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Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green) rose

Mr. Francois rose

Dr. Reid: I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe).

Mr. McCabe: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way, because I am concerned about the tone of the previous intervention. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if it is not the intention of the hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) to undermine confidence in General de Chastelain and the commission, he should make that clear?

Does my right hon. Friend further agree that that intervention departed from the position of the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), who told the House that it was vital that we have faith in an independent international body, and that of the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay), who said:

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Is not that the central issue on which we should concentrate and is not it important for the hon. Member for Rayleigh to make it clear that he is not seeking to undermine General de Chastelain or to depart from the positions adopted by two respected right hon. Members?

Dr. Reid: I cannot speak for the hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois), but I am sure that he would not seek to undermine the status, role, remit or integrity of General de Chastelain. I understand the natural frustration at these circumstances, but I caution people that, having given General de Chastelain such a difficult role, having set the remit and statute by which he should carry it out and having agreed the scheme under which he would be able to verify it, we should not let our natural inquisition into the course of history in any way impute to the general a lack of integrity. It is General de Chastelain himself who referred to the event as significant.

Mr. Francois: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Reid: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will let me make a little progress, because I have taken quite a few interventions.

Mr. Francois: The right hon. Gentleman said he would give way again.

Dr. Reid: I did not say that I would give way to him. I said that I was sure that he would make his view clear. I have no doubt that he will have a chance to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I cannot devote my whole speech to the hon. Gentleman's or other interventions. If I can make a little progress, I shall take further interventions.

I believe that all the developments I referred to have been hugely significant in building trust, in building confidence, and in building a new Northern Ireland, where local, accountable politicians are working towards a better future for all the people of Northern Ireland supported by a modern and efficient system of justice and policing, capable of engendering the trust and confidence of all sides of the community. That has been underpinned by a robust rights and equality agenda, and reinforced by a steady, though slow, move away from the politics of the bomb and bullet towards an inclusive, democratic and peaceful pursuit of political ends.

If people ask me whether the process is complete, perfect or even almost perfect, the answer is obviously no, but it is significantly different and in advance of anything that we previously experienced and that most people reasonably thought possible, given the history of Northern Ireland. The fact that we have not achieved everything should not lead us to believe that we have not gained anything. There has been huge and historic movement. However, despite these improvements and important developments, our efforts to bring an end to the conflict that has blighted Northern Ireland's past is not yet over by far.

As I said earlier, the nightly scenes of violence on our television screens during recent months, the harassment of school children, the unwarranted violence of the Sinn Fein youth movement last week and the continuation of paramilitary punishment beatings all testify to the

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ingrained nature of a culture of violence that persists, even in those areas where a commitment has been made to move to a democratic and peaceful resolution of our conflicts.

Above all, there remain those elements, both dissident republican and rejectionist loyalist, who absolutely refuse to acknowledge the democratically expressed will of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland, and who seek to impose their own will by nothing but force and violence. With their sectarian bombs and blind hatred, they are the true enemies of the people of Northern Ireland and will be opposed by all means by the people of Northern Ireland.

In the face of all that, I am sure that the entire House will wish to take the opportunity to give grateful thanks especially to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, and to the Garda Siochana, for their excellent work and considerable recent successes against those organisations. I remind the House that in the past two years alone the efforts of the police service, formerly the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and their colleagues in the Republic of Ireland and on the British mainland have thwarted numerous potentially deadly attacks. In just the past few months, they have intercepted bombs at Londonderry and Six Mile Cross, and only last month they intercepted a fully primed, 220 lb car bomb in County Armagh, probably en route to a police station, and arrested the driver. Any one of those bombs could have decimated innocent civilians as well as security personnel.

The security forces are resolute in their pursuit of those people, and we will continue to do everything we can to support them in that.

Such republican dissidents, and violent loyalist organisations, are becoming increasingly isolated. As is demonstrated by the developments I described earlier, the tide has turned irrevocably against them. Their only role now is as the most major impediment to the completion of progress towards an open, democratic and normal Northern Ireland. However, crucially, the IRA has carried out the significant and unprecedented act of decommissioning. Only a few years ago, such a thing would have been inconceivable.

Not only is that act a measure of the transformation that has taken place in Northern Ireland; I believe that in itself it helped to further improve the political climate. It came at a crucial time, when the political institutions established under the Belfast agreement were facing their stiffest test. It has now been possible for those institutions to restabilise, and they are established on a firmer basis than ever before.

In putting a quantity of arms and explosives beyond use, the IRA has sent the clearest possible signal, not only to the House but to the international community, that it is moving away from violence. That process must continue; but it goes without saying that it is time for the loyalists to follow suit. It is a source of huge regret to me that some of them are not even engaged in the process—that they remain wedded to their violent past and seem unable to take any steps towards a peaceful path, even short of decommissioning.

In the face of IRA decommissioning, I cannot see what possible reason loyalists now have for retaining their weapons. They certainly need not do so for the protection of their communities, which is the rightful preserve of the police and the security forces. They used to argue that

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they would decommission if the IRA made the first move. Well, the first move has been made: the crucial act has been carried out. It is now up to loyalist paramilitary organisations to demonstrate their support of peaceful and democratic ideals.

We want to see loyalist decommissioning; we want to see further decommissioning by the IRA and, indeed, other republican organisations; and we want to see dissident groups outside the process brought to the point of realising that democratic dialogue is the only way forward, so that they too decommission their weapons. It goes without saying that until they do so, we will robustly counter their violent activities.

Of course, we all recognise that if it is to be effectively sustained, the decommissioning process must be a voluntary process. Ultimately, the Government can resist violence—we can pursue robustly those who engage in violence—but we cannot force any paramilitary organisation to give up its weapons, and to dismantle or refrain from renewing its apparatus of terror. Where the will exists, however, the process has begun. We want to, and must, see it sustained.

Mr. Francois: I thank the Secretary of State for his courtesy in giving way to me again, but I think we need not over-complicate what is actually a straightforward matter.

It is perfectly proper to be able to tell everyone what has been given up, but as far as I am aware, having checked, no definite resolution of the House states that what has been surrendered will remain secret. If the Government argue that this was a significant act, they should put the information in the public domain and—in a free society—allow everyone, from all traditions, to judge just how significant it was. Is not the truth quite simply that what was given up was so minuscule that Ministers were embarrassed to admit it?

Dr. Reid: The hon. Gentleman has made a completely unsubstantiated assertion for which neither he nor anyone else has any evidence. It is impossible to conduct any rational discussion on the basis of a series of unsubstantiated assertions from Members on both sides of the House. I make no such unsubstantiated assertion; I make an assertion based on the evidence provided by the person to whom this job was given by the House, who was witness to it, and who said that it was a significant event.

If the hon. Gentleman is saying that he does not agree that General de Chastelain should have been given the job, that he does not agree with General de Chastelain's judgment and that he does not agree with General de Chastelain's estimate, he is perfectly entitled to say so. People in the country and the House can then decide whether to believe General de Chastelain, who was given the job, who is acting within a remit and under statute and who witnessed the event, or the hon. Gentleman, who seems to have a propensity for making unsubstantiated assertions, pertaining to a remit that he has not been given and contrary to the remit of the House, about an event that he did not witness. I have no doubt on whose side the vast majority of people would come down. All I have said about the event is what General de Chastelain himself said about it.

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