on licence to recognise that. There will also be staged relaxation of security. It is grossly offensive for the Ulster people that early release of terrorists has been entirely one-sided. There is ample evidence that the main paramilitary groups are still active. The chief constable confirmed that, but it has been ignored and prisoners continue to be released at a fast pace. It is known that some terrorists have gone back to what they know best, but they have not been re-imprisoned. That confirms to the IRA that it can achieve its objectives without giving anything in return; that it pays to retain the threat of arms. Removal of important security check points in advance of any decommissioning sends the message that the Government are no longer interested in defending the citizens of Northern Ireland from terrorist attack, though the threat and capability remain unchanged.

Most people in Northern Ireland, of every religious persuasion, have deeply embedded standards of behaviour; honesty and straight dealing come naturally to us. The failure of the Government to do what they promise, the fudging of issues and what are perceived as lies are having a corrosive effect on beliefs and standards. That is a subject often discussed in Northern Ireland and does not augur well for the future. I am sorry to report that the belief is now widespread that the Government are not concerned about how many people are maimed or murdered in Northern Ireland; that the IRA will be given everything they want provided the threat of bombs in Great Britain is removed.

My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord will allow me to intervene. Is the noble Lord suggesting that the slaughter of individuals and those murdered is confined to the Catholics? The Protestants have done their share in recent times, have they not?

My Lords, of course. The present beatings and attacks on people have been criticised equally by both sides. I am merely talking about the decommissioning of arms.

The belief is widespread in Northern Ireland that the IRA and other terrorists will be given everything they want provided the threat of bombs in Great Britain is removed. That is an alarming state of affairs. The majority of those in Northern Ireland expect to be treated as citizens of the United Kingdom. The noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, spoke at length about the police. It is a major concern in Northern Ireland that the report on the police may cause a substantial and totally unacceptable change in the police and it is very important that that does not happen.

I want to pay tribute to the many voluntary organisations which are working hard with the victims of terrorism and others in an attempt to support them. There are many, such as FAIT and others, which have done exceedingly important work and a great deal to destabilise the terrorists on either side and to show them that they do not have support. They are also probably responsible for the present ceasing of attacks which have occurred both by the IRA and the UDA.

With many others, I do not think that the IRA will decommission, but if it did and the agreement is implemented in full is it appreciated that we would not have peace as that word is understood? We would have a dozen splinter groups from the IRA, and probably as many Protestant groups. Those groups will comprise, particularly the IRA, the present hard-line men who will have sufficient arms to do whatever they want. They will continue to attempt to control "their areas"; they will continue to control drug distribution, and so on. The situation will not change. Can the Minister advise the House on whether the Government have thought about that, and what they should do?

4.20 p.m.

My Lords, I add my grateful thanks to those paid to my noble friend Lord Mayhew of Twysden for instigating this debate. I take the opportunity to recognise the powerful part he played during his time in the Province. Perhaps I may add that I pay tribute to my right honourable friend John Major for the tenacity he showed in his approach to the troubles in Northern Ireland. Of course, I salute all those who were involved in the difficult negotiations which culminated in the signing of the Belfast agreement 1998. an agreement I am sure all noble Lords wholeheartedly support.

It is both timely and important that we are debating the situation in Northern Ireland at this most sensitive stage. As we approach 10th March, the date designated as devolution day, and as we also near the anniversary of the Good Friday agreement, it seems appropriate to take stock, to see what has happened since then and how the lives of many of the people of Northern Ireland have been affected.

Expectations were raised for a calmer and safer society, with violence and misery being a thing of the past. I am sure that the men and women who voted in such numbers to support the agreement did so because they yearned to have the opportunity to raise their children in the same atmosphere that we experience here in mainland Britain. One can imagine the dreams they had of putting the brutal past behind them and the excitement of facing a new dawn and a fresh beginning in the Province. Of course, I am sure that no one was gullible enough to believe that everything would proceed without a hitch but, overall, that life would be better and safer for all families. I only wish that that had transpired.

Many families have had to face the horror of what has become known as "punishment beatings". But, as my noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew said, they are nothing of the sort. They are acts of barbarism where people are viciously attacked, sometimes for hours, and left mutilated with injuries so hideous and shocking that permanent physical disability or even death has resulted in some extreme cases.

Perhaps I may illustrate the horror of the situation by referring to the terrible plight of Mrs. Maureen Kearney, whose son was murdered last July. He was in his flat on that fateful evening nursing his two week-old daughter when IRA men burst into his eighth floor flat and dragged him out into the stairwell while the baby's mother was held down. He was shot through both knees, severing an artery. They then jammed the lift, cut the telephone wire and made their escape. By the time his girlfriend was able to call for help, he had bled to death. His mother was, of course, distraught on hearing of this tragedy. She carries the burden with her and finds the daily round difficult to cope with. Recently, she came face to face with one of those she considered responsible. I do not have to tell your Lordships of her reaction. The baby will be raised without the benefit of having a father around to bestow the usual loving care.

I also wish to mention the case of Andrew Pedon who had both his legs amputated as a result of being "kneecapped". The effect on his wife and three young children has been devastating. His wife has to attend to all his needs, carrying him upstairs and sharing his agony. He was a father who enjoyed such lively pursuits as camping and fishing with his children, but obviously activities of this kind are not possible now. His injuries need daily professional attention. He attends a psychiatrist four times a week and, as a consequence of his injuries, his wife has given up her job to nurse him 24 hours a day. He relives the terrible events every night and rarely sleeps for longer than an hour at a time. As your Lordships can imagine, his children are devastated by what has happened to them all. One can understand why Mrs. Pedon said,
"It is a living nightmare—it has wrecked our family".
That is five people in that one family whose lives have been wrecked. As my right honourable friend Andrew MacKay said,
"on many estates paramilitaries are ruling by terror".
Those are just two examples. This must be a violation of the agreement and I can only wonder whether these people have renounced violence for good. I must admit that I cannot see it and I would have thought that no one else can either.

I understand from FAIT (Families Against Intimidation and Ten-or) that up to the end of January there have been 15 shootings, 35 beatings, 69 cases of intimidation and 65 cases of people who have had to leave their homes. I am sure that all Members of your Lordships' House welcome the fact that there have been no incidents since 2nd February. It seems that the organisations can end such activity when it suits them. I believe it has been as a result of pressure on the paramilitary organisations, not least by my right honourable friend William Hague by his persistent questioning of the Prime Minister. However, it is impossible to calculate the effect that that form of terrorism must have on family life. This behaviour seems to go on and on, with the paramilitaries refusing to give up any of their guns or bombs. It appears to me that these organisations are certainly violating the Good Friday agreement, as I understand it.

Perhaps one of the most difficult pieces of legislation with which we had to contend during the previous Session was the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act which gave the Secretary of State the power to accelerate the release of prisoners. The Act also gives the Secretary of State the additional power to halt the early release of prisoners who belong to organisations whose cease-fires are not complete and unequivocal. If the beatings and other unacceptable behaviour should start again, I believe she should take those powers and use them to protect those at risk and stop the slaughter which affects innocent women and children. Once the prisoners have been released a most important bargaining factor will have disappeared.

I see that my allocated time is over. It is with sorrow that I speak today, but I do so because I find the events taking place both profoundly disturbing and upsetting. I am sure all noble Lords would wish to send David Trimble and his colleagues the warmest wishes of support as he tackles the enormous challenges ahead.

4.28 p.m.

My Lords, this must be a unique occasion when a former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland initiates a debate in your Lordships' House. Normally when they leave Northern Ireland, they come back over here, take a cold shower and hope that they can forget all the events that happened during their term in Northern Ireland. However, I think that it is worth while that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, has given us the opportunity to discuss and evaluate what has happened since the agreement.

The Northern Ireland agreement was complex. It took into account many issues which divided the people in Northern Ireland long before even partition, but particularly since partition, and the creation of the Northern Ireland state.

The agreement is multi-faceted. Today. we are trying to evaluate its effect. Of all the facets of that agreement, four burning issues continue to tear at the heartstrings of the people of Northern Ireland. The first of those is the release of prisoners. Prisoners are now being released who have committed the most terrible crimes in the history of Northern Ireland.

