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 2008.
The noble Lord said: First, I want to acknowledge and welcome the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, to his Front-Bench position.
Before I turn to the substance of the order, a draft of which was laid before the House on 4 December and which is well known to noble Lords, I shall set out the Government’s position on decommissioning more generally, which I hope the Committee will find helpful. Decommissioning is a matter of considerable public importance and it has played an essential role in achieving political progress in Northern Ireland. It is vital that we ensure it can continue so that paramilitary weapons can be put beyond use. In September 2005, the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning reported that it and independent witnesses had determined that the Provisional IRA has,
“met its commitment to put all its arms beyond use in a manner called for by the legislation”.
That position has been supported by subsequent reports by the International Monitoring Commission, which have illustrated the progress made by this organisation. At one point, the IMC considered the Provisional IRA to be the most sophisticated and potentially most dangerous of the terrorist groups in Northern Ireland. In contrast, in April 2007, the International Monitoring Commission reported that the Provisional IRA was firmly committed to a political path. None of us can deny the progress that has been made and the part that decommissioning has played in that. We now want to see a determined effort from other paramilitary organisations, including loyalists.
We have seen some progress over the past year with statements by the UVF and UDA acknowledging that the war is over and calling on all active service units to stand down. However, the Secretary of State was right to say at the time that,
“they will be judged by their actions, not their words”.
Engagement with the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning and the decommissioning of its weapons is vital. This order enables decommissioning to take place.
I turn to what the order does. The current amnesty period identified in the non-statutory decommissioning scheme is due to end on 20 February this year. This order would extend that deadline for a further year to 14 February 2009. 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 participation, such as the withholding of information or making arrangements with 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 purpose of the order before the House is to extend that period for a further year.
The extension of the decommissioning amnesty period had become something of an annual event. I think this is the third one I have brought to the House. However, the amnesty will not and should not continue indefinitely. The Independent International Commission on Decommissioning’s last report confirmed its assessment made in September 2005 that the Provisional 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 Independent International Commission on Decommissioning’s report also observed that the arms of loyalist paramilitary groups, as well as that of other paramilitary organisations, remained to be addressed. Its January 2006 report emphasised the concentration on loyalist paramilitary groups and the desire to attempt to engage with them in the pursuit of their mandate. We are introducing this order because the Government are committed to securing the decommissioning of all paramilitary weapons, and because in our judgment it would be premature to close off this route to achieving that objective. To that end, discussions continue to secure decommissioning proposals with the UPRG. Those discussions have included representatives from the UDA. The Independent International Commission on Decommissioning believes that this represents a willingness to address the issue of arms.
It is important to emphasise that work with these groups is ongoing with a view to helping them to make the transition from conflict to peace and to bring about their desire to transform not only themselves but their communities. We must acknowledge the UVF statement of 3 May 2007 and the progress that may produce. However, the statement needs to be supported by clear and visible action, including decommissioning and, to that end, continuing contact between the UVF and the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning. Decommissioning is a crucial feature of that transition. The LVF has not resumed formal contact, but it has authorised informal discussions with intermediaries.
It is essential that we build on the progress already made by the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning next year. In order to achieve that, it is essential that we continue to provide the statutory framework necessary to make decommissioning a reality. This order does exactly that. Its extension for one year is a measured and prudent response to the current situation. 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 2008. 6th Report from the Statutory Instruments Committee.—(Lord Rooker.)
I thank the Minister for his comments about my presence here. I reassure him about this; I carry with me the apologies of my noble friend Lord Glentoran, who is otherwise engaged. I am merely spelling for him on this occasion. One should not read too much into that.
As the Minister has said, this is a routine order which is necessary for the functioning of the IICD in the event of there being decommissioning, and it is necessary that this is made available to the IICD. I know that, in some quarters, people get excited when they see this order because of the word “amnesty”, but the provision that can be described as such within this structure is very limited, is for a specific purpose and is clearly necessary to facilitate decommissioning. It is a usual, routine event which enables us to comment on progress or otherwise regarding decommissioning generally and with regard to paramilitaries.
The Minister has done so by recording how mainstream republicans have completed their process, but unfortunately he has had very little to report regarding loyalist paramilitaries. I noticed that the farthest he could get was to say that the present interaction between the IICD and the UPRG—and whatever paramilitary representatives that are contained in that—is seen as, “willingness to address the issue of arms”. That is a very limited and cautious statement, which does not disclose any serious engagement. That is how I interpret that phrase. While they might be meeting and having a little discussion, there is not yet serious engagement on the issue.
