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Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997 (Amnesty Period) Order 2009

Volume 707: debated on Wednesday 11 February 2009

Motion to Approve

Moved By

That the draft order laid before the House on 3 December 2008 be approved.

Relevant document: 2nd Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.

My Lords, I regret that the hour is so late. The order before us needs to be debated this week and I judged it to be more convenient for most noble Lords to take the order this evening rather than tomorrow, but I apologise.

We recognise that the absence of a completion to the decommissioning process has stretched the patience of this House to the limit. So in bringing before you a proposal to extend the scheme for a further year, the Government accept that we need to demonstrate the seriousness of our intent and the grounds for believing that actual decommissioning will result on this occasion when it has not previously. What is not in doubt is the common purpose in this House to secure an effective and lasting transition from the violence of the past to the society of the future, where illegal arms will not hold back communities because of the fear and potential for violence that they bring. The question is: what is the most effective way of bringing that about?

The decommissioning process is not and never has been an alternative to vigorous police action against those who hold illegal weapons, whoever and wherever they are. In moving forward, it is really important that we should once again show a common purpose, show that the pressure to act is shared across this House, and show that the consequences of not acting will be clear. To achieve this end, we are proposing a different approach from that taken on the other occasions that extensions have been brought before this House.

While we are debating an order which will extend the amnesty until 9 February 2010, I want to be clear what the Government intend. The Independent International Commission on Decommissioning has been asked to make a report to the British and Irish Governments in August 2009 and to report the extent to which they believe significant progress has been made. We do not consider significant progress to be about words or meaningful discussions. While these may be necessary steps, they are not now sufficient. We have established and watched with admiration the work of the IICD. The commission will be looking to secure progress on multiple fronts and we need to be able to reach a reasoned judgment based on the IICD’s advice in the autumn.

Let me also be clear how we would proceed if the IICD advised us that the threshold for substantial progress had not been made. We would bring before the House a new statutory instrument which would set a new date for the closure of the amnesty scheme, much sooner than the February date provided for in this order. We would do that as soon as is practicable after the return of the House from the Summer Recess. These are practical and workable measures to ensure that this House can be assured that we will not take our eyes off the decommissioning ball. I understand that there may be Members who are asking why we believe that things will be different as a result of this extension, given previous disappointments. In response, I make it clear that progress is already being made, that the IICD is working to secure positive outcomes, and that while we know that nothing can be assured, it has told us that in its view the engagement taking place currently is of a different order and nature to that which has been the case hitherto.

The fact is that the devolution of justice and policing is now moving closer, and this is therefore the last opportunity for the remaining paramilitary groups to join the rest of society in trying to build a shared future. Devolution is working in Northern Ireland. Local politicians are making decisions about the issues that matter to us all—jobs, schools and hospitals. We are all looking forward to the completion of devolution, when the Northern Ireland Assembly will also take on responsibility for justice and policing. If the voice of those seeking to represent loyalist areas is to be heard, the way forward is clear. Just as dialogue is not enough to meet the needs of this House in the coming months, it is also not enough to secure the protections in the legislation. Until a clear commitment to decommission is made in relation to specified arms, the full force of the law can be used against those who hold illegal weapons. The PSNI continues to pursue them vigorously. The arms find in north Belfast in October 2008 proves that the police take firm action against illegal weapons. When discovered, these weapons are tested forensically with a view to bringing legal proceedings where there is a case to answer.

Against that background, I think that extension on the basis described strikes the right balance. While we all share the view that decommissioning can and should have been completed before now, we have to take the decision based on where we are today. We have to recognise that providing an additional means of removing illegal weaponry from society, in addition to the ongoing law enforcement effort, gives the potential to make greater progress. As we look to complete the devolution of justice and policing, so the pressure to recognise the new political realities is growing and being recognised more clearly than previously. We also make it clear that this really is the end of the track for those with illegal weapons. There can be no extension beyond February 2010 in any case, and we have committed today to draw this period to a premature close in the autumn unless the IICD comes forward with a report indicating that substantial progress has been made.

I pay tribute to the members of the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning. Their continued efforts have played an important part in the progress that we see today in Northern Ireland. We all hope that they will report positive progress in six months’ time, including the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons.

My Lords, I thank the Lord President of the Council for presenting this statutory instrument to the House. What she has said needs to be read by all noble Lords tomorrow because it is really the basis of why my party is here tonight.

