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House of Commons

Wednesday 18 July 2001

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


City of London (Ward Elections) Bill

Motion made, and Question proposed,

Hon. Members: Object.

Debate to be resumed on Wednesday 17 October.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—


1. Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): What progress has been made on the dismantling of the structures of terrorism in Northern Ireland since April 1998. [2872]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Dr. John Reid): The Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Garda have had a number of significant successes against terrorists recently. Through the work of the agencies that come together in the organised crime taskforce, we have also seen considerable disruption to criminal activity.

Putting paramilitaries' arms beyond use was one of the outstanding issues discussed at the Weston Park talks last week. As the concluding statement, a copy of which is in

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the Library of the House, explains, progress was made. It is now for the two Governments to draw together a final package covering all the outstanding issues.

Dr. Lewis: I realise that the security forces are still fighting against the structures of terrorism, as the Secretary of State says. Does he recall that during the referendum campaign on the Belfast agreement in May 1998, the Prime Minister repeatedly said in speeches and wrote in articles that it would not be enough merely to decommission weapons, but that the paramilitary structures of terrorism must progressively be dismantled? We know that, sadly, the former has not been achieved. Has any progress been made with the latter objective?

Dr. Reid: That is our ultimate objective. We have made sure that everyone is aware of their responsibilities under the Good Friday agreement. That requires a rejection of not only the use of force but the threat of force. That point was made during the discussions at Weston Park, and it is one of the outstanding issues with which we have to deal. We will continue to do everything that we can to disrupt those elements of the paramilitaries that are involved in organised crime, and to make sure that progress is made in putting beyond use weapons that are illegally held on either side.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): Is my right hon. Friend aware that the guns are not silent in Northern Ireland, that beatings are on the increase, that paramilitaries continue to train, recruit and gather intelligence, that the IRA has imported £2 million worth of weapons from America recently and that in the past 18 months it has killed eight people for alleged criminal offences—offences that the IRA itself is committing? In those circumstances, should not everyone be part of a pan-decommissioning front calling for an end to the availability and use of weapons and for progress to be made in the peace process?

Dr. Reid: I very much agree with my hon. Friend's last statement. It is an essential part of the peace process that we continue to make progress in putting illegal arms beyond use. It is opportune to pay tribute to the courage and professionalism of those who have been involved in combating some of the illegal activity, particularly members of the RUC. They, along with their partners south of the border in the Garda, have been involved in thwarting dissident activity. Recent successes have included the seizure of a significant quantity of explosives, firearms and ammunition. Charges have been brought against alleged dissidents. An example of the illegal activity is the fact that in the past financial year more than 51.5 million cigarettes were seized by Customs in Northern Ireland. In the midst of all the change, we should recognise the marvellous work that is being done by police forces north and south of the border.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex): Does the right hon. Gentleman nevertheless agree that, with the prevailing uncertainty in the security situation, this would be no time to reduce the number of the security forces posted in Northern Ireland?

Dr. Reid: As the hon. Gentleman knows, his having had some experience of such matters as a former Armed

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Forces Minister, I will take due cognisance of and place great emphasis on the advice that I get from the Chief Constable, the General Officer Commanding Northern Ireland and other security advisers. The hon. Gentleman can rest assured that I would not take any steps without their advice.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann): Following on from the remarks of the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes), will the Secretary of State welcome President Bush's comments on decommissioning, thus demonstrating that there is broad support among all democrats for the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons? President Bush's statement shows that Sinn Fein and its handful of supporters are now completely isolated on this issue.

Specifically on dismantling paramilitary structures, the Secretary of State referred to racketeering. Will he confirm that all the paramilitary organisations, including those that claim to be on ceasefire, are deeply involved in racketeering, and that the finance therefrom provides the main resource of those paramilitary organisations and the political parties linked to them? Surely more could be done to draw into the public domain the extent to which certain political parties are involved in and financed by racketeering.

Dr. Reid: On the right hon. Gentleman's first point, we deeply appreciate President Bush's support, as we always do, for the implementation of the Good Friday agreement. I know that the whole House will welcome his generous comments on the efforts made by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach. As both Prime Ministers said at Weston Park last week, if we are to implement the Good Friday agreement we need to move forward on all the issues, which obviously include paramilitary weapons.

On the right hon. Gentleman's second point, I am sure that he will appreciate that we have paid considerable attention to paramilitary involvement in racketeering and criminality. That is one reason why in the past year we established the organised crime taskforce. The taskforce is still in its early days, but I can assure him that we will ensure that it has the motivation and resources to tackle the questions that he raised.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North): We all want decommissioning to occur and arms to be put out of use as soon as possible, but does my right hon. Friend agree that, whenever people start to impose deadlines and demand that others jump through hoops, they create a deterrent to those with the arms, who do not want to be seen to be controlled by ultimatums imposed by parties with which they disagree?

Dr. Reid: In terms of moving forward, the two Governments have made it plain through the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach that the agreement can succeed only if all parts of it are implemented together. As a Government, we will discharge our responsibilities to set that context, but I hope that all the others who are involved will reflect carefully on their responsibilities and do likewise.

On deadlines, my hon. Friend will appreciate that neither myself nor any other individual set a deadline at the end of June, although last May, which is now more

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than 12 months ago, both Governments expressed the hope and belief that considerable progress would be made on all the elements of the Good Friday agreement by the end of June. That remains our aim.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell): Will the Secretary of State make it abundantly clear to the House that there is only one reason for the present deadlock: the fact that decommissioning has not taken place? All other aspects of the Belfast agreement are moving forward, yet not one gun or ounce of Semtex explosive has been handed in by the paramilitaries who signed it, whether they are republicans or so-called loyalists.

Dr. Reid: As the right hon. Gentleman and the House will appreciate, there has been some progress on the question of arms, in the sense that the arms dumps have been opened up for inspection, but he is absolutely right to say that we need more. We need arms to be put beyond use. Of course, there are other matters that we discussed last week and will continue to discuss—the two Governments will address them in the package of measures that we are currently considering—but, yes, there needs to be more progress on the issue that he raised.

I should take this opportunity to pay tribute to the Taoiseach, to Brian Cowen, the Foreign Affairs Minister of the Government of Ireland, and to other colleagues in that Government. I believe that the co-operation between our two Governments has been the bedrock of the Good Friday agreement. I am happy to say that the relationship between us has never been stronger or closer. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that we share an assessment of the way forward, which will form the basis of the package. In that context, one of the elements on which progress must be made is putting illegal weapons beyond use.

Mr. MacKay: The House will be grateful for the fact that the Secretary of State clearly wants to put pressure on the paramilitaries to decommission, but will he assure us that, in doing so, he will not jeopardise the security of the Province through further changes to policing arrangements or by reducing the armed presence or security operations?

Dr. Reid: I assure the right hon. Gentleman that I shall take no steps other than through consultation and with the agreement and advice of my security advisers.

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