It is necessary to spell that out and to say very clearly to the loyalist paramilitary organisations, to the UDA and the UVF—which have come out with some encouraging statements about their general orientation but which have not carried it through with the appropriate action—that it is very difficult to be patient with this situation. Considerable efforts have been made by a wide range of people over the past few years to try to encourage and facilitate the loyalist paramilitary organisations’ transformation, but the progress is very disappointing indeed. Those organisations cannot expect society and the Government to continue to tolerate that slow progress. That must be said.
I observe parenthetically that, by not decommissioning, the loyalist paramilitaries are delaying the point at which the IICD publishes its inventory of decommissioning, which enables a certain cloak of privacy to be cast over the republican decommissioning events. It is ironic that the loyalist paramilitaries, by their dilatoriness, are saving the republicans from the embarrassment of having the extent to which they decommissioned clearly seen.
The present situation goes further than just slowness in terms of engagement with the IICD. We saw just a few weeks ago action by a paramilitary organisation on the Shankill which indicates that rather than making progress we are going backwards. That incident was where two persons who were alleged to have been involved in crime were publicly paraded and humiliated on the street. We were told by the Belfast Telegraph yesterday that the organisation that was responsible was the UDA. That might or might not be accurate; it probably is. But that action was a most retrograde event. I noted that, unfortunately, the Police Service of Northern Ireland arrived on the scene but later departed, saying that no further action would be taken because the persons concerned did not make a complaint. That does not seem to be an appropriate approach to policing. The events clearly demonstrated that something untoward and probably of a criminal nature had occurred. I would have thought that it would have been incumbent on the police to investigate further. I notice also the silence of the human rights lobby. Clearly, the human rights of those individuals were trespassed upon, but we hear nothing said about that.
It is like the bad old days, when paramilitaries were acting with impunity. We do not want to see those bad old days come back, and we do not like the sight of a paramilitary organisation flexing its muscles to intimidate the general population of an area. That may not be seen to be directly relevant to decommissioning, but it is relevant to the state of mind in that paramilitary organisation or grouping. If that is their state of mind, it does not encourage us regarding the decommissioning process.
It is incumbent not so much on the IICD, the remit of which is very limited, but on the Government, in the direct or indirect contacts that they may have with such groups, to ensure that our impatience and displeasure are made known to them. It is also incumbent on the Independent Monitoring Commission, which has done so much good work over the past number of years, to clearly highlight this situation, as it can in the report that is coming in April. We look forward to that IMC report in the hope that it will vindicate its reputation, point the finger and perhaps indicate what the Government can do to increase the sanction on the paramilitary organisations which have not yet taken advantage of the opportunities available to them to move into normal, peaceful operation and to leave behind the paramilitarism and criminality that has been such a disgrace to them and those who would identify with them.
I, too, thank the Minister for setting out the order. I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, on his first outing as a Front-Bencher with his new cause, even if it is in well-worn territory; I know that he is moving on to other pastures before the day is out.
The only constant thing in our consideration of Northern Ireland matters is our need for patience. There is something inevitable about this order being brought before us. In a couple of months’ time, it will be 10 years since the Good Friday agreement; I am amazed by how time flies. The noble Lord, Lord Trimble, referred to the IRA decommissioning, as did the Minister, which goes back to September 2005. Yet we have the latest monitoring report of the present position stating that, although there appears to be willingness, decommissioning is not happening at present on the loyalist side. What pressure are the Government bringing to bear on the paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland that still have not got on with the show? Is there anything that the Minister can do?
The noble Lord, Lord Trimble, spoke about “state of mind”. One of the problems is what is the future for people who have made it just about the career of their adult lifetimes to be involved in paramilitary activity? I have heard it expressed that perhaps there should be some old comrades’ organisation set up—a billiards saloon or whatever. It may well be that something must be done, but that would be down to the devolved Assembly. Is that which the Minister and his colleagues have to do in representing the Northern Ireland Office, and that which could and should be done by the devolved Assembly and its Ministers, properly working in parallel to achieve the objectives that we all wish to see? Clearly, shuffle diplomacy and patience are still required. I hope that there are some answers to that.
We urge the Government to put pressure on the loyalist paramilitary groups to move away from crime and to decommission their weapons. Can more be done by the Government and the devolved Assembly, working together, to make another move forward? We support the order, which has to happen, but I would not mind teasing out whether things could be pushed that little bit further.
