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Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997 (Amnesty Period) Order 2007

Volume 688: debated on Wednesday 24 January 2007

I remind noble Lords that in the case of each order, the Motion before the Committee will be that the Committee do report that it has considered the order in question. I should also make it clear that this Committee is charged only to consider orders, not to approve or not approve them. The Motion to approve will be moved in the Chamber in the usual way.

rose to move, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997 (Amnesty Period) Order 2007.

The noble Lord said: Before I make what will be a fairly brief speech, I should like to say that if the noble Lord, Lord Laird, were not laid up in hospital, he would be with us this afternoon. On behalf of all Members of the Committee, I send him best wishes for a very speedy recovery, so that he is back at full strength before too long.

Before turning to the substance of the order, I should like to set out the Government’s position on decommissioning more generally. Decommissioning is a matter of considerable public interest; it has an essential role in building the trust and confidence necessary for political progress in Northern Ireland.

In September 2005, the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning reported that it, and independent witnesses, had,

“determined that the IRA has met its commitment to put all its arms beyond use in a manner called for by the legislation”.

Subsequent reports by the IICD and the Independent Monitoring Commission have verified that the IRA has undertaken the historic and major step of decommissioning its weapons.

To put this in context, I quote from the IMC’s 12th report, which states that three years ago the Provisional IRA,

“was the most sophisticated and potentially the most dangerous of the groups, possessed of the largest arsenal of guns and other material. It is now firmly set on a political strategy, eschewing terrorism and other forms of crime”.

The British and Irish Governments welcomed the move as a landmark development. The Governments said that the significance of the IRA's decommissioning needed to be acknowledged and recognised and that it was the clearest signal ever that the IRA’s armed campaign was over. This act of decommissioning has not been matched by other paramilitary groups, and it is vital that representatives of loyalist paramilitary groups engage with the IICD and make the full transition from conflict to peace.

Before turning to the substance of the order, I want to make one final general comment. The order is effectively an annual event. It is essential to keep reminding ourselves of the distance we have travelled towards a peaceful Northern Ireland. Last summer, Northern Ireland witnessed the most peaceful parading season in recent years. It is notable that on 12 July, the Army was not deployed on the streets of Belfast in support of the police for the first time in decades. This is a great achievement, which would not have been possible without the efforts of many hundreds of people across Northern Ireland.

In political terms, there have also been enormous developments. Following the St Andrews talks, we are on the brink of restoring the power-sharing institutions with the prospect of the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein forming an Executive. This marks incredible progress and heralds hope for a return to stable devolved Government in Northern Ireland. There is more to do to secure a peaceful future, but no one would have predicted at the debate on the previous decommissioning order that we would have come so far in a year. This positive trend on many fronts offers hope for continuing progress.

As I said, this order is a renewal order—an annual order, which appoints 20 February 2008 as the date before which the amnesty period identified in a non-statutory decommissioning scheme must end. The amnesty period is the time during which firearms, ammunition and explosives can be decommissioned in accordance with the scheme. The amnesty provides immunity from prosecution for the offences set out in the schedule to the 1997 Act, offences that might be committed during the decommissioning process. Most such offences relate to the possession of weapons but others may stem from a person’s participation in decommissioning, not necessarily centred on the weapons involved but on the behaviour that may accompany such participation, such as withholding information or making arrangements with the terrorists.

Section 2 of the 1997 Act, as amended by the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning (Amendment) Act 2002 and the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2006, requires that a scheme must identify the amnesty period, and that it must end before 27 February 2010 unless the Secretary of State, by order, appoints a later day. The order currently in force appoints 23 February as the day before which the amnesty period must end. The purpose of the order before the House is to extend that period for a further year.

