Previous SectionIndexHome Page

The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Sylvia Heal): Order. The hon. Gentleman is wandering wide of the new clause.

Chris Grayling: Thank you for that clarification, Mrs. Heal. I am trying to make the point that the process requires the kind of checks and balances that the new clause represents. If we do not have such checks and balances or ask whether we are involved in a one-way or two-way process, the Government will continue step by step to offer concessions to Sinn Fein-IRA and we will not have a balanced process that will create confidence.

The new clause would significantly improve the Bill because it would require the House to take stock of the exact situation in the decommissioning process before the Bill became law. As we have heard, there has been a dramatic reduction in the amount of violence and an act of decommissioning has taken place. That is a major step—some would say an historic step. There is no doubt that the decommissioning that has taken place has not happened before in the recent history of Northern Ireland. We should pay tribute to the efforts of all involved and to General de Chastelain and his team for securing it. However, it is also important to remember that it was only a gesture that was, in many ways, forced by the determination of the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble).

My hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford referred to the fact that we have limited knowledge of the gesture that has taken place. There is still a vast arsenal of weaponry out there and the IRA is still active in some respects. I very much hope that

9 Jan 2002 : Column 607

violence will tail off, but can we be sure that it will if there is not a further step in the decommissioning process? So before the Committee takes the next step and renews the Bill, we should say that, at the very least, we want to hear from General de Chastelain about the current situation and whether there has been or is expected to be further progress towards decommissioning.

Mr. Swire: Does my hon. Friend not agree that, since the implementation of this process, there has been the very reverse of a tailing off of violence? For example, since 1999, the number of casualties resulting from paramilitary-style attacks has risen from 207 to 302 now. That is the reverse of what was suggested earlier.

Chris Grayling: My hon. Friend makes an important point. There is still trouble in Northern Ireland and weapons are still being used. There is no clear sign that we have taken the first step in a steady process of decommissioning. There is every possibility that what has happened is a one-off. Before we make further concessions and send further signs to Sinn Fein-IRA and to all involved in acts of violence in Northern Ireland that the House and the Government will play their part in a continuing process, we must, at the very least, ensure that a check and a balance are in place to make sure that others are with us. The new clause is important, because we must not move on to the next phase unless and until we know more about the decommissioning process.

If the Committee rejects the new clause and the Bill is enacted, we shall send a message to Sinn Fein-IRA that the next step will take place regardless of their participation and regardless of gestures from them and further progress on the decommissioning of weapons. The new clause would provide a mechanism to review progress and to give the House greater certainty before it takes decisions that are fundamentally important to the future of Northern Ireland and this country. It would provide the House with a safety net against a lack of progress in decommissioning.

My hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford and the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) were involved in an exchange about the concept of a nil report. Surely if there is a risk of a nil report and a risk that General de Chastelain will come to the House to say that there has been no further progress on decommissioning and that there is no sign of any, that factor should be considered before we take further steps to implement legislation that will extend the relaxation of the laws of this country to allow decommissioning to take place at an indeterminate point in the future. Full information must be on the table in front of us before the Bill becomes law.

7.45 pm

The new clause drives to the heart of the issue. We must go down the path of decommissioning in the full knowledge that concessions will be made by both sides. Members of the House and the Government must be confident that that will happen, because the people of this country and the Unionist community in Northern Ireland demand it. That is why the new clause is so important. It is a signal, a statement, a check and balance and a safety

9 Jan 2002 : Column 608

net for the House. I commend it to the Committee, and I very much hope that the Minister, even at this stage, will change her view and support what would be a constructive addition to the Bill.

Mr. Barnes: First, I wish to clarify what is meant by a nil report. Such a report could only be about recent developments that had taken place since arms had begun to be put beyond use. Opposition Members are keen to have a detailed report that would tell us what was behind the de Chastelain report that talked about the significant putting of arms beyond use.

Although there could not be an entirely nil report, there could be a nil report on recent developments. The point is that whatever the report's importance or size, it would trigger the measures in the legislation that allow it to operate. The proposal for a nil report is a mild one to obtain something from the commission, but that does not mean that it is not worth while to attempt to obtain one.

The new clause is a sort of halfway house, but that does not necessarily mean that there is anything wrong with halfway houses. However, it does not meet the aspirations of a number of Conservative and Unionist Members, especially those of the hon. Members for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) and for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson). They want the commission to produce a report for the House that would tell us the lot and that would be fully open. We would therefore know exactly what arms had been put beyond use, where they were and what proportion they formed of the total arms held. That would be difficult to establish as no one would know whether all the detail had been provided. That approach is consistent with the approach that those Members have taken for a considerable time as they are opposed to the Belfast agreement.

However, those Members who went along with the Belfast agreement see some difficulties with insisting that more and more details are provided. Some of the terms on which the agreement was accepted were based on the understanding that the issue of decommissioning would go to a commission and that we would take the commission's word. It is legitimate for those who opposed the agreement to continue their no campaign and to seek to uncouple the measures that happen to be before us. That is what they are doing.

Although the agreement was a compromise, was associated with all sorts of difficulties and was obscure on some issues, those of us who support it must at least try to clarify matters slightly. However, it is difficult to pursue some issues further, and that is why the new clause says what it does. It does not state what the nature of the report should be because it is trying to attract the support of those who would like very detailed information to be made available. However, it tries to jog things along.

Although putting the issue in someone else's hands and depending on their report is not the best solution, most of us accept the logic of doing that. In the circumstances, that was the only way to square the circle so that further action could be taken.

Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley): I follow the hon. Gentleman's line of argument, but his case presupposes that decommissioning as an act is an end in itself. If he reflects on the agreement, he will recognise that that is not so. The end is, in fact, confidence building.

9 Jan 2002 : Column 609

Decommissioning was one of a number of measures that were designed to build confidence in the process. My problem, which has also been articulated by other hon. Members, is that if the act lacks credibility because it is not transparent, it does not have the effect of building confidence. That is the point, and it is why detailed reports from the independent commission are important. They need to convey something of what has happened to achieve the end of confidence building.

Mr. Barnes: I take the point that the measures were associated with confidence building. There has been an attempt to build almost an artificial centre in Northern Ireland and to draw people to it out of the agreement. As people co-operate, they gain understanding and become less worried and their confidence in the process grows. I agree that the information that the commission feels able to make available and that it is encouraged to produce is worth while, especially as Provisional IRA decommissioning is important when it comes to the worries and fears of the Unionist community.

Mr. Peter Robinson: I do not want to pull the carpet from under the hon. Gentleman, but his argument is built on the premise that the supporters of the Belfast agreement, and especially its architects, signed up to hand over all responsibility for decommissioning to the decommissioning body and that they have no independent judgment on the matter. Where in the Belfast agreement does it say that they cast that role into the lap of the decommissioning body and do not want to hear anything more about it?

Next Section

IndexHome Page