I thank the Minister for bringing forward this order and for the information that he has given us so far. However, I would have liked to have seen a little bit of hard information. We are talking about something as serious as guns, bombs and the means of detonating bombs. I remember raising this issue well over 20 years ago in another place, when I talked about having seen what was happening in South Africa. I talked about the need for disarmament if we were to move back towards a stable society. At that time and, indeed, up until very recently, the leader of another unionist party in Northern Ireland used to think that I was quite mad to suggest disarmament. “There’ll never be a gun or a bullet decommissioned,” he would say. Thanks to the efforts of a lot of people but, in particular, the efforts of my friend the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, we moved in 1998 to a situation where progress has been slowly, sometimes almost imperceptibly but none the less steadily, made over the past 10 years— I sometimes cannot believe that it is 10 years since the Belfast agreement.
I was an officer in the Army 30 years ago, and I knew roughly what weapons the IRA had and what weapons the loyalist paramilitaries had. We talked about the substance of the problem. Now it is almost unheard of to talk about the substance of the problem. I no longer have any idea of the extent of the arms the paramilitary organisations hold. Do we know the number of weapons still outstanding? Do we know the types of weapons? Do we know how much bomb material and detonators we are looking for? If the Minister could reassure us that the present Police Service of Northern Ireland has any idea, as we used to have, that would be some reassurance.
I shall address two other issues. The first is the punishment fitting the crime. I would like the Minister to tell us how many people have been charged with the possession of weapons and how severe the punishment has been. If we create the opportunity for people to get rid of these weapons and move to a normal life, we should ensure that failure to do so is punished—and I make no apology for saying punished most harshly. How many people have been punished for possession of weapons in the past year or so, and what were the lengths of their sentences? Are they a deterrent? I have a strange feeling that the answer to that may be embarrassing.
Another issue is almost out of step with the lack of progress in disarming the loyalist paramilitaries. I should have emphasised that I am talking almost exclusively about loyalist paramilitaries’ weaponry. I know that we want the weapons of other groups, such as the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA, too, but we will have to dedicate a lot of effort to finding those weapons. As my noble friend Lord Trimble has already said, the matter is being hindered by the tardiness of the loyalists.
I want to make a promise—one may think that it is a threat—about the devolution of policing and justice. I will do everything in my power to dissuade my party from having anything to do with the devolution of policing and justice while the dregs of society are still in possession of these weapons. It would be totally unfair to an Assembly in Northern Ireland to put the onus on that particular body, with all its still remaining suspicions and the element of distrust that it will take years to remove. It would be nonsense to suggest that it should have responsibility for devolution and policing. I hope that the Minister will tell his friend Mr Woodward that we are not at all supportive of his constant reminder that he is moving towards this devolution in the short term. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us some substantial answers on the substance of the problem.
To follow what the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, has said about the people on the loyalist side who still have weapons, we should think about how we are dealing with this, because we have dealt with widespread terrorism through the measures that we have had. Right now, we do not have that terrorism. On the republican side, we are dealing with dissidents. On the loyalist side, we are dealing with a group of leaders who we believe would like to come out of terrorism, but there are enough dissidents and active people to restrain them from doing so. I am not sure that the measures we are taking and the way in which we are approaching dissidents is quite right, because if the loyalists live in fear of their ranks, which are still dissident enough to put the fear into them, they will look at republicans and say, “What have the republicans done? They have disarmed. They have done all that”. But they have got dissidents and we have not found a way of resolving the problem of those dissidents.
Should the loyalists go down the same route, they can see that we still have not found a way to help such a leadership resolve the problem. Things are so well advanced in Northern Ireland compared with the way they were that I by no means criticise the Government for not having the right answer or an answer to it. But there must be something in the fact that we have not found a way of dealing with the dissidents on the republican side, who I realise are a very small problem compared with those on the loyalist side, and either bringing them in or punishing them well enough to stop them, and they are still active.
In an extreme way, I believe that there is a way to resolve this, but I realise that our current politicians will not take that way. For instance, if one takes the republican side, the politicians, who know who the dissidents are because they were on their books years ago, could quite easily say, “Okay, listen boys, we will not bother you for three months, but you must stop in three months. We support the police. We support law and order and we support the constitution”—we hope—“and, if you do not give up, we will do something about it”. I do not believe that we are giving them enough support to enable them to do that, even if that is a consideration.