To realise the truth of that one had only to watch a television programme last Sunday evening on BBC2 in which loyalist murderers actually boasted about the number of times that they had stabbed their victims. I think of one victim, my closest colleague, Senator Paddy Wilson, who was murdered by a man called John White, who faced the cameras and said, -Yes, I stabbed him. I nearly decapitated him—and later I shook hands with the Prime Minister". Can your Lordships imagine what the relatives of that victim must have thought? And that is only one case; there are many others. Indeed, some of those now serving in the Northern Ireland Assembly have been convicted of the most atrocious murders.

This is a very emotional issue. Just think of the 301 policemen who were viciously and brutally murdered by the IRA in particular. Just think of how their relatives in Northern Ireland are feeling. Let us never forget that between 500 and 600 young British soldiers have also been viciously and brutally murdered. Their relatives live in England. How must they feel when they know that such prisoners are being released? Let us consider the brutal and vicious murders of the two British corporals. Their murderers are now to be released. What must the victims' relatives be feeling? That is the first issue: the release of prisoners.

The next issue is decommissioning. I was not involved in the talks, but, if I had been involved, there would have been decommissioning or there would have been no agreement. I could never have signed an agreement in Northern Ireland which said to one party. "You can have the prisoner releases", and to another, "You cannot have anything with regard to decommissioning". The Prime Minister of Britain went to Stormont. He stayed there for two or three days. I was not party to the agreement or the discussions, but that was the time for Mr. David Trimble, the leader of the Unionists, to say, "You cannot have the release of these prisoners unless you ally that with decommissioning". That would have been a very reasonable request in the circumstances. However, I understand that a gun was put to Mr. Trimble's head—perhaps that is an unfortunate phrase—and he was told, "Look, the IRA will not agree to this unless you release their prisoners". That is right; there would never have been an agreement without those releases. Then, when Mr. Trimble asked, "Can we not have decommissioning?", he was told, "No, you can't have decommissioning".

The pressure put on David Trimble then has led us to the position today when we are trying desperately to bring about decommissioning. However, that should have been achieved during the discussions. I ask your Lordships' House: what pressures were put on David Trimble in the discussions leading up to the agreement? What were the pressures that were put on him by the Prime Minister of this country and by the Taoiseach of the Republic to force him into an agreement that he knew that he could not carry? That is the second issue.

The next issue relates to the mutilations now taking place. I am glad to see that we have erased from our vocabulary the phrase "punishment beatings". The mutilations now taking place are done for decided reasons. I have with me a copy of a letter from Reverend Father Faul, one paragraph of which states:
"IRA beatings and expulsions have political purposes: (1) to exclude the police and to replace them or any new force other than themselves; (2) to intimidate the community; (3) to prevent normality in [the] community".
I well remember the former Home Secretary, Reginald Maudling, coming to Northern Ireland at the outbreak of the troubles. When he was leaving that evening, it is alleged that he looked out of the aeroplane and said, "What a bloody awful country". He was widely reported as having said that, but he also said something more significant during that visit. He said, "Perhaps we will have to live with an acceptable level of violence". Those words seared themselves into the minds of the people of Northern Ireland. People were prepared to accept "an acceptable level of violence". We now hear two other words which bring those earlier words back to me. I refer to the words "imperfect peace". Those words are substitutes for the words "an acceptable level of violence". Does that mean that we are prepared to accept the greater violence that there is now?

I remember the Labour Party strenuously opposing the Conservative Government's implementation of the exclusion orders, as they were called then. The IRA is opposing exclusion orders.

I realise that my time has now elapsed, but perhaps I may conclude by saying that there are now some very dangerous elements in Northern Ireland and unless both governments—not only this Government, but the government of the Republic also—take a firm stand against them and insist on decommissioning before Sinn Fein/IRA can take up its seats in the Assembly, we could be heading for trouble.

4.35 p.m.

My Lords, I should like to thank my noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew for introducing this very important debate this afternoon, especially at this crucial and difficult moment in the life of the agreement.

At home in Fermanagh—and, indeed, elsewhere—I cannot help noticing that a huge number of people are totally confused by the Government who appear to be making concession after concession to Sinn Fein/IRA without obtaining a single gesture in return concerning the implementation of the terms of the Good Friday agreement. Surely the time has come to say, "Enough is enough".

I should like to ask the Minister just two questions. First, would it not be wise to delay the release of prisoners until the very necessary co-operation has been demonstrated? Secondly, does the Minister not agree that his right honourable friend the Prime Minister should now come out and boldly say that he agrees with David Trimble, the First Minister, and his policies, as did the Taoiseach, Mr. Ahern, and give him the support that he so rightly deserves? If that were to take place, it would bring great comfort to a vast number of people in Northern Ireland who feel completely isolated.

We await the Patten report on the RUC with eager anticipation. Perhaps I may take this opportunity to say that in my opinion—and in the opinion of many others—the RUC is the finest police force in the world. Its courage and discipline over the years have been second to none. What other police force has been asked over and over again to undertake peace-keeping tasks where its members end up being attacked from both sides at once? They carry out those tasks with an "All-in-a-day's-work" attitude. What other police force has lost so many lives in the course of duty over the years?

If there are changes to be made to the RUC and to the political structure in Northern Ireland, I only hope that Her Majesty's Government will choose the right time to make those changes—and that they will be for the better.

4.38 p.m.

My Lords, I should like to speak in support of what was said by my noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew and to emphasise at the same time the relevance to the Good Friday agreement of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Its work was difficult and dangerous enough, in all conscience, but the continued release of criminals, some of whom were convicted of terrible crimes, must increase both the difficulties and the danger. It has been reported that some of the released prisoners have already taken part in so-called "punishment beatings", so we should spare a thought for the police.

If, as we must hope, the agreement brings peace and stability to Northern Ireland, the Royal Ulster Constabulary will have its part to play and, if it does not, the RUC will have a very much larger and more dangerous part to play. So, in the context of the agreement, it is worth examining this police force and its record of public service.

It is unique among police forces in the world. In addition to normal police duties it has had to contend with an illegal but fully-armed army—sometimes active, sometimes dormant, but never wholly absent. That is why, unlike its neighbours the Garda Siochana, who police the Republic, it is an armed force. It has a roll of honour since 1922. Precise figures are hard to come by, but in the past 30 odd years 302 officers and reserve officers have been killed on duty. In addition, many have been seriously injured. Therefore, we could spare a thought for what all this means to their wives and families.

My noble and learned friend's Motion speaks of,
"the dangers inherent in failing to secure … the prompt and complete implementation",
of the provisions of the agreement. Not everything that is said encourages one to believe that it will be all that prompt. It is probable that not many of your Lordships ever watch broadcasts of the Irish news on television. I do. Two or three months ago I switched on the television while it was portraying the Sinn Fein conference in Dublin. Mr. McGuinness was addressing the conference and concluded his speech by saying that the RUC will have to go. One was left with the impression: to be replaced by gangsters like McGuinness. Judging by the enthusiastic reception from the audience, that was what was anticipated.

Last Friday I cut the following article out of The Times. I quote:
"Detonators found in an IRA arms cache seized in West Belfast on Tuesday were manufactured last year, when the IRA were supposed to be on ceasefire, the Royal Ulster Constabulary said yesterday.
"The announcement raised serious questions about the IRA's intentions and caused Unionist and Conservative politicians to redouble their demands for IRA disarmament …
"Sinn Fein officials responded angrily, calling the RUC the most discredited police force in Europe and accusing it of 'pursuing a political agenda with the intention of wrecking the peace process'".
Again, one was left with the impression that the detonators are part of the peace process.

One of the major problems in enforcing the law in Northern Ireland is the intimidation of witnesses—a disease which, incidentally, has now spread south of the border in the celebrated case of the murder of detective sergeant McCabe. If the Good Friday agreement could lessen that pernicious practice, though I doubt it, then it all would have been worth while.

We must all hope for the best, but a shadow hangs over the RUC in the shape of the Patten Commission. I do not think that that was part of the Good Friday agreement but somehow it got added on afterwards, probably under pressure from Dublin. If in July the commission brings forward a report—I am not saying that it will—which is damaging to the morale and hence the efficiency of the RUC, and the arms have not been decommissioned, that will be a nightmare situation for all the inhabitants of Northern Ireland.