The September report of the IICD concluded that the IRA had met its commitment to put all its arms beyond use in a manner called for by the legislation, an assessment that it has since confirmed. The IICD’s report also observed that the arms of loyalist paramilitary groups, as well as other paramilitary organisations, remained to be addressed. That is why we are bringing forward this order. The Government are committed to securing the decommissioning of all paramilitary weapons. To that end, discussions continue with the representatives of the UPRG and the PUP, who represent the two main loyalist paramilitary organisations, the UDA and the UVF, respectively. Work with these groups is ongoing with a view to helping them to make the transition from conflict to peace. Decommissioning is a crucial feature of that transition.

The IICD reports that the UDA and, albeit indirectly, the LVF are in contact with it, although the UVF has yet to re-engage. Both Ministers and officials will continue to press for progress but, in parallel with that, it is essential that we continue to provide the statutory framework necessary to make decommissioning a reality. That is what this order does and is the sole purpose of why we are here today. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997 (Amnesty Period) Order 2007. 5th Report from the Statutory Instruments Committee.—(Lord Rooker.)

I thank the Minister for his usual clear, forthright outline of the order before us. I also associate myself with his words in wishing our noble colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Laird, a speedy recovery. He will be welcome back as soon as he is able to make it.

The Minister spoke a little bit in general terms about decommissioning. There is no doubt that the opportunity that a decommissioning amnesty gave terrorist groups was a very useful political and practical way in which to move forward in the peace process, especially in its early days, and towards ending what must have been one of the nastiest and dirtiest of terrorist campaigns that those involved in it at the time ever remember. Let us not forget that the IRA campaign towards Northern Ireland and the border was seriously nasty and dirty and almost a civil war. We should never forget that, and our thanks should go to all those who took part in helping to end that.

There is no doubt that that amnesty and decommissioning played a small part in the early days, when people never believed it would happen. The miracle of decommissioning did happen: and decommissioning by the IRA was of great assistance in attempting to demonstrate to the population that the IRA had had enough of dirt, war, murder and carnage and wanted to return to the table and to democratic governance.

As the Minister said, we still have to encourage the remaining paramilitaries in Northern Ireland not to follow suit, which is not the appropriate phrase, but to decommission themselves and put their arms away. Let us get violence of that sort out of politics in Northern Ireland.

As far as the future is concerned, which the Minister also mentioned, I sincerely hope that we will find ourselves redundant in the role that we are in today and that it will be carried out and pursued in the place where it ought to be—in Stormont with a devolved government. I support the order.

I thank the Minister for elucidating the main points in this order, which has been a hardy annual now for many years. Every year we hope that we will not have to renew it again and we certainly hope that this will be the final time. I would also like to associate myself with the Minister’s wishes for the speedy recovery of the noble Lord, Lord Laird.

As the Minister said, we have come a long way and the most heartening thing has been the decommissioning by the IRA, which is now more or less complete. But it is clear from the latest report from the Independent Monitoring Commission that paramilitary groups are still active in Northern Ireland and therefore there is still a need for a decommissioning scheme if any of these groups are ever to decommission their weapons. The report was very clear on the threat level that still exists from the Continuity IRA, the Real IRA and dissident republican groups in general. If there is an agreement for Stormont to be revived, I fear that we may see some protest activity of a nasty kind by any such groups that are particularly annoyed with Sinn Fein.

Equally, we must remain deeply disappointed at the lack of decommissioning there has been from loyalist paramilitary groups. That is very worrying. There has been no progress despite endless discussions, to which the Minister referred. The recent ombudsman report shows just how nasty these loyalist groups have been in the past and they are still a threat. There may be an upsurge of activity from them if there is a revival of Stormont, because they too may be against any power-sharing agreement.

Republican and loyalist groups are seriously involved in organised crime and continue to carry out paramilitary assaults in Northern Ireland. The Minister has said that there are ongoing discussions with proxies for the loyalist groups, but can he give us further assurance that greater efforts will be made to get these groups to engage with the international decommissioning commission?

We do not believe that, in a democratic society, there is any place for illegality or illegally held weapons and have always called for full decommissioning by both loyalist and dissident republican paramilitary groups. We have been supportive of the progress that has been made on this issue to date. We recognise that decommissioning is a process and that no paramilitary group was going to decommission all its weapons at once, but we urge the Government to put pressure on loyalist paramilitary groups to move away from crime and decommission their weapons. We support the order.