I definitely do not think that the loyalists have a clue about how to bring in their grass roots. It is a social problem and an employment issue. As someone said, it has become their lifestyle. Are we really doing enough to bring those groups with us? This is part-punishment, part-carrot. Perhaps the carrot is not good enough. We do not have quite the right approach to this, because we have suppressed the terrorism but we do not have a dissident policy.
I join other noble Lords in thanking the Minister for his explanation of the order. I underline my support for it and for total decommissioning. We have waited a long time—perhaps longer than we should have, as we know—but things are getting there. I acknowledge the efforts made by people, some of whom are in this Committee tonight, in the whole area of decommissioning.
I also join my noble friend Lord Maginnis in his plea about the potential for the devolution of policing and justice to Northern Ireland. It is clear that arms and arms decommissioning are only one issue. There must be more than that which allows the devolution of such important topics. I have yet to be convinced that there is much support from Sinn Fein for the Police Service of Northern Ireland. There is a lot of talk, but I ask noble Lords to cast their minds back to the dreadful murder of Robert McCartney several years ago in a pub in the centre of Belfast. That murder has destroyed the McCartney family, and his sisters have been uprooted and intimidated out of the area. Somewhere between 70 and 80 members of Sinn Fein were drinking in the bar that night and witnessed the murder, yet none of them has come forward.
Then there was the Quinn murder on the border, when a team of 20 people went out and battered the poor, hapless young gentleman to death. Now the Sinn Fein people are suggesting that if you want to co-operate with the police on either side of the border, you must go through a solicitor in Dundalk. That is the same system of vetting information and the same formula that they used in the case of the McCartney murder. It is interesting to note that Conor Murphy, a Minister in the Executive, had a meeting with the IRA a few days after the murder. The IRA informed him that they were not involved. I just wonder who drove him to that meeting, and what the topic of conversation was on the drive there.
I am very much taken with the Minister reminding us of the old saying of judgment on actions, not words. I am totally opposed to the concept of devolving policing and justice to Northern Ireland this year. We are not ready for it by a long chalk, and I think noble Lords will find that most people in Northern Ireland believe that. We need actions, not words, from Sinn Fein. When will it support the police by actively giving information and putting some of these dreadful murderers behind bars?
Notwithstanding the fact that we are dealing with this narrow order, I have heard the voices on the devolution of policing and criminal justice, and I will ensure that my ministerial colleagues hear them. I appreciate that not much Northern Ireland business goes through your Lordships’ House at present, and that noble Lords are relieved of the duty of listening to me drone on. However, I do realise that this issue will be up front. A message has been given tonight, and I will ensure that my ministerial colleagues are well aware of it.
The noble Lord, Lord Trimble, referred to the incident on 11 January, of which I am aware. I check the BBC website on Northern Ireland every day. It is curiosity, but I try to keep myself informed. It is not always possible, and I do not have the same responsibilities that I used to have, but I must be aware of things. My answer is what he would expect; acts of criminality must be dealt with through the criminal justice system. The fact of the matter is that although the Police Service of Northern Ireland did not receive any formal complaint from the people involved—the victims, let us say—I am informed that proactive investigation is ongoing and any information that has been made available is being followed up. That is inadequate, but that is the position.
I agree entirely with what the noble Lord said about the slow pace of loyalist decommissioning, and I think that has generally been agreed. We agree with everything that the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, said about that. The IMC in its 17th report noted that the pace of change remains far too slow. We want to see progress, and we simply urge all paramilitaries involved to engage with the decommissioning commission. That is what it is there for. It is there to help them, and it is as simple as that.
The noble Lord, Lord Shutt, asked about what the Government are doing. This is a difficult one. The Government have been engaged with loyalism over many years. Throughout that engagement, the focus has been to persuade leaders to abandon criminality and paramilitarism in favour of democracy. While progress has been slow and minimal, it has been real and genuine and, as part of our engagement, we have pressed on the leadership the need for paramilitary groups to engage constructively with the IICD. Over the past year—2007—both the UVF and the UDA have taken significant steps in that direction. As I think I said, in May 2007 the UVF issued a statement effectively saying that the war was over and that it had stood down as a military organisation. It also promised an end to all paramilitary activity and criminality. While that is progress, we have called on the UVF to actually decommission.