Given the potentially dangerous situation if any of the various paramilitary forces should, so to speak, break loose, I suggest that this is not the time to run risks with the police. For the Good Friday agreement to be a success, the RUC should be left alone to do its job.

4.44 p.m.

My Lords, I welcome this debate very much indeed. I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, for introducing it and should like to pay my own personal tribute to both him and Lady Mayhew for the role that they have played in the life of Northern Ireland in the past. As we have this debate we face a critical period in Northern Ireland in the long walk to stability and peace, with justice for unionist and nationalist, Protestant and Roman Catholic. I would assure the Minister that it is a time for steady nerves; that is, steady nerves by government and by all those who seek to influence public opinion. However, it is also a time for a full and honest understanding of what makes people react as they do to this situation. Each of use comes to this debate from differing starting points. We are united in our desire to see a peaceful and prosperous Northern Ireland, but the differences remain. How do we achieve it?

I have 36 years of ministry within Northern Ireland, through years of experiences that I will never forget. I have seen suffering and death, bewilderment and frustration, as well as courage of a very high order. I have had to bury plastic bags because there was no recognisable body left. I have had to go into homes where the reaction to situations was unbelievable. Indeed, only recently—and there have been frequent references this afternoon to these atrocious attacks—I tried to comfort a mother whose son was viciously beaten almost to the point of death. It was a mercy that he was not killed.

Therefore, as I make a contribution to the debate, I feel that I must appeal for reality in this discussion of what in fact is happening at this moment on the ground in Northern Ireland. When the euphoria of Good Friday engulfed us all, I have to say that in my heart and mind I knew that the biggest battle remained. For it is in the hearts and minds of the people of Northern Ireland that this agreement, made on Good Friday, will either fail or succeed. However, we must recognise that we cannot legislate for reconciliation. Although we can put in place the structures that are necessary for reconciliation to be achieved, I can assure the Minister that we cannot legislate for it.

It is vital to this debate that your Lordships recognise the true situation on the ground. I believe that a new confidence is desperately needed in the political process. Decommissioning is not the only obstacle to be scaled. The real issue is not the agreement. The real issue is not even its terms. Indeed, I believe that the real issue is trust. That trust is lacking on the ground. In fact, in some places it is totally absent. Sectarian attitudes dominate and they run very, very deep. If trust is to emerge, the unionist/loyalist Protestant community needs, despite its current unease, to recognise how far republicanism has come. It needs to recognise the sensitivities of nationalism, constitutional nationalism, placed as it is at present in critical juxtaposition. Each side must be prepared to give a little. But I would be failing the majority of those to whom I minister if I did not warn your Lordships this afternoon of the depth of unease, frustration and discontent within the Protestant/unionist community.

Political point scoring has its own agenda: but that agenda does not necessarily include long-term accommodation. Northern Ireland cannot fade back into the depths from where we have come. Generations yet unborn will read the report of this debate and will ask,"Did you not see the signs; did you not read the signs that were there and act before it was too late?". The reality is that the price of the speed of political progress—the "peace process", as we are told we must call it—is too high for many to pay. But we have to act and ask: is the price for long-term accommodation, the inevitable short-term price that we have to pay, a price that we are prepared to pay?

The unease and disquiet on decommissioning within the Protestant community is genuine after all the years of the troubles. That unease must be addressed by the Government. The unease within the nationalist Roman Catholic community must be addressed by giving proof that they will never, never again be considered second-class citizens. They must find that they can trust their unionist and Protestant neighbours not because they are told they can trust them, but because they know in their hearts that they can trust them. Unless we are prepared to face that reality post-Good Friday agreement, the outlook is bleak.

Issues such as Drumcree have been referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran. Those issues must be solved, and solved quickly, for they are a festering sore. Drumcree itself is a cameo of the problems that the Belfast agreement came into being to solve. For too long such issues have held ordinary, decent people to ransom. There has to be life after Drumcree.

I recall the words spoken to me only a few days ago by the mother of two sons who were the victims of a sectarian murder some years ago—words that I leave with your Lordships. She said, "I have every reason to distrust, but I have a higher duty. I must find a new trust if there is to be any future for all of us". If the trust to which I refer is created—and I believe it can be—if government can not only act evenly with both communities, but be seen to act evenly with them, the Belfast agreement will not simply survive, but I believe in my heart that it will succeed.

4.51 p.m.

My Lords, I thank my noble and learned friend, Lord Mayhew, for introducing the debate. I support everything he said, with perhaps one exception regarding a tiger changing its spots. That is perhaps the only point on which I differ from him.

I wish to make three points. The first concerns decommissioning. The UK Army and security have seriously demilitarised. Only the LVF of the paramilitaries has made even a token gesture in that direction, hut not the UVF, the UFF or Sinn Fein. There is a two year term for decommissioning; we are approaching the half-way stage with little done.

There is a problem, which I hope the Minister can help me solve, for both Sinn Fein and Mr. Trimble. Both have to look over their shoulders to their supporters for fear that the latter will desert them. If Sinn Fein agrees to even a token decommissioning, will it be anxious that its supporters will desert it? If Mr. Trimble accepts Sinn Fein into the executive without any decommissioning on its part, will his supporters desert him? Can the Minister tell me if the Government are working on a formula to overcome the problem? I deliver a serious warning to him. If there is no decommissioning by the time of the European elections, will Mr. Paisley's party sweep the unionist vote on the point that the Belfast agreement is dead? There are some important issues for the future locked up in this matter.

It is a privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Eames. He talked about trust and relationships. I totally endorse what he said; namely, that there is a battle for the hearts and minds of people in Northern Ireland. Consent was achieved by the signatories to the Belfast agreement but there has been no disavowal of fighting by the paramilitaries; maintaining their armour is surely evidence of their intention not to do so at the present time. Are those who have been engaged in violence, whether against their opponents, or against their own people—as we have discussed often—trying for political dialogue today?

I was pleased to read—I believe it was last week—about five unionists and five republicans meeting for political talks. Are those talks continuing? I hope the Minister can tell me that. Any meetings across this divide will help to increase trust and build relationships. I believe that that is crucial. It is perhaps a pity that Mr. Adams is in Australia at this juncture. I am not quite sure how long he will be there, but he is obviously pivotal to any such discussions. People need to treat others as equals and need to spend time building relationships with other people across the divide.

The overwhelming majority of people in Northern Ireland want peace. Are they saying this loudly enough to the paramilitaries? Are the media reporting it? It seems to me that a strong media campaign against the mutilations resulted in a serious reduction in those mutilations. I believe that that was part of a public campaign. That is good. I hope there can be a build-up in Northern Ireland of people saying that peace must flow from the present political process.

I have talked about political issues and about relationships, but I believe that there are also spiritual issues involved. They constitute a strong element. I suggest to all the Churches of Northern Ireland that they plan a day of prayer on St. Patrick's Day, 17th March. I believe personally that the Almighty is one person who can be a real influence for change in Northern Ireland. Whether or not "D-day" slips from 10th March to 10th April—which would be one year on from the Belfast agreement—I believe that the Churches of Northern Ireland should plan for a day of concentrated prayer. That should be open to all people of good will and to all people who want to see total peace develop in Northern Ireland.

There will be a meeting in the Speaker's apartment in the Palace of Westminster and I believe that we shall have the privilege of being addressed by Lady Eames on that occasion. If we can do that here, I hope that people in the Churches in Northern Ireland will do so also. I believe with all my heart that all people of good will need to pray for the success of the Belfast agreement and for a solution to these problems.

4.57 p.m.

My Lords, I have been advised that I may say a few words with regard to the speech that I made late last night during the debate on Lords' reform. With your Lordships' permission, I shall do so. It is clear that I misjudged the mood of the House in that I crossed that invisible line when I made mention of a Member of another place. My breach of the Companion was entirely due to inexperience and not to intent. I cherish and respect the institutions and conventions of your Lordships' House and for that reason I apologised privately last night to the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey. He was gracious enough to accept that apology. I now wish to take this opportunity to apologise unreservedly to the whole House.

