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Lembit Öpik: I am glad to have the chance to point out that Liberal Democrat Members enjoyed a genuinely free vote on that occasion. In contrast, the Conservatives, by their own admission, imposed a three-line Whip. That is the difference between Liberal Democrats and Conservatives.
Mr. Blunt: I have to correct the hon. Gentleman. We had a free voteit just happened that the Conservative party was united in its attitude towards people who are associated with a terrorist organisation having special treatment in the House and whether there should be one rule for one type of MP and one for another. However, a most uncertain sound, as usual, issued forth from the Liberal Democrat Benches.
What a contrast there is between the signals sent to Sinn Fein by the Liberal Democrats and the Government and those sent by the Government of the Republic of Ireland. Only this weekend, the Justice Minister of the Republic, Mr. John O'Donoghue, one of the most senior figures in Mr. Ahern's coalition Cabinet, reinforced the Taoiseach's remarks about Sinn Fein. He said that Sinn Fein had links with "an illegal army" and stressed:
There can be only one army and police in any sovereign democracy."
The Irish establishment, in the form of The Irish Times, commented in forceful terms in an editorial yesterday about the questions that Mr. Martin Ferris, a would-be Sinn Fein Dail deputy, posed about possible Sinn Fein participation in the next Irish Government. The Irish Times says that Mr. Ferris's questions
If it is Mr. Ferris's hope or anticipation that the Government of this State will operate to the compromises which have been applied in order to allow Sinn Féin to participate in the Executive, he is profoundly mistaken. There will be some ambiguity in certain Fianna Fáil quarters about this. Fianna Fáil will be keenly seeking Sinn Féin transfers in certain constituencies. Meanwhile, the possibility of a Fianna Fáil-led Government supported externally by Sinn Féinbut without Sinn Féin participationis not a mathematical impossibility and is quietly spoken of by some strategists."
The objective of amendment No. 2 is to enable the Government to distinguish between different classes of weapons in the amnesty legislationthe Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997in respect of the timetable that applies to the items listed in its schedule. The amendment distinguishes between firearms and explosives. It proposes a three-year extension of the amnesty in respect of firearms but only a one-year extension in respect of explosives and the other provisions referred to in the 1997 Act. That proposal is being made in the light of the amount of weapons and explosives held in Northern Ireland by the IRA and the loyalist terror groups.
According to the best guess of informed commentators, the IRA holds about 1,000 assault rifles, mainly AK47s. It still has most of the 150 tonnes of weapons obtained from Libya between 1985 and 1986. That included six tonnes of Semtex explosive, of which about half appears to have been used or to have been seized by the security forcesleaving about three tonnes in the hands of the Provisional IRA or the Real IRA.
It is also possible that the IRA has surface-to-air missiles, as well as important electronic equipment and detonation devices to set off large explosives, such as main bombs, and incendiary devices. The IRA has the equipment for portable factories to make incendiary devices and the time-power units that enable those weapons to be effective. The IRA still has the capacity for, and probably still possesses, 17 types of mortar for use against different targets.
The inventory held by the IRAReal and the Provisionalsits against the loyalist stock of weapons: 200 AK47s, 90 nine mm Browning pistols, 10 RPG7 rocket launchers and 150 warheads for them, and 450 grenades. Those details were put into the public domain by The Irish Times based on information about the hoard of weapons in loyalist hands in 1988. It is believed that loyalist terrorists subsequently came into the possession of Uzi submachine guns and more AK47s, handguns and grenades.
Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent): That is a pretty impressive arsenal by any standards. Can my hon. Friend confirm that those weapons can be directly traced to the IRA? Are there further weapons belonging to dissident republican groups?
Mr. Blunt: I have been attempting to point out that that information was published in newspapers whose journalists have followed those events for a long time. However, they do not know precisely who holds whatany more than I, or indeed the Government, know. What we know is that all the various terrorist organisationsloyalist and republicanhold large amounts of substantial weaponry.
The IRA is known to have obtained 150 tonnes of weapons from Colonel Gaddafi in the 1980s. Some of those weapons go far beyond the IRA's requirements for the low-level terrorism that it has been carrying out, so what sort of low-level artillery piecessuch as surface- to-air missiles or light artilleryare available to the IRA? We do not know.
Hugh Robertson: There is considerable evidence that in the late 1990s the dissident republican groups were actively touting for arms throughout the Balkans, especially in Croatia. Does my hon. Friend agree that the positiondire as it seemscould be even worse?
Mr. Blunt: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I acknowledge his expertise in that matter. Like several of my hon. Friends, he served in Northern Ireland and the House should listen carefully to his comments.
It is important that we remove from circulation weapons such as M60 machine guns, 0.5 in calibre machine guns used to fire on helicopters, and surface- to-air missiles that do enormous damage and can take out aircraft and helicopters carrying large numbers of people. We must also take out of circulation, as soon as possible, the explosives held by the terrorist organisations. That is what the amendment would serve to do.
Mr. Blunt: The hon. Gentleman is quite right, but some of his remarks are unworthy. I was not about to suggest that the IRA has a navy or an air force. That is just absurd. We are trying to identify precisely what weapons the IRA has and what capability is available to it if it chooses to use it. Of course, the difficulty for the Government and all of us in approaching this issue is that the division between the Provisional IRA and the Real IRA, no doubt, alters, and people move, with their weapons and equipment, between the organisations, depending on the politics of the situation.
As the Secretary of State said on Second Reading, we must always remember that the Provisional IRA is a terrorist organisation that is on ceasefire. As soon as it ceases to be on ceasefirea decision that it can take at any moment of its choosingall those weapons will be available to it. If the Provisional IRA and Sinn Fein, which are one and the same outfit, want to be taken seriously, they have to start taking all their weapons out of circulation as soon as conceivably possible. The purpose of amendment No. 2 is to give the Government a vehicle so that they can say that holding serious weapons is completely unacceptable and that there will not be an amnesty for ever and a day involving certain weapons.
I accept that amendment No. 2 can be improved. It represents an attempt to provide the Government with a set of ideas for a different way to approach this issue and to send out the signal, which we are anxious to do, that we must be robust with the people who illegally hold weapons. There may be difficulties with amendment No. 2, because it would extend the amnesty only in relation to the Firearms (Northern Ireland) Order 1981, and a one-year deadline would be applied to the offences listed in the schedule to the 1997 Act.
One of the offences listed in the schedule is that included in section 10(1)(b) of the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1989. I have a list of 322 possible offenders under that section, which is headed, "Contributions to resources of proscribed organisations" and states:
To summarise, the purpose of amendment No. 2 is to provide the Government with another method to send the message that democrats' toleration of terrorists is limited and that the existence of armed groups cannot be permanently tolerated. The more substantial the weaponry, the less should be our toleration and patience.
The amendment can no doubt be improved upon, and that is why it was tabled as a probing amendment. However, its approach would give the Government another chance to say to terrorist organisations that, as far as decommissioning is concerned, it must not be business as usual for ever and a day.