On the UDA side, we continue to support those in the leadership who are genuinely trying to move that organisation away from violence into a peaceful existence. While decommissioning remains a matter for the Northern Ireland Office rather than for the devolved Administration, the Executive have recently agreed a programme for government that includes important objectives on building a shared future. Frankly, we are not going to get a shared future without decommissioning, but a shared future should solve a lot of problems if it is taken genuinely by a lot of organisations. There is a way forward; there is something on the table, as I have said many times before. Those who come to the table can walk away with a gain. There is no issue of victory and defeat in that language. The key here is that those who come to the table gain something from it. That remains open for those who still want to arrive at the table; there is something to gain for them in doing that. That is the lesson of history, and it is certainly the lesson in Northern Ireland.
In respect of the proposed devolution of policing and justice, we believe that the target date of May 2008 is achievable, and we are working towards that date. It cannot be forced through. The issue of all the locks remains in place. I had a vision; I thought that was a quadruple lock, but I will settle for a triple lock. I can remember it being fourfold; maybe I was thinking of two Houses. The triple lock remains in place. However, noble Lords are aware that it is the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister, the Executive and this Parliament. We do not believe that preconditions on the completion of devolution should be put in place. Indeed, the continuing confidence that would be demonstrated by the devolution of policing and justice would rightly make clear that weapons have no place in Northern Ireland. That message has to be got across to everyone.
The noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, asked for statistics on the current paramilitary capability. I fully accept what he said. More than 10 years ago—perhaps 30 years ago—information would have been known, I suspect, by all parties. As time passes, and individuals and situations change, one is bound to get out of touch. As part of its reports, the International Monitoring Commission has continued to illustrate paramilitary capacity. Unfortunately, this was illustrated in its most recent November report, which concluded that there were three paramilitary murders in this period. Therefore, the Government and the police have to continue to combat paramilitary activity. The IMC is required to monitor trends and the incidence of violence, which provides a good, independent measure. Clearly, there are still gangs with these weapons, but I do not think that it is possible to be any more detailed than that on the scale of them.
The noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, referred to the dissident strategy and I fully accept and understand why he said what he said. But the evidence indicates that the dissident republicans have no popular support. The evidence is there because politics is working. In my role as the English Minister with responsibility for agriculture is to persuade the Scots, the Welsh and the Northern Irish to pay something towards animal welfare and animal disease control.
Just before Christmas I went to Northern Ireland on one of my journeys around GB. I did various things and visited people, but I arrived early at Stormont and sat in the public gallery during Questions on education. To watch the antics going on down below was enough to bring tears to your eyes, but the fact is that they were going on there. I am not criticising. During the short time when it was my responsibility to answer for the Government in your Lordships' House, we talked about that very thing so often. I saw Question Time in Stormont. There were arguments between and within the parties. The Minister got a thumping and gave one back—in Belfast. They were going on about the schools of Northern Ireland in Northern Ireland, not here as we have been doing. Politics is working in Belfast, at whatever level. That is part of the foundation for getting that across to the population of Northern Ireland. Those dissidents cannot go around claiming that it was all a con, that it is not working and that their voice is not being heard. The fact is that there is no popular support. Our view is—
The Minister should not have said that, but perhaps I may take this opportunity to question this because people would wonder why I did not. We in Northern Ireland have the best animal welfare in the whole of the United Kingdom and we do not intend to subscribe to the tardiness, the through-otherness and the institutions that send animal disease into the air in the south or south-east of England.
It was not a good example, but I was in Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh to discuss cost-sharing and responsibility on animal disease control. I have made that lesson clear in Whitehall. I have been the spokesman effectively there for the big successes for Northern Ireland. But it is a classic case because we have discussed this. There has to be an Ireland policy on disease control. The UK has an issue here to deal with. It is right that the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, should leap on that and use that slight chink in my armour.
My point about saying why I was there was that I wanted to share what I saw with Members of the Committee. Politics is working at a level that takes away popular support for those dissidents. We are confident that the Police Service of Northern Ireland is able to deal with that. However, our objective is to get all those dissident groups disarmed and decommissioned at the table, living useful and productive lives, and contributing to the community. I cannot go into the sort of things that the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, may want. In Belfast, from either party, there is a limit to the number of taxi rides that people could take, as I know from my friends who have been over there. But there are great economic and intellectual opportunities in Northern Ireland, and the people of Northern Ireland would be very unwise not to grab those opportunities. The message to those dissidents is to come and share the success with everyone else.
On Question, Motion agreed to.
The Committee adjourned at 6.35 pm.