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Northern Ireland

3.40 p.m.

Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, with the leave of the House I shall now repeat a Statement on Northern Ireland made in another place by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. The Statement is as follows:

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    may be made to it. It will be for the international body, in reaching conclusions within its remit, to consider such evidence on its merits.

    "We will not be asking the international body to question the Government's position on what has become known as the third Washington criterion. The body has not been established to make recommendations on when decommissioning should start. That is a matter for a government decision; and, as I have indicated, it is properly a matter for discussion in the preparatory talks.

    "To avoid any doubt, let me stress that the Government stand by the three criteria on decommissioning which my right honourable friend set out in Washington earlier this year. We cannot see a way of securing the necessary confidence to bring all parties to the negotiating table without a start being made to the decommissioning of illegal arms. This is not a matter of dogma but of practicality. It goes without saying that we, like the Irish Government, will consider constructively any practicable suggestions that could help bring all parties into negotiations on the basis of the Downing Street Declaration.

    "It is no secret that yesterday's agreement between the two governments required long and difficult negotiations. The British and Irish Governments agree on the need for disarmament by the paramilitary organisations but have an acknowledged difference of opinion over its timing. We have decided not to allow that difference to stand in the way of forward movement along these twin tracks. That is a measure of our determination to continue working together.

    "We have asked the international body to report by the middle of January. We hope that progress in both tracks will then enable the two governments to launch all-party negotiations by the end of February. That is our firm aim. I am confident it is attainable, but it will require a serious commitment by all concerned.

    "We are ready to make that commitment. But let me make a crucial point. The British and Irish Governments cannot make peace in Northern Ireland. Our role in the process is to facilitate it.

    "We have borne a great deal of the burden. We have been ready to take risks for peace. Now is the time for others to do so as well. Now is the time for all parties and groups to make a sincere and constructive contribution: for the paramilitaries on both sides to give not merely qualified verbal assurances but a real and tangible commitment to peace--if they mean peace, they do not need guns and semtex; for all political parties to enter the preparatory talks, not with rigid and irreconcilable postures, but with a will to make them work. Because ultimately a lasting and peaceful settlement is in their hands, not mine. Let them all have the courage to grasp it".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.50 p.m.

Lord Richard: My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Viscount the Lord Privy Seal for repeating the Statement made by his right honourable friend in

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another place. Noble Lords on all sides of the House will wish to join me in paying tribute to the Prime Minister and to the Taoiseach for their commitment to the peace process and for the spirit of co-operation between the two governments which culminated in today's announcement.

The twin-track approach offers a real opportunity to help move forward the resolution of a conflict which has blighted the history of Northern Ireland for many years. We on these Benches sincerely hope that the proposal announced today will lead to further progress being made. We are all aware that the peace process will inevitably involve lengthy negotiation and that it has to deal with a number of difficult issues. The decision therefore to adopt the twin-track approach should be welcomed. We hope that such an approach will build up trust and confidence between the different parties to the negotiations. I entirely agree that that is vital if the peace process is to be successful and if the problems facing Northern Ireland are to be resolved.

Perhaps the noble Viscount will answer one or two specific questions to enable me to understand properly what is involved. As I understand it, there are to be two processes which will go ahead separately but be linked to the overall attempt to reach a peace settlement in Northern Ireland. First, in connection with the political negotiations, am I right that the talks about talks will take place before the international commission reports in mid-January; or, alternatively, will the international commission make its report on the decommissioning of arms before the talks about talks begin?

As I understand the position, the political talks will start immediately; then the decommissioning--I almost said "decommissioning commission", but that is perhaps not the happiest way of putting it--the Mitchell Commission will pursue its work and report in mid-January at a time when the talks about talks will still be continuing.

Secondly, is it possible for the Lord Privy Seal to give us an indication of who the other two members of the Mitchell Commission are to be? Will they be people drawn from outside or inside these islands? I am also a little unclear about the terms of reference of the Mitchell Commission. According to the Prime Minister it has been asked to,

    "identify and advise on a suitable and acceptable method for full and verifiable decommissioning".
That means that the commission is to look at the way in which that can be achieved. It is then asked to report on,

    "whether there is a clear commitment on the part of those in possession of such arms to work constructively to achieve that [decommissioning]".
As I understand it, the commission is not expected to say when such decommissioning shall take place, nor indeed to say how that commitment to decommissioning fits into the other negotiating process--that is, the talks about talks which one hopes will lead to all-party talks.

Those are questions on detailed procedure. But in this, as in many other issues, your Lordships will appreciate that they are critical to the way in which progress can be made. We give our full backing to the process. We hope that it will continue to gain momentum and

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produce a settlement which will in the end bring peace, stability and reconciliation to the people of Northern Ireland.

Finally, I shall be grateful if the Lord Privy Seal can give us an indication of what the Government's attitude will be to the status of decisions made by the international body under Senator Mitchell. Can he say a little more about the timetable for creating that body? Subject to those questions, some of which are detailed, we support the Statement.

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