In his introduction, the Minister drew attention to the fact that this event has happened each year for more years than we would have liked. He referred, quite rightly, to the significant IRA decommissioning that has recently taken place and said that decommissioning is essential for confidence building. Unfortunately, decommissioning has not built sufficient confidence in society in Northern Ireland. In fact, the decommissioning that took place recently has passed by without making a ripple of an impact on public opinion. The reasons for this are quite simple: first, decommissioning has taken much longer than expected; and, secondly, it has been done in a way that has not been helpful.

In saying that it has taken longer than expected, I recall that on 10 April 1998 the Prime Minister, in writing, stated quite clearly that the view of Her Majesty’s Government was that decommissioning should start immediately decommissioning schemes were put in place in June 1998. It would have been good had the Government stuck to that point and ensured that it happened. Unfortunately, the Government never brought effective pressure to bear on republicans and I am very much of the view that decommissioning would never have started but for the actions of myself and my colleagues. It started, but it has continued in a way that has not built confidence because the decommissioning commission, in my view quite wrongly, agreed with republicans that decommissioning should be carried out in secret—and, of course, things that are done in secret will never build confidence. Although the Government, through the Minister, have said that this is essential for confidence building, they have not realised or joined up in their minds the desirable objectives of decommissioning and the folly of agreeing to things being done in secret.

I do not want the Minister to say in reply that there was some obligation of confidence in the legislation. It is an excuse that the Government have used in the past and, if the Minister feels inclined to use it, I would refer him to a contribution I made in another place four years ago in which I went through the legislation and the schemes in detail, showing quite clearly that the Government’s contention was wrong. I recall that on that occasion the Minister who replied to the debate was silent on the issue, which I took to mean that he had no reply to the points I made.

Nevertheless, decommissioning by republicans has happened and cannot be repeated. We are then left with the situation that there has been no significant decommissioning by the main loyalist elements or by dissident republicans. Here again, it is deeply regrettable that there has not been progress on these issues. A year ago there was some hope that the UVF would engage in significant action and rumours were put about that it was planning to do something in July of last year. Unfortunately, the way in which the Government’s current political initiative has been handled has created a certain amount of uncertainty and that plan has gone backwards. The uncertainty has been created by foolish comments, mainly by commentators, but to a certain extent by Ministers, about a plan B if the present proposals do not succeed. The uncertainty about that has, we understand, led the UVF to put on hold whatever it had been planning to do last July. That is highly regrettable. We have made the point repeatedly to loyalist paramilitaries and their representatives that they ought to have taken a lead in decommissioning and that they still should act promptly on the matter. Holding back does not give any added influence either to themselves or to anyone purporting to represent the unionist or loyalist community.

In this context and the context of the report to which the noble Lord, Lord Smith, referred—namely, the police ombudsman’s report—which goes into considerable and quite distasteful detail about the activities of the UVF, and particularly its leadership, I wonder whether the Secretary of State was wise to speak in the way that he did at the funeral of Mr David Ervine. I can understand his attendance there, but not him speaking in a way that lavished praise upon Mr Ervine, and, by extension, his associates. There is no doubt as to who they were, because I am told by better-informed persons than myself that the entire leadership of the UVF was there, prominently, sitting not too far away from the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State must have received this report by that time, and if he had no knowledge of the character he was praising on that occasion before he saw that report, he must have done when he received it. I am simply amazed at his behaviour in that respect. I doubt if the Minister is in a position, or even has a desire, to comment on that, but I felt that it would not be right to let the matter pass without querying the behaviour of the Secretary of State on that occasion.