I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, for initiating this debate on the Belfast agreement this afternoon. I am not surprised that he has done so. He was, as a Secretary of State—and continues to be—a good friend to Northern Ireland. He laid the foundations upon which the present Government were able to build the peace process.

I have consistently supported the Belfast agreement since it was accepted on Good Friday last year. I supported it on the ground during the referendum in the Province and I supported it in your Lordships' House during the many debates on the subsequent Bills that cascaded through as a result of that agreement.

The Prime Minister recently said that the peace that it brought, whilst imperfect, was far better than no peace at all. Certainly in the 90 per cent. of the Province which incredibly managed some semblance of normality during nearly 30 years of terrorism, life, with the exception of the atrocity at Omagh, is more normal than ever.

However, the peace dividend has not struck deep into the republican and loyalist heartlands in Belfast, Strabane, Newry and elsewhere. The savage punishment beatings, mutilations and enforced exiles have continued for those unfortunate enough to cross or fall out with the local godfathers; all this culminating in a particularly brutal murder in Newry a few weeks ago.

Now we have a more or less cessation in these inhumane activities due to the unlikely, perhaps, intervention of Amnesty International. I do not believe that the republican cessation is a mere coincidence. I am in no doubt that it was instigated by Sinn Fein, worried about the effects that the damning report from Amnesty would have on their supporters, particularly in the United States.

However, the position is far from secure, largely as a result of the IRA at present refusing to decommission a single weapon. Sinn Fein says that it is powerless to persuade them so to do, but I find this hard to believe as it seems to have such influence over the mutilations.

Mr. Trimble and his security spokesman, Ken Maginnis, are, I believe, offering Sinn Fein and the IRA every opportunity. They say that they will sit down with Sinn Fein in an Executive within minutes of decommissioning commencing. Indeed, yesterday, Ken Maginnis went further, suggesting that a cast-iron, underwritten guarantee of a programme, leading to total disarmament by June 2000, would unblock the deadlocked peace process.

While I agree that the Belfast agreement does not specify a start date, I wholeheartedly support the Taoiseach in his recent unequivocal statement that decommissioning had to start some time, and that it was realistic to suppose that an Executive could be formed until such a start had been made.

One of the aspects of the agreement that was anathema to me and to many others was the early release of terrorist prisoners. We accepted that they had to be released under the terms of the deal struck by the agreement. While the agreement set a deadline of two years after the commencement of the release scheme for all prisoners to be released, it did not set a start time. However, the British Government and the Secretary of State, quite rightly, realised that a start had to be made.

We are now in a position where a very considerable number of qualifying prisoners have been released. Recently, there have been calls for the releases to be suspended in view of the mutilations, the lack of progress on decommissioning and so on. I find the equation of prisoner release linkage to decommissioning unattractive, and I do not for one minute expect the Secretary of State or the noble Lord the Minister to tell us that such an option is currently under consideration. However—and in extreme circumstances—I hope that the Secretary of State may be aware that she will have support if she does decide to suspend releases.

A further element of great concern is the question of the Patten Commission on police reform. I do not for one moment believe that Mr. Patten's report will be widely critical of the RUC, a force for which I have total respect and admiration. But while the chief constable, quite rightly, remains upbeat and confident, the rank and file of the RUC feel depressed and concerned about possible recommendations: not, I stress, through any feelings of guilt or inadequacy on their part, but because of inexorable demands from certain quarters for a somehow more democratic, community-based police service. Of course, there are some who would love to see the destruction of the RUC, the only body capable of preventing them from indulging in a life of organised crime and gangsterism.

Even now there are some who would claim that the RUC is the armed wing of the Unionist party. It is tragic, but well worthwhile to remember, that the first RUC officer to be killed, Constable Victor Arbuckle, in 1969, and the last, Constable Francis O'Reilly, in 1998, were both murdered by loyalist terrorists. For 30 years the RUC has been the thin line that has stood between democracy and anarchy. Shortly, another marching season will he upon us, when the RUC's resources and expertise will again be taxed to the limit.

In conclusion, my support for the Belfast agreement and for the Government remains firm. The euphoria of last spring has long gone and numerous questions—punishment beatings or mutilations, decommissioning, prisoner releases, reform of the RUC and the marching season—have yet to be resolved. However, we must press on if we are yet to see a bright and stable future for Northern Ireland.

5.4 p.m.

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, for initiating the debate. My good friend, the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, drew attention to the exceptional, if not unique, work involved in initiating the debate. I have noticed the noble Lords, Lord Prior and Lord Merlyn-Rees, sitting in the Chamber. The people of Northern Ireland are indebted to the good sense shown by politicians in sending to Northern Ireland people who not only do a very good job but who try to keep in their minds and in their hearts the objective of improving the situation.

I have been enormously humbled listening to the debate over the past two hours. I appreciate that, as I do not live in Northern Ireland, I cannot remotely sense or feel the impact of living there on either side of the divide.

There is a general welcome for the agreement. Any criticisms have been not so much of the agreement but of its implementation. As the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, said, it is very complex. It is very complex, and we have a problem.

Noble Lords know of my strong connection with the co-operative movement. The first time I went to Northern Ireland was to visit the Belfast society. I landed on a Friday, a day when a co-op shop was held up and the takings stolen. But my deepest impression was when, on Saturday, 13 or 15 people were blown to smithereens at a place called McGurk's Bar. I may be different to others, but when I hear of an atrocity I do not remember whether it was republicans blowing up loyalists or loyalists blowing up republicans; all I remember is that it was an atrocity.

I can think of events in the past year. There were the three little children who were burned to death. They were neither loyalists nor nationalists; they were tiny little children. They were blown up simply because of bigotry and venom.

When I was again in Northern Ireland about 10 years later—which was about 10 years ago—I represented my party and spoke on Northern Ireland matters. I went to the Maze and Magilligan prisons. I went from Magilligan Prison to Derry and sat on the steps of the city hall—the same steps where Tom King, when carrying out his responsibilities, was struck to the ground by elected councillors who were there, ostensibly, to meet him and greet him.

It is very difficult for someone like myself—a British politician who lives here—to understand or appreciate what causes people in Northern Ireland to do that sort of thing to each other. We hear about absolutely awful atrocities. I cannot conceive of a situation which would lead a group or sect of people to do that sort of thing to other people living over here.

Northern Ireland is unique and exceptional. I would say to the politicians of Northern Ireland who sit as Members of your Lordships' House but who are active in politics over there that the people of this country cannot understand why—hundreds of years after a wrong that has not been righted—there is still a determination to persist in keeping the clan, the tribe and the hurt alive.

More than once today, noble Lords have said that the people of Northern Ireland want peace. I know they do—but, having listened and having had a taste of Northern Ireland, I also realise the enormous dilemma that ordinary people are in through living in enclaves where thugs, terrorists and murderers have a grip on the community. I understand that. I see the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, in the Chamber. We know that the noble Lord literally had to fight for his life because he was a politician. That does not happen here. Looking at the agreement I realise what an enormous amount of help in achieving it came from the former Prime Minister, John Major, from the present Prime Minister and from politicians in the United States. They recognised that this was just a beginning to what may blossom into something we have been denied for 30 or 40 years. No one who is involved is under any illusion that, having achieved the agreement, we have peace. That has been proved.

Today is a special day for Northern Ireland. Not only are we having this debate but there was Northern Ireland Question Time in the House of Commons. The Secretary of State, Mo Mowlam—we all love her—addressed a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party this morning. She gave us the latest news. She has the job of trying to make progress. She is an optimist, which in my view is better than being a pessimist, even though the record shows she is more entitled to be a pessimist than an optimist. Questions were raised about the release of terrorists. She said—it is not a secret but a fact of life—that more than 200 have been released and not one of them has broken the conditions of release. They have all, under pressure, I am sure, from their parties or groups, abided by the conditions of release. I noticed that John McFall, my parliamentary colleague, was listening to the debate earlier. I know what a terrible job he and my noble friend Lord Dubs have. They know what we want and the people they are dealing with are able to deliver, but for many reasons, which I cannot fathom, those people are not prepared to deliver.