When this order was first laid on 3 December, we felt we were not able to sign up to it and we travelled a long way debating among ourselves how to handle the situation. We did not want to fall out with the Government over Northern Ireland affairs. We have not done so more than once, that I can remember, over 10 or 11 years, and it is a credit to the Northern Ireland Ministers that we were able to reach ultimately a commonsense compromise. Although we abhorred the thought of giving the loyalist paramilitaries a further year—in fact, we abhor the thought of giving them any further extension to their amnesty—when the Government offered six months it would have been churlish to risk relationships here and there.

As those of us who work in the Northern Ireland political world know, the Government always have the whip hand because they know things that we do not, cannot and probably should not know about the security situation at the time. In doing our duty, we on this side of the House have to trust Ministers to be straight with us and we have our own arrangements for confidentiality. The noble Lord, Lord Smith, will speak for himself but he and I spoke about this statutory instrument some time ago and discussed how we felt about it. There is no doubt that, had we chosen to take on the Government, they would have lost in this House. That would not have been good for your Lordships’ House or for the Northern Ireland process. That may have sounded a rather long ramble, but ultimately we have come to the right solution.

I have one query for the noble Baroness. Our condition is that some ordnance is seen and photographed by the people responsible for verifying the handing-in of weapons. If there is some disarming before August, we can then be satisfied that we will have something substantial to put against the order. Having said that, I support the Motion.

My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for introducing the order. I was even more sceptical than the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, about this extension for the loyalist paramilitaries. When the Leader of the House took on the Northern Ireland portfolio she invited me in to ask my views on the situation in Northern Ireland. Doubtless she did the same with other Peers. I tried to impress upon her that I thought the most vital thing was to get the loyalist paramilitaries to decommission. This is important not only substantively but symbolically because it gives other paramilitary groups such as the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA much less excuse not to decommission. As long as there are loyalist weapons around, which are used largely for criminal activities, it will do no one any good.

We appreciate the attempts by the Government to find a way to put more pressure on the loyalist paramilitaries. We welcome the statement that the IICD must report in six months’ time on the progress of decommissioning and the pledge that if no real progress has been made, an order will be introduced to end the amnesty period. However, it was clear from the debate in another place last week that we need to be more precise about the timescales that have been suggested. Parliament is due to rise on 21 July. This falls a little short of the six months that the Minister has talked about, which would be 11 August—six months from today. The noble Baroness’s ministerial colleague in another place, Mr Goggins, suggested that a report would be received by the Government in August and they would publish the report in September. If no progress has been made, a new order will be laid in October when Parliament returns, to shorten the amnesty period. In real terms, we could be talking about shortening the amnesty period by only three months, rather than six.

If we find ourselves in that position, will the Minister give a commitment to publish an informal draft of the order during the Summer Recess and to circulate it to interested parties? It should surely then be easier to expedite the order quickly on Parliament’s return. Under such circumstances, we on these Benches would have no difficulty in helping the Government facilitate a debate on such an order during the first week back. That would be preferable to laying an order on the first day back and not debating and passing it until the end of October.

Another issue that must be clarified is how the Government will judge whether enough progress has been made to warrant the continuation of the amnesty. There was a lot of discussion in the House of Commons about the meaning of “significant progress”. What action will the Government commit to taking if we get a positive report? If the report says, “Yes, we have had significant decommissioning, but we think that there are still arms there, and”, for whatever reasons it chooses to offer, “those arms are not yet decommissioned”, what action will be taken? There is simply too much wriggle room for the Government and too much scope for slippage. I want to hear more from the Minister that commits the Government to ending the process and that makes it clear that there needs to be something highly exceptional to allow the process to continue past autumn and the end of the Summer Recess.

Mr Goggins, the Minister in another place, helpfully indicated that the IMC will be publishing a report in the spring. Although we appreciate that it is not within the remit of the IMC to facilitate decommissioning, this report will be able to give an early indication of the progress that has been made and the attitudes on the ground to decommissioning. Will the Minister give a commitment today to find time to debate that report as soon as practicable after its publication? I would hope that, given the importance of the report, it might be appropriate for an oral Statement to be made or, at the very least, for a debate to take place in the Moses Room within a week or so of the report being published.

The Government are asking us to take a leap of faith in accepting the order. We can do that only by trusting them. Although I am still extremely uneasy about the order, I am somewhat reassured by the comments of the Minister and her colleague in another place. It is with some reluctance that we are prepared to accept the renewal of the amnesty period—and, frankly, a good deal of scepticism.

My Lords, some days ago the death took place in Northern Ireland of a Presbyterian minister called the Reverend Roy Magee. Many tributes have been paid to his work in trying to influence the loyalist paramilitaries over the years, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s. I had the privilege of working closely with him in the efforts that were made by many of us that produced the first loyalist ceasefire.