We hope that matters will progress and it would be nice if we were not here in a year’s time, doing the same thing. We do not know, of course, how things will develop, although I am encouraged by the way that things are going and there is a prospect of serious progress—but I shall not speculate further on that because there are persons present here who might, if they feel like it, give us further information and better particulars on those matters. I shall leave that to them. I am optimistic that there will be that progress, which I hope will be followed by loyalists waking up to the reality that their activities and continuing existence as paramilitaries are doing nothing for them, nothing for the persons that they purport to represent or “protect”, and that they would be much better bringing their armed organisations to an end.

As to the threat from dissident republicans, I am afraid that that problem will exist. We have the consolation that the security forces appear to have the measure of those groups quite effectively and I hope that that will bring us as close to normality as we can expect to be. I hope that we will not find ourselves here again next year.

I want to make a few brief points. First, I identify myself with the Minister’s kind remarks about the noble Lord, Lord Laird. We all look forward to his early return to his work here in the House and wish him a speedy recovery.

On the order, will the amnesty for those who are in the process of decommissioning apply only to persons within Northern Ireland, or will it apply to persons caught in the Republic of Ireland who will claim that they are in the process of decommissioning? Will it apply to persons in third countries who could claim that they are in the process of decommissioning? For example, some security sources suggest that IRA/Sinn Fein are now involved in the training of terrorists in Iraq. Will such people be able to claim that they are in the act of decommissioning and receive an amnesty?

I disagree totally with the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Smith, about loyalist paramilitaries. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Trimble. Noble Lords may recall that when the two Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom and southern Ireland met in Armagh city, and announced a plan B for involving Dublin in the affairs of Northern Ireland, the loyalist paramilitaries immediately announced that they were withdrawing from the process of decommissioning. That was a signal for what lies ahead. I do not believe that loyalist paramilitaries would involve themselves in terrorism to bring down a power-sharing assembly at Stormont, but I feel a growing threat in Northern Ireland that the loyalist paramilitaries are holding back to see what plan B will be if the power-sharing executive fails. I fear that if it does fail, there could well be a response from loyalist paramilitaries.

On one hand I regret that 10 years on we are still having to renew this Act, but on the other I fully appreciate that substantial decommissioning has taken place, as outlined in the recent reports of the IMC and the IICD. That is to be welcomed, and I hope it can be extended to the other paramilitary forces in Northern Ireland.

Weapons will have to stay decommissioned. I hope there are ongoing investigations into the substantial amount of money that was taken from the Northern Bank, and that the people responsible can be brought to justice. It always worries me that money from raids like that can be put to use to purchase new weapons, and that therefore decommissioning would be ineffective. On balance, I welcome the extension of this Act.

I had not intended to speak on this order, but I have been encouraged to do so largely in support of what my colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, has said, but also because it has again been brought to my attention that while we talk about decommissioning of loyalist arms, the Government—this is not peculiar to the present Secretary of State; his predecessor and the Secretary of State before that did the same—have indulged in a fairly overt “hug-a-provo” tactic, whereas no similar encouragement has been given to others. The noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, has cautioned the House about that previously. This is not the first time he has indicated that while the Government currently repudiate any effort by loyalists to move forward, however slowly, they are sticking to the tactic of, “Let’s hug a provo”.

It disgusted me, as it did similarly many others, to see certain people at the funeral of David Ervine. When I came into politics, I knew David Ervine. I had some regard for him in so far as I believed that, whatever his associations, he was a changed man from the young man who served a prison sentence, and that he could see prospects for bringing Northern Ireland forward. Everything the Government did, however, was to discourage what he was attempting to do. When, quite recently, he wanted to form an alliance with the leader of my own party to move things forward, the Government and every other party sitting in that Assembly, without exception, jumped up and shouted, “Foul! We can’t allow that to happen”. The reality is that for those same people, including the Secretary of State, to turn out to say kind things when the poor man had died is nothing short of hypocrisy.