I want to say to those in Northern Ireland that most if not all of the people on the mainland yearn for the time when they get rid of the people who are terrorising them and causing the potential in this country for a revisit of that terrorism. We have a vested interest in solving the problem in Northern Ireland because if we do not it will come here. I wish the agreement well. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Dubs for all that he is doing. I am certainly grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, for giving the House an opportunity to put on record our appreciation of the many people who are working hard for the peace and solitude we enjoy in Britain.

5.12 p.m.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew of Twysden, for initiating this debate. I am delighted to be positive about the progress of the Good Friday agreement. To be otherwise would be out of order, considering the consensus of agreement not only in the parties but among the people of Northern Ireland. Even Paisley and the DUP, who have opposed everything, are careful to ensure that they are not left outside the day-to-day activities in Stormont. When the executive is formed noble Lords will find that the DUP will reap its share of the benefits accruing as a result of the sheer dedication, hard work and sacrifice of others. What is new?

I want sincerely to pay tribute, as other noble Lords have done, to all those who have brought us this far. However, in the race against time and against the wrath of the Government Front Bench, I would merely endorse what has been said by others. But we have one last step, and that is for decommissioning to start. It is clear that the vast majority of people, not only in the Province but also in Great Britain and around the world, back the stance of the First Minister designate on this issue. It is also a fact that a "downpayment", as Ken Maginnis said in The Times yesterday, of weapons would be sufficient for an executive to be formed. If there is no decommissioning, we are stuck because public opinion, especially in the unionist camp, will, and I believe quite rightly so, not permit the executive to be formed.

Being speaker number 18 in the debate, I hope your Lordships will forgive me for tackling the issue of decommissioning from a slightly different point of view. I want to look at another reason why decommissioning is not taking place. An assumption I would dare to make is that if republican terrorists decommission, the loyalists will also do so. Sinn Fein/IRA ask us to agree with them that a handing in of any weapons is surrender. We are told that this is so firmly embedded in history and the republican psyche that there is no way round it. That is unreasonable and flawed.

I will look at it through their eyes for a moment. This was a just war and their efforts—"our efforts" in that case—have achieved the Sinn Fein/IRA aim shown by Sinn Fein when they accepted the Good Friday agreement, even if Gerry Adams says that it is only a step on the way to a united Ireland. There is hardly a case in the world of achieving a goal by armed force where there has not been demobilisation to some extent afterwards. After previous conflicts, did we or any other country portray demobilisation as surrender? Service personnel have gladly over centuries handed in weapons and uniforms and have thankfully returned to civilian life.

Surrender is an unsustainable interpretation of decommissioning. Demobilisation takes place as a result of instructions from a leadership. We know that the leadership of Sinn Fein/IRA are capable leaders when it comes to stopping or turning on violence. That brings us to paragraph 3 of decommissioning on page 20 of the agreement. All participants in this agreement, including Sinn Fein, agreed and signed up to,
"use any influence they have",
and so on.

It is my contention that Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and other senior Sinn Fein/IRA leaders are fostering the misinterpretation of decommissioning as surrender. They do this because to surrender is a degrading defeat when weapons are taken by the victors. In the human character, since Adam and Eve, this is the last and most humiliating option. The Sinn Fein/IRA leadership are not, and I say it unreservedly, carrying out their obligations to use "any influence", to which they signed up in the Good Friday agreement. They often ask for a quid pro quo from the security forces. They have no right to do so because they have not held weapons for the same purpose. Their only reason for being armed is to threaten and take life. The security forces' only reason for bearing arms is to save life.

Having said that, there has been significant demilitarisation, as we have heard. The paraphernalia of the fight against terrorism has been greatly decommissioned and yet no one is talking about surrender or victory. So why do Sinn Fein talk about surrender? This term binds in the most lowly terrorist activist with the fear of surrender and it suits the Sinn Fein/IRA leadership not to support decommissioning at this moment. They are wrong and it will be a tragedy for all of us if it is to continue.

For one moment I should like to look at one other aspect of the agreement, the future of policing in the Province. Initially there was great anxiety both inside and outside the RUC. However, due to the leadership of the Chief Constable and the senior ranks and the lengthy public discussion following the setting up of the Patten Commission, we are looking forward to a constructive report on reforms to the RUC.

Every police force needs to move forward. It is not just the RUC, as we have seen recently in London. It is no shame to say that the force should be reformed or at least modernised. To put it simply, the RUC has developed into the most competent and high tech anti-terrorist police force in the world over the past 30 years. Times are changing and more traditional policing is required. For example, RUC officers used to go on patrol only with military escorts. They could not even deliver a summons in some areas without a helicopter escort. Now, 20 per cent. of their recruits come from the nationalist minority. It is amazing that they have managed that in such a short period of time.

I conclude on an optimistic note. I believe that there is a small pinprick of light at the end of the tunnel where the executive is waiting. I am encouraged that there are no leaks from General de Chastelain's decommissioning discussions. I am a firm believer that where there are no leaks there is hope, if there is a will on the part of Sinn Fein/IRA.

My Lords, perhaps I may, with the leave of the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, explain to the House that his name was omitted in error from the list of speakers. As a result of careful management, he is able to take the usual time to speak.

5.20 p.m.

My Lords, I do not intend to detain your Lordships long. It is well known that I am very much in favour of permanent peace in Northern Ireland. That is what we all want. But at the same time we want to be sure that that is what we shall get, not just some mirage which may disappear before too long.

I am not at all happy about the early release of convicted terrorists, who are not repentant but quite proud of the crimes that they have committed. At the same time, the failure to hand over arms and ammunition produces what could be a very dangerous situation if those kinds of men have access in future to the arms and ammunition that they have used in the past. Therefore, we must be very careful.

The chief constable recently referred to the punishment beatings and other atrocities that have recently taken place. He is reported as saying that they were centrally organised by mainstream paramilitary groups whose political representatives were members of the Stormont Assembly. It is easy to say that a particular organisation is not presently waging terrorism when it is merely that some of its former members have taken on a new name—they have moved round the corner and they are doing it. And, of course, it has nothing whatever to do with the original organisation that they left! Anyone who believes that is rather naive, but that is what is being put forward for us to accept. I believe that we should look at these matters with care.

We have only to look at other parts of the world where there have been similar problems. In Lebanon, for instance, there was sectarian civil war. Over 200,000 people died. An accord was entered into, all weapons were handed over, and since then there has been very little trouble there. There was civil war for 16 years in Mozambique, with over 1 million casualties. Weapons were handed in, and there has been a great improvement there. There were 12 years of civil war in El Salvador, with 75,000 people killed. Weapons were destroyed and, again, there was very little further trouble there. The exception is South Africa, where weapons were not handed in, and where, since 1989, murder has increased by 61 per cent. and armed robbery by 119 per cent. So the examples in other countries do not support the contention that we should not bother about arms, that they do not really matter and they will not be used. I never understand why people want to keep arms that they are not going to use. It is a question of trying to understand their mentality.

I therefore urge the Government and all those responsible to take the utmost care before placating terrorists any further. I urge them to ensure that it is a good peace, that can be stood over and that will last.

5.25 p.m.

My Lords, I begin by thanking the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, for initiating this debate. I echo the sentiments of my noble friend Lady Williams of Crosby in paying tribute to the work that he has carried out in Northern Ireland. However, it was with a degree of disappointment that I listened to his speech. He seemed to highlight the negative aspects of the present situation in Northern Ireland. There are inherent problems with the peace process; that cannot be denied. However, anyone looking at the progress of the past three years and looking into the future would be incredulous at what has been achieved.

I have recently become Front Bench spokesman on this issue. As always, I find myself on an extremely steep learning curve. One of the things I have found most difficult to understand about the peace process is how it has managed to survive as long as it has. The more one looks at the parties involved, the more one realises how many fracture points there are in the process.

It is not just a question of the strongly opposed views of the main protagonists but of the positions that are held within the organisations themselves. The difficulty that Mr. Trimble has had recently in leading his party along in the process is an indication. But the difficulty is not only on the unionist side. The very difficult position within the IRA, as between those who would like to move forward and those who would return to violence, also has to be understood. It is only through an understanding of all these positions that the success of the peace process can be understood. Although the peace process seems to be constantly under threat, it has been making steady, if tortuous, progress towards its goal.