Since then, as the noble Baroness knows, there have been many efforts to bring us to the point at which the loyalist paramilitaries would emulate the work of others and decommission. Sadly, tonight we are faced with the position that has been explained by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, and accepted by the noble Lord, Lord Smith, that those efforts have so far failed. It is with sadness that many of us have to try to support the order tonight, because it is obvious that what has been attempted has not worked. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland must have very good reasons—not known, presumably, to many of us—for asking for this extension of an amnesty. But I plead, on behalf of many people, that it is stated clearly at the grass roots that there will be no further extension and that this is the endgame.

I say to the leadership of the loyalist paramilitaries, think of the Reverend Roy Magee. Think of the efforts he has made over the years to try and influence your action. There may be a new generation of leaders in the loyalist paramilitaries from those days that I have referred to, but the message that he, I and others gave you over the years was, don’t be judged by history that you decommissioned simply by an order in Parliament or by effective means of a parliamentary order. Do it now because it is the right thing to do. Do it now because society in Northern Ireland is crying out for you to do this. Do it now and lift the threat of criminality from the areas in which intimidation and threats continue to dominate too many people’s lives. Join the groundswell for a peaceful future. Do it now and recover from history some credit for doing it yourselves.

The Lord President explained the mechanism that is involved, and I, too, pay tribute to the work of the international commission. However, there is much more to this question tonight than decommissioning to those of us who work within the community. There is rivalry, criminality and intimidation; there are the social disadvantages in many loyalist, Protestant areas. But there would be much more sympathy and interest if decommissioning took place—dare I use the old-fashioned word—voluntarily at this stage thus to speed the process that the order is involved in. Loyalist organisations are running out of arguments for maintaining their arms. So I say again to them, while with reluctance I support the order, do it now before you’re compelled to do so.

My Lords, I cannot express more articulately or lucidly than the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, how much I want to see loyalist paramilitaries decommission. I pay tribute to the decommissioning commission. I should perhaps point out that, many years ago, when I was a Member in another place, we began by calling it “disarmament”, so let us not forget what we are talking about. We are talking about guns and explosives that can make people’s lives a misery and support criminality and the drug barons as well as those operating under the guise of loyalism. Ten years ago, we had an agreement in Northern Ireland; 10 years ago, we believed that we were bringing to an end the trauma and tragedy of 30 years.

I agree with others who have spoken tonight and my party will certainly concur with the Lord President’s proposal—we have no intention of making things difficult—but she is the one who talked about devolution of policing and justice. One of the difficulties that I and the people in Northern Ireland have is that we do not hear the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. If we are going to appeal to those people on the loyalist side who have guns and explosives to disarm, we must from these Benches and the Benches in another place be a great deal more open with the people in Northern Ireland.

I have sought information—I give this as an example—as to whether the explosives, the Semtex, used by dissident republicans was obtained from the residue of the Provisional IRA’s armoury. To some extent, I blame the Chief Constable. He and the Secretary of State are probably conniving to ensure that I do not get an answer on that. If we could get an answer on such things, and if we could be told what the reality is on the ground, we would have a bigger stick, bluntly speaking, to beat loyalists over the head, to tell them to get on and disarm as far as their weaponry is concerned.

We talk about devolution of policing and justice when we know that in Northern Ireland the most dreadful deals are being done. I give an example. A young Lithuanian boy was deliberately murdered by another Lithuanian, our Director of Public Prosecutions accept a plea of manslaughter, and that murderer was sentenced to four years. If we expect loyalist paramilitaries and other paramilitaries to raise their game to adopt a noble ethos and a practice, then we should not be lowering our standards as they are being lowered.

I conclude by putting this question to the noble Baroness. I am grateful to her because she has always been frank with me. Are we watering down the standards of law and justice in Northern Ireland in order to pander to the lowest common denominator? If so, I have to say that we will not succeed. We will not be able to build on 10 years of hard work to implement the Belfast agreement. I leave her with that thought and hope that she will be able to give me an answer as to why the reality and the truth of what is happening in Northern Ireland is cloaked from us in this place and in the other place.

My Lords, it has been said in the House tonight that Northern Ireland is moving on. That is true. It is slowly going in the right direction. However, it will only continue to go in the right direction when paramilitaries have ceased to exist. For too long the law-breaker in Northern Ireland has been tolerated. I would like the Minister this evening to reassure the House and the people of Northern Ireland that it is for real this time. There can be no extension under any circumstances. That will encourage those who hold on to their weapons and those under the banner of dissidents. They are watching closely. Are the Government for real or is this another wolf cry?