I am not going to ameliorate what I have to say on this. We must get rid of the hypocrisy that emanates from the Northern Ireland Office. There are some very evil people in loyalist paramilitary organisations. I am totally opposed to them, and I would like to see every last one brought to justice. But when I see an orchestrated event like I have seen over the past couple of days, when I see a report coming forward from the police ombudsman—who is qualified in neither an investigative nor a judicial sense—to blacken the names of those who worked at huge personal cost, I cannot believe, bluntly, that we do not have more guts and more principle coming from those who govern us at the moment. They should not allow the name of the RUC GC to be blackened. The Ministers can smirk if they like, but the double standards and hypocrisy that I have witnessed over the past few weeks lead me to ask whether they would be encouraged to give up their guns if they were loyalist paramilitaries. Thank God, I grew up in a different environment.

I do not want to gainsay noble Lords from Belfast but urban terrorism will continue until we get fair play from the Government. So, along with this Order in Council, I implore the Government to let us have fair play. Let us not have an exclusive “hug-a-provo” tactic for the next year because, if we do, there will not be a single solitary gun decommissioned. I know that is what will happen. It is not what I want, but I know it.

IRA decommissioning has not altogether taken place. A few weeks ago, the IRA had a show of arms outside a police station, which its members were about to blow up together with the gallant men of the RUC—or the PSNI—who were inside. Where did those arms come from if they have all been decommissioned? The reason the ombudsman has brought forward her report at this vital stage in the affairs of Northern Ireland is obvious to all who have eyes to see: it is in order to let Sinn Fein off the hook. I hope it does not have that effect.

As regards the so-called loyalist paramilitaries, they are not loyal to anyone or anything; they are loyal only to themselves and to what they can make for themselves. Loyalist paramilitaries put a bomb outside my home a few years ago and caused a bit of damage there, so I have very little time for paramilitaries of any kind, whatever they may call themselves.

I associate myself with the remarks of sympathy for the noble Lord, Lord Laird. I have known him for a very long time. His mother and I served together in the city council, the old corporation, and his father served with the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, and my husband in the old Stormont. I hope he will soon be better.

As regards the noble Baroness’s first point, if she is referring to the Brookeborough parade, there is an allegation that some of the arms were part of an historic collection and not operable weaponry. However, the matter is under investigation and updates will follow. I take her point—I understand the central point she made.

I could take offence at some of the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, but I will let them pass. This order is an invitation—albeit a repeated one—to the loyalist paramilitaries to decommission. It is reaching out to them to say, “Look, come to the table because there’s something in this for you if you can make that move. You can walk away with some success, because that’s what it's all about”. This is not the time for crowing one way or the other. I understand his criticism about other decommissioning done in secret. It is known that, once the process and the mandate are complete, the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning will publish its information on the inventory. One can understand the obvious reason why it would not do that as it goes along.

This is not a question of defeat or victory for the parties concerned or of using that kind of language. There is some success for the communities in Northern Ireland in reaching out and using the peaceful process. That is what this order is all about. It is regretted that it is taking so long and nobody regrets that more than the Government and the people of Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, it is important that we renew the invitation for the others who have yet to decommission to do so.

On the central point made by the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, one thing that I can claim without ever having to take advice is that I am helping to legislate only for the United Kingdom. Those other matters are way outside the remit of this order. I can be certain about that. His point is legitimate and I fully understand why he has made it several times, but there is no plan B for a joint authority. I make that absolutely clear. We want the Assembly back. That is what we are working towards. The fear among some members of the community is that if the Assembly is not revived there will be some kind of joint authority over Northern Ireland, and that is not on. There is no point in holding weapons back in case they are needed if something really bad happens as far as the community is concerned. From that point of view, “really bad” would be a joint authority. I have said that before and I am happy to repeat it.

I thank the Minister for those comments. But after the meeting in Armagh city attended by the two prime ministers, the Dublin Government said that plan B did provide for the southern Irish Government to be increasingly involved in the internal affairs of Northern Ireland. We are not talking about a joint authority. It is easy for the Minister to deny that there will be joint authority, but does plan B include increased southern Irish Government involvement in the internal affairs of Northern Ireland? If it does, we have a major problem.