However, at present there is an impasse based on the issue of decommissioning. The briefings that I have had recently show that there is logic from both sides on the positions that the two sides are taking. Within the unionist community it is obvious that decommissioning has to take place before Sinn Fein is allowed to take its position within the executive. However, a logical position is also held by those within Sinn Fein who base their views upon the Good Friday agreement itself, which states that there is no specific start time for decommissioning to take place.

The position is becoming tenuous. It is imperative that a start is made. It is unacceptable to believe that in a year's time all arms will suddenly materialise in one place to be decommissioned. However, decommissioning can take many forms. Many questions have been asked about what it would actually entail. I believe, however, that it is an issue for General de Chastelain. He has undertaken some very good work, some of which has been very low profile. It should be left in his hands to verify what may be considered as a start to decommissioning.

In this light, I welcome the brave statement made by the Taoiseach, calling on the IRA to undertake a start to decommissioning. The Taoiseach reflects the opinion of almost everyone in the Republic of Ireland as well as the majority view in the North.

Pressure is growing for decommissioning to take place before 10th March. It would be extremely upsetting if no decommissioning came about and pressure from a number of quarters has been expressed. The noble Lord, Lord Beloff, mentioned the situation in America and he was sceptical about the position the Americans may take. However, I believe they can have a degree of influence over the start of decommissioning. We should not forget that it was Senator Mitchell who, through his work, brought about so much in the peace process. It would be unfair not to mention the words he wrote in the Irish Times on 19th February. He said that decommissioning was:
"a very difficult, emotional and very important issue, but the political leaders must not let this chance of peace slip away after so much has happened and been done by the people, the governments and leaders. I believe there will be a way".
Many noble Lords have spoken this afternoon of the large number of mutilation attacks that have taken place. It is obviously a situation that all sides of the House find abhorrent. However, the attacks are undertaken by the men of violence. I believe that the future of Northern Ireland does not lie with them; it lies with the degree of trust being built up among the people of Northern Ireland. The noble Lord, Lord Eames, made a remarkable speech on the difficulties of building trust and the necessity for it. He made one of the finest speeches heard in your Lordships' House for some time. He spoke mostly from personal experience.

The cost of peace is high at the moment, as the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, made clear from his experiences. However, the cost of failure of the peace process could be higher. The cycle of violence must be broken and I believe that, considering the pressures on the peace process, it would be irresponsible of us at this point not to commit ourselves to it. We on these Benches are keen that the bipartisan agreement should continue at this time without let up. I ask the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, to give a commitment at this point to the bipartisan approach to Northern Ireland, especially now.

I have seen a lot of violence in South Africa, but have recently seen how that violence can be broken. I believe that the future of Northern Ireland is a great deal more optimistic than may be suggested by some of the actions taking place. I hope that the peace process survives.

5.33 p.m.

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to my noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew for initiating this timely debate. Few in your Lordships' House have had more direct recent experience of these matters, save perhaps the Minister himself. I agree with everything he said and hope that the Minister will answer the questions posed by my noble and learned friend, as I shall not repeat them.

My noble and learned friend explained that the Secretary of State has not made full use of the lever of specifying an organisation in order to stop its prisoners from being released. It is extremely unfortunate that the Secretary of State has sent out the wrong signal by stating that she can do nothing about the problems, that she does not have the power.

Some, including the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, have worried about where we are on these Benches with regard to a bipartisan policy. The answer is that there is no change. We do not regard the bipartisan policy as giving the Government a blank cheque. On the other hand, we will do nothing that provides succour to anyone involved in terrorism. We do not seek to rewrite the Belfast agreement. That would be fatal to it. On the contrary, we seek full implementation by all the parties. It is also not our intention to break the bipartisan approach to constitutional issues in Northern Ireland.

The noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, raised the matter of the cost of the Assembly. It was unfortunate that the costs were underestimated. This House would have provided a good financial model. On the other hand, the existence of the Assembly has gone so far already that I am sure it will be extremely helpful to the peace process. As for the budgetary implications, I am more concerned about the macro-economic effect of reductions in expenditure on security, particularly the RUC. This is a reserved matter, so any savings will go back to the Treasury, not to the Assembly.

Decommissioning is a show-stopper for the process, as was so well explained by my noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew and many others. It has been suggested that my right honourable friend Mr. Mackay and others should apply pressure on Mr. Trimble. The fact is, as we know, Mr. Trimble has no room for manoeuvre whatever. However, while I cannot claim to be confident, I am hopeful, even optimistic that a start to decommissioning is the key to the process moving forward, and I hope that we will get past this hump.

The LVF has shown that the modalities for decommissioning actually work. It might not be significant decommissioning, but it works. This must increase the confidence of the paramilitaries to start the process. Yes, it may have to be step by step. No one would want to stand naked before their former adversaries, but the process must start.

I would also like to take the opportunity to restate what I said last week. It is the Mitchell principle that no one should regard decommissioning as a defeat, a victory or a surrender. I just see it as part of the process of moving from violence and confrontation to peace and democracy.

The noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, drew attention to Sinn Fein's aspirations for the RUC to be disarmed as a quid pro quo. However, if we look at the continental police, we find that they are at least as heavily armed as the RUC.

Although progress on decommissioning is painfully slow at the moment, once it actually starts rapid progress could be made. This is important in order to avoid weapons falling into the hands of purely criminal organisations or so-called "splinter" groups, as we have already seen.

My noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew mentioned the dangers of Semtex and the need for it to be decommissioned. It has a long shelf life and can do far more political damage than firearms. In addition it is also a necessary precursor for using home-made explosives.

We on these Benches and elsewhere have raised the issue of what some euphemistically used to call punishment beatings; "terrorist mutilation assaults" is now the term in use. My noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew and the moving speech from my noble friend and colleague Lady Seccombe described the problem in detail. Any suggestion that these assaults are to do with civil administration is totally without foundation, as the assaults grossly violate all the principles of human rights: no properly constituted court, no representation, no appeal and it all ends with a cruel, unusual and illegal punishment.

Thanks partly to the efforts of my right honourable friend Mr. Mackay and the letter from my noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew to the Daily Telegraph, and others, the incidence of assaults has been drastically reduced.

The noble Lord, Lord Eames, touched on the issue of parades. It is clear that the only course of action is for the organisers to have confidence, as I do, in the Parades Commission and to demonstrate a willingness to engage in discussions to meet residents' concerns, if necessary, through mediation. Finally, all parties need to abide by the determinations of the commission.

Many noble Lords have touched upon the restructuring of the RUC. I share their concerns. The RUC accepts that there will have to be some changes, but I am confident that the Patten commission will not be a pushover for those who have a rather different concept of community policing from your Lordships. The noble Lord, Lord Fitt, referred to the fearful cost to the security forces during the troubles. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the sacrifices made by all members of the security forces. Many members of the RUC are worried that there are several ways to define the Prime Minister's offer of generous compensation. Certainly, the definition of the Treasury will be different from that of your Lordships.

My noble and learned friend's Motion refers to the value of the Belfast agreement. I believe that the value lies in the opportunity for peace and prosperity in the Province. These opportunities can be fully exploited only in an environment of genuine and enduring peace with no threat of violence. I was particularly pleased to hear the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby. Noble Lords will be aware that many areas of the Province are not fully developed. To take tourism as an example, only 1.8 per cent. of GDP is derived from that activity in Northern Ireland compared with 5 per cent. in Scotland and 6.3 per cent. in the Republic. However, the City of Belfast has made significant progress. The RUC recently explained to me the challenge of policing the estimated 8,000 to 10,000 revellers who apparently go to the centre of Belfast every Friday to enjoy the night life.

It is also interesting to note that during the total of seven days that I recently spent in the Province this year I did not see any Army patrols or vehicles. Londonderry has great opportunities to develop its tourist trade. It is ideally situated as a major population centre in the north west and serves County Donegal just across the Border in the Republic. There is much opportunity to improve the city as a cultural centre and to make it more inviting as a social centre. That will make the area much more attractive to inward investors. Major retailers are already there and I am sure that more will follow their lead.