The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, stated it correctly when he mentioned criminality. There is little doubt that these weapons are being held on to by criminals to extort and torment communities who just want to see the back of them. I hope that the noble Baroness will make a clear and unambiguous statement tonight that this is the last extension and that nothing further will be tolerated. Indeed, she said—I hope that I quote her correctly—that the Government want to give a message of the seriousness of their intent. If the Government do that tonight, it will bring some comfort to those who live in dread and fear of those who carry these guns in order to destroy lives, to exploit people, to torment them and to keep them in their grip. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s assurance on that.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for the consultation on this issue that she has offered many noble Lords and for the explanation she has given tonight. She might wryly reflect that it is not usual for her to find such agreement to her proposals on all sides of the House, yet for that agreement to be given so reluctantly and through gritted teeth. I wish to explain from my own point of view why the support that we give to the Government is given so reluctantly. As, I believe, did other noble Lords throughout the 1990s and the early part of this century, I vigorously argued that firm limits should be set for the IRA to decommission, and that these should be held to by the Government. Therefore, I find it very difficult to come to this House and accept that after 11 years we can find another year for loyalist paramilitaries. That sticks in my throat and I think that it sticks in the throats of other noble Lords. We accept the arguments that have been advanced tonight but our reluctance is based, at least in part, on that feeling.

Loyalist paramilitaries have been given an extension of another few weeks or months. During that period the Battle of the Somme will be commemorated at the beginning of July. That date has massive resonance for the Protestant working class in Belfast. Loyalist paramilitaries are not much given to listening to my advice, but I suggest to them that that would be a very appropriate and resonant moment for a gesture to be made and for real action to be taken on this arms issue so that—we all wish that this will be the case—the noble Baroness never has to come back to the House to move such an order again.

My Lords, I am most grateful for the reluctant support—as the noble Lord, Lord Bew, put it—for the order from all sides of the House. I am particularly grateful for the co-operation of Her Majesty’s Opposition and of the Liberal Democrats. As the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, put it, we have reached a sensible agreement and a common-sense compromise. He rightly mentioned the need for verification. The IICD is independent and it will be for that organisation to decide on the mechanism for verification consistent with the decommissioning scheme. I hear what the noble Lord says and I will certainly ensure that his views are passed to it. I entirely concur with what he says.

The noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, rightly and understandably expressed concern about the timetable relating to the report. We will publish the report within a week or so of receiving it in mid-August. We will then engage with all interested parties regarding its contents and the way forward. I am grateful for his suggestion about publishing an informal draft of an order during the Recess. I do not know whether that is possible but it is certainly an interesting idea which I shall take back for consideration. I shall, of course, discuss with the usual channels the possibility of debating the report.

I share the sadness of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, that I am having to move this order from the Dispatch Box. However, I say unequivocally to him and to the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, that this time it is for real. There will be no further extension of the amnesty scheme. That is a clear and unambiguous statement. I trust that the loyalist paramilitaries are listening to what is being said in this Chamber tonight. Get rid of your arms because it is the right thing to do. Do it now and recover some credit for doing it yourselves. Those are very wise words that we all endorse.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, and his party for, as he put it, not making difficulties in respect of the order. He mentioned the devolution of policing and justice. We must be open with the people of Northern Ireland. We would certainly not wish to lower the standards of policing and justice in any way. It is, of course, up to the Northern Ireland Assembly to decide when it wants the powers to be devolved, and we stand ready to facilitate this. The other evening, because he had to be elsewhere, the noble Lord could not attend a briefing with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who was very full and frank about issues such as Semtex. If the noble Lord wishes, I will organise a meeting between him and the Secretary of State.

The PSNI is aware that some weapons are transferred to dissident groups by individuals defecting before PIRA decommissioning. There is no information to indicate that dissident groups have a new supply of Semtex. The chief constable, I am told, has assured the Government that he will continue, during the amnesty process and thereafter, to go after all illegal weapons.

In response to the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, of course we must not tolerate law-breaking, and yes, this time it is certainly for real.

I think that I have answered all the questions that have been raised tonight. I am grateful for the support of the whole House for this one further extension—this very last extension—of the amnesty scheme which will provide a final chance to decommission. This is a final opportunity for all those who hold illegal arms to join the rest of society in building a shared future for Northern Ireland.

Motion agreed.

House adjourned at 10.22 pm.