I fully accept that. Please believe that I am not playing with words. I understand that point and I understand what was said after that meeting, but we have been clear about the consequences of failure. We have put orders before the House to enable practical co-operation on the island of Ireland on matters that benefit everybody; whether animal disease control, or the electricity authority. A joint market for electricity is an example of north-south co-operation set out in the Good Friday agreement.

However, the noble Lord talked of controlling internal affairs. North-south co-operation is not about control from the south into the north, it is about what we can do together to benefit our two communities—north and south. The examples of animal disease control, food production, avian flu and the all-Ireland electricity market are matters of supreme economic benefit for north and south. But they will not involve the apocalypse that people might envisage in part of the loyalist community. That should be made quite clear.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. On that point, he will be aware that the Irish Republic announced yesterday a €180 billion development plan and indicated that it would expend 8 per cent of that €180 billion in Northern Ireland. Have there been discussions, not only with departments but with unionist parties about that? Has that been explained or do people see it—like those who have spoken to me during the past 24 hours—as another stealthy incursion of Irish republican influence in Northern Ireland? It will affect our roads—no one begrudges money spent on roads so don’t throw that one back to me, please—it will affect our hospitals and it will take away the Northern Ireland identity that unionists have sought to defend.

The answer to that is no, I do not know the details of what was said yesterday. I have come here today to deal with the decommissioning order, which is why I do not know about that and why I am not going down the road of discussing the role of the police ombudsman. The House has a topical Question on that on the Order Paper in the morning which I will be expected to answer, so I am not going to raise it today. There may be economic benefits for investment in Northern Ireland from wherever. Indeed, in parts of Northern Ireland—or the north of the island of Ireland, which is the Republic—as regards the infrastructure and the health services in Derry, for instance, the hospitals are closer to people in the south than their own hospitals, and we have arrangements for that. I understand that investment has been made in the airport there because there was good economic benefit to both the Republic and Northern Ireland. That is not stealth or something to be disparaged.

I will give way in a moment. The fact is that I am now being diverted and I am not going to be because this order is about decommissioning and an invitation to those who have not decommissioned to do so. I had better give way to the noble Lord, Lord Trimble.

I thank the noble Lord for giving way and I know that he does not want to be diverted. However, so much has been said on this matter that I feel impelled to throw in a ha’p’orth. The Minister talks about doing things where there is economic benefit and reference has been made to the plan published in Dublin. I want to draw his attention to the proposal in that plan for the Irish Government to put down—I believe it has been put on the table several times in meetings with Ministers and officials—their contribution to the restoration of the Ulster canal, which would be of considerable economic benefit. In developing the tourist and leisure industry, this is a hugely significant project as anyone who is familiar with what has happened to the canals in England during the past 20 years must know. I hope that when the Minister speaks to his colleagues in the Northern Ireland Office he will urge them to see that that bid for valuable co-operation moves forward at last.

I will be glad to do that, but I am returning to the issue. Two other points were made in the debate which I shall answer. I do not want to raise the temperature and I appreciate that the Secretary of State has gone round unknowingly upsetting some noble Lords. However, I have to say that I agree with the Secretary of State’s remarks in relation to David Ervine. I had only fleeting contact with David Ervine, but I knew him more from the television over here. Certainly, the evidence was that he was a courageous and remarkable individual who strived to bring loyalism through a transition to a peaceful path. That must be worth paying tribute to in the context of Northern Ireland. On the point about him trying to make an arrangement with the Ulster Unionist Party and the Assembly group, I understand that it was a matter for the presiding officer of the Assembly to resolve. Apparently, she took independent legal advice before she ruled that the Ulster Unionists and the Progressive Unionists were not a party for the purposes of the Assembly. That was where that proposal fell by the wayside.

The order has received a broad welcome and I do not think that anyone will make an indication against it—although we do not vote in Grand Committee. It is an invitation repeated with the best of intentions to enable the loyalists, the paramilitaries, with dignity to decommission their arms. That is the way to the future.

On Question, Motion agreed to.