We know that unemployment is higher in the Province than on the mainland, but even in the black spots the rate is not much higher than the French national average. The Northern Ireland average is much better than that of France. The average age is lower and the educational standards rather higher than on the mainland. For instance, 90 per cent. of A level students achieve two or more passes compared with only 81 per cent. on the mainland. At the other end of the scale, only 4 per cent. leave with no GCSEs compared with 8 per cent. in England and 10 per cent. in Wales. That fact will not be lost upon potential inward investors who will be waiting to see how the peace process moves forward. I do not underestimate the problems: for example, Catholics suffer much higher rates of unemployment; but economic development by inward investment and SMEs will do much to help.

I believe that with full implementation of the agreement and the absence of violence, mayhem and intimidation, or fear of these, the Province presents great opportunities for business and thus for the people of the Province. But it is not just the Province that will benefit. The Republic has also suffered from the negative external impressions that flow from the troubles. That is why I believe in the value of the agreement, especially the need to implement all of its provisions.

5.43 p.m.

My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity given us today by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, to discuss the Belfast agreement and its implementation. I am also grateful for the contributions of noble Lords to this interesting debate. I understand the many concerns that have been raised and I shall attempt to address those in some detail in a few moments. I particularly welcome the optimism about the future of Northern Ireland demonstrated by many, although not all, of your Lordships. In particular I commend my noble friends Lord Blease, Lord Graham and Lord Clarke, the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, and the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale. I believe that the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, should also be categorised as an optimist in speaking about the future of Northern Ireland.

It may be useful if I reflect briefly on the historic significance of the agreement. It is all too easy to become focused on the immediate difficulties so that one forgets the huge strides forward that the agreement represents. If I had asked your Lordships about a year ago whether the progress that has been made would be made I suspect that quite a number would have regarded it as impossible. The Belfast agreement represents a unique opportunity for a stable political settlement in Northern Ireland. For the first time the different communities have reached agreement on the way in which Northern Ireland should be governed. That is surely remarkable progress.

It is also right to call attention to the value of that agreement as the Motion of the noble and learned Lord does today. Of course the story did not end last April when the agreement was reached. In many ways that was only the beginning of a long and difficult process of implementation. At the same time, we must not forget that since last April progress has been made across a whole range of issues contained in the agreement. Perhaps I may take a moment or two to remind your Lordships of the many events that have taken place: the new Northern Ireland Assembly has been established and the right honourable Members for Upper Bann and Newry and South Armagh have been elected as shadow First and Deputy First Ministers; agreement has been reached on the future structure of the Northern Ireland departments and the functions of the North-South implementation bodies, and only last week that was endorsed by a substantial majority of the assembly; and the reviews of policing and criminal justice have been established and their work is well under way. I shall say a little more about the policing review shortly. Further, the human rights and equality commissions are being set up; there has been a steady normalisation of security measures in Northern Ireland consistent with the level of terrorist threat; there has been the release of paramilitary prisoners, which has been a contentious point in the debate this afternoon; and, finally, there have been a number of important initiatives relating to the victims of terrorism and violence in line with the recommendations of the Bloomfield Report. I believe that, taken together, they represent a tremendous amount of progress.

I do not need to remind noble Lords that the implementation of the agreement has not been easy. That has been the thrust of many of the speeches that we have heard this afternoon. None of us would have expected easy progress from the date of the establishment of the Good Friday agreement. There are people on both sides of the community who remain hostile to the political process. A tiny minority of people have used violence to try to destroy the agreement and continue to threaten to do so. Last summer the atrocity in Omagh and the murder of the three Quinn boys in Ballymoney were tragic reminders of the evils of sectarianism and paramilitary violence and of the past that the people of Northern Ireland so desperately want to put behind them. Efforts continue to try to bring the perpetrators of these vile acts to justice. Your Lordships will have noted the arrests in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of individuals alleged to have been involved in the atrocity in Omagh.

These tragedies have reinforced us in our efforts to press on with the process of implementing the agreement to try to ensure that never again will the people of Northern Ireland have to suffer in this way. Regrettably, there has been a continuing incidence of paramilitary attacks, beatings and mutilations. I share the disgust of all noble Lords at these barbaric attacks. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State has met representatives of Sinn Fein and the Loyalist parties to stress that these attacks are totally unacceptable and that they must end. I am pleased that the level of attacks has now reduced significantly. The Government will continue to press for a total end to paramilitary violence. Even one paramilitary attack, mutilation or beating of this kind is one too many.

This is not just about violence but the threat of it and the forced exile of people from their homes and from Northern Ireland. Many noble Lords have referred to forced exile. This is a violation of human rights which is totally incompatible with the agreement. The Government call on all those who are in a position of influence to press for these forced exiles to end.

There have been other difficulties on the political front. Most significantly, there is the continuing stalemate over the formation of the executive committee and the refusal of the major paramilitary organisations to begin the decommissioning of their illegal weapons. Today many noble Lords have emphasised again and again the absolute necessity for all sides to live up to their obligations under the agreement. I wholly support those calls. It is essential to the implementation of the agreement and to the building of trust between the communities that all sides live up to all their commitments. The noble Lord, Lord Eames, spoke movingly about the need for trust to be established; and that trust was the key to significant progress in Northern Ireland. That is why the Government have continued to live up to their obligations even when that has been very difficult, most notably in the continuing release of paramilitary prisoners.

This fulfilment of obligations simply must be reciprocated by all sides. That means that we must move quickly to the establishment of the institutions of government in Northern Ireland, because when they are established there will be more trust and confidence in the whole process. It means a start to decommissioning.

Much has been said in this House and elsewhere about decommissioning. I want to say today that the issue of decommissioning is not about creating new pre-conditions. It is not about seeking to exclude people from Government. Quite the opposite. It is about creating the conditions necessary for inclusive and democratic government. Nor is it about surrender, as the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, said. That was demonstrated by the beginning of LVF decommissioning in December. That showed that decommissioning is politically possible. No one was humiliated. It was not an act of surrender. It was an act of good faith, living up to the obligations of the agreement.

Much has been made of the fact that the agreement does not specify a start date for decommissioning, only an end date. But nor does the agreement set a start date for the early release of prisoners and yet the two Governments have clearly demonstrated their good faith by taking forward this aspect of the agreement.

Decommissioning cannot be argued away. It is integral to the very spirit of the agreement as a demonstration of the transition from the violence and threat of violence of the past to the democratic politics of the future. It is a demonstration of the commitment to exclusively peaceful and democratic means.

When we started the debate, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister was answering questions in another place. I believe that it would be appropriate for me to quote what he said in answer to a Question from David Trimble about decommissioning. It is too soon to be able to quote from Hansard; but I think that it would be wrong if I did not repeat this to the House. The Prime Minister said:
"The advice is very clear. They should decommission their weapons. I agree with what the Taoiseach said. The whole of the agreement must be implemented and we must know that violence has been given up for good; and it is unreasonable to expect people to sit down together unless they know that that is the case".
It is now time for parties associated with paramilitary organisations to demonstrate their good faith by making real progress on decommissioning, just as it is time for inclusive, democratic government to begin. I agree with noble Lords that all obligations under the agreement must be met in full.

I welcome the continued commitment to bipartisan support of the main thrust of the Government's policies from the Opposition party and the Liberal Democrats. Of course that does not mean that we expect a blank cheque. But we welcome the continuation of that bipartisan support. It is important that people in Northern Ireland know that that is the case so that they do not seek to divide us here on the main thrust of what we seek in Northern Ireland.

Many questions were asked. Consistent with time, I shall do my best to do justice to them. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, asked a number of questions. I totally condemn the vile attack in Beesbrook last night. Every effort will be made to bring those responsible to justice. If convicted they will not be eligible for early release under the agreement. It has not yet been possible to determine which organisation, if any, was responsible for the attack. The RUC investigation is continuing.

I cannot confirm the statistics of the noble and learned Lord about the number of people forced into exile. However, as I said earlier, I totally agree that such activity is a disgraceful violation of human rights and must end.

The noble and learned Lord asked about the judgement of the ceasefire becoming more rigorous over time. The Secretary of State will make her judgment in the round taking into account all relevant facts. The noble and learned Lord will agree that it is not an easy judgment to make. Over time, as the implementation of the agreement continues, the consideration of the relevant factors will become more stringent. But it is a serious judgment and noble Lords must be aware of the serious consequence of declaring that the ceasefires are at an end. It is clear that to say the ceasefires are at an end would prejudice all the progress that has been made and might take us way back to where we were before the peace process began under the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew.

The noble and learned Lord also referred to the possession of Semtex. I agree with him that the holding of explosives of any form is incompatible with a commitment to exclusively peaceful means. The RUC will continue to do all it can to secure the removal of all illegal weapons and explosives and to bring to justice those in possession of them. At the same time I believe that the full implementation of the agreement is the best way to secure the decommissioning of these weapons.

Reference was made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, and other noble Lords to the number of paramilitary beatings and attacks. There have been some indications of a decline in number. Nevertheless I share the disgust of all noble Lords at these barbaric attacks. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State has met with representatives of the Sinn Fein and loyalist parties to stress that they must come to an end. By their nature, the statistics are unreliable. However, I can confirm the indications that there has been recently a significant reduction, in particular of those attributed to the republicans; but one attack is one too many.

The noble and learned Lord also asked why we did not use the lever of stopping releases. If that were to happen, the consequences would be immense for the whole process in Northern Ireland. I do not say that it would never be right to come to that judgment; it is just that I do not believe that such a judgment would be right at this point in time. To demand a decision to be reached that the ceasefires are at an end, when we judge that they are not, would bring down the whole Good Friday agreement. That would be a consequence. The view that stopping prisoner releases would increase the chances of the Good Friday agreement being implemented is not one that I share. I do not believe that it would have that effect. The situation is never perfect, but in 18 months we have come further than people believed we could; and that has been with all the difficulties—tactical, strategic and of principle—inherent in the situation.

The judgment about the ceasefire must take into account all the evidence, including the security advice we receive. On the basis of that evidence, we do not believe that it is justified to conclude that the ceasefires have broken down. In saying that, I repeat that I do not minimize our anxiety about continuing paramilitary attacks.

The noble Baroness, Lady Park, and the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, asked about support in the United States for the Continuity IRA as evidenced by the collection of funds. The support of the US Government and of President Clinton in particular has been an invaluable factor in the peace process. President Clinton has made clear that there should be no support from America for those who would seek to wreck the agreement through continuing violence. There is close co-operation between the agencies of the British and United States Governments to prevent the illegal funding of dissident terrorist groups, including of course the Continuity IRA.

The noble Baroness, Lady Park, and many other noble Lords asked about policing. Under the Good Friday agreement, the Government have appointed an independent commission on policing with Chris Patten in the chair. Its broad terms of reference are set out in the agreement. It is to report next summer, and is consulting widely throughout Northern Ireland. We want the best possible policing service for the people of Northern Ireland based on principles of fairness, impartiality and effectiveness, which works in partnership with and is supported by the community.

I do not know what Chris Patten's commission will decide. However, the Prime Minister has made it clear that the RUC will not be disbanded, so that is not on the Government's agenda. I join the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, in paying tribute to the RUC and the work it has done over many years in extremely difficult circumstances. Its members are very brave men and, tragically, many of them lost their lives in defending their communities in Northern Ireland.

The noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, in what I thought was a pessimistic speech, asked about the release of prisoners. He used the word "amnesty". There is no amnesty for prisoners. Under the legislation agreed by this House, prisoners are given early release on licence, in line with the agreement.

The noble Lord and others suggested that it was wrong to reduce security when a threat remains. Individual normalisation measures are operational decisions for the Chief Constable to take in the light of his assessment of the threat. As a result of his advice, certain security measures have been scaled down. The advice of the Chief Constable and the GOC determines the Government's response and the closing of any establishments.

Several references were made to the running costs of the Assembly. With devolution, it is fitting that Northern Ireland's locally elected politicians and leaders should take decisions on how to allocate resources within the transferred field. One cannot say, "We are giving you devolution", and then tell them how to exercise their responsibilities. That would be inconsistent. Therefore, the cost of the Assembly is a matter for the Assembly itself. I do not wish to comment in detail on the figures which were quoted, but they refer to the next financial year when, all being well, the Assembly will be responsible for its finances and will have to live with the consequences of any expenditure under one heading at the expense of others.

The noble Lord, Lord Beloff, referred to the Washington Summit. The United States Government have provided vital support to the political process in Northern Ireland. That includes work by the Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, as well as the President himself. A number of political leaders from Northern Ireland, as well as the Secretary of State, will be in the United States in the middle of March. We expect that those who are in contact with them will encourage them to show the courage and determination needed to make further progress.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, spoke about changes to Articles 2 and 3. The constitutional amendments were approved by a referendum on 22nd May 1998 in accordance with Article 4 of the British-Irish agreement. The Irish Government are bound to ensure that these amendments take effect immediately on entry into force of the agreement. This will occur immediately on the transfer of powers and the formal establishment of other institutional aspects of the Belfast agreement.

The noble Marquess, Lord Donegall, said that punishment attacks had been committed by released prisoners. There have been allegations of that, but we have no firm evidence and the Government cannot and will not act on the basis of media speculation.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for giving way. I recently read in a responsible newspaper that one released prisoner had been returned to custody. I do not know to which grouping he belonged, his religion or where he came from, but I am reasonably confident that that is a fact.

My Lords, there has been one recall. All prisoners are released under licence—

My Lords, I said that there had been attacks because it was reported in the Irish Independent, which I read.

My Lords, perhaps I can help. I understand that the man was recalled for a normal criminal/civil offence.

My Lords, I believe that that is the case. All prisoners are released under licence and therefore are subject to recall. The point at issue was whether released prisoners have taken part in paramilitary assaults and beatings. We have no evidence of that. If there were evidence of the involvement of released prisoners, as in any other criminal matter the licence would be suspended and they would be back inside gaol. I confirm that one prisoner who was released has been arrested, not in relation to a terrorist offence and therefore not in breach of his licence. Nevertheless, he has been arrested for the further offence which he committed.

I must bring my remarks to a close. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, encourages me to continue and there are only two or three specific points that I wish to make. The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, said that the Secretary of State was soft on terrorism and the like. I reject that entirely; it is not the case. The noble Lord, Lord Cooke, said that the Government were not interested in protecting people from attacks. That is entirely wrong. The Government take the security of every individual person in Northern Ireland as being a matter of importance. My noble friend Lord Fitt referred to the release of prisoners and the effect on local people of seeing those who had killed their relatives. I understand that. It is extremely painful—we said so at the time of the legislation—for the relatives to see such people coming out of prison. However, I do not accept my noble friend's suggestion that there is any acceptable level of violence. We do not go along with that; there is no acceptable level of violence. I reject the suggestion entirely.

We have had a useful and interesting debate. There is an enormous prize ahead for all of us in the United Kingdom, in particular for the people of Northern Ireland, provided that we have decommissioning and the peace process moves forward. I believe that it will. I believe that we stand on the brink of a significant step forward and one which we cannot afford to miss. We have come too far to contemplate going back. The people of Northern Ireland have voted overwhelmingly for the agreement. They want it to happen; they want it implemented in full. That includes decommissioning, an integral component of the agreement, and it includes the establishment of inclusive democratic government in Northern Ireland.

There is still a sense of optimism in Northern Ireland. I know of the difficulties and I know that people are worried. I join noble Lords today in urging the parties to show the courage and determination which they have exhibited throughout the process and to make the decision necessary to take the next step on the road to a better future for Northern Ireland.

6.7 p.m.

My Lords, time is minuscule and I must redeem myself for having spoken for an extra minute by saving time now. The debate will repay careful reading. Therefore, I wish to confine my remarks to only three issues, all of which concern my gratitude. First, I am most grateful to the Minister for the careful way in which he addressed himself to the questions which were asked. His answers will bring some reassurance to those in Northern Ireland who have deep anxieties which were focused upon in the debate.

Secondly, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in such a knowledgeable, serious, well informed and well attended debate. Again, that will help to bring confidence to Northern Ireland. Finally, I am grateful to noble Lords who made kind remarks about myself and my wife. I comment only that in the case of my wife they are thoroughly well deserved. On that proudly uxorious and deeply grateful note, I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.