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Viscount Whitelaw: My Lords, this is a very difficult moment for Ireland and indeed for all concerned in it. I therefore welcome very much the determination to try something which has to be tried because this problem cannot be allowed to go on and on. We have to make every effort to seek to achieve a solution. I believe that it can be achieved and therefore one ought to congratulate the Prime Minister for having taken a very difficult decision indeed. I also believe that the Taoiseach had a difficult decision, too; but probably the Prime Minister's decision was the more difficult of the two.

It is the right course to take because in Ireland everything is difficult. It is no good just saying, "it is difficult". If one wants to spend time arguing about petty views here and there, one will always be able to do so. That is never difficult, and one has a certain amount of experience of that. I very much welcome the fact, as the noble Lord, Lord Richard, said, that the Labour Party support the Government. I heard that in the other House they also support the Government, and that is right.

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We have a chance to make a success on this issue and that is why I very much welcome what has been done although there are still very great anxieties ahead.

Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend for what he has said. He perhaps has as much experience as anyone in your Lordships' House on this intractable question. I am most grateful to him for his support. It is by no means certain that we shall succeed, but we should remember that the longer we are able to make progress, fewer people will die or be maimed both in the Province and on the mainland.

Lord Mason of Barnsley: My Lords, first, I join with my noble friend the Leader of the Opposition in congratulating the Prime Minister and the Northern Ireland Secretary for concentrating many efforts and many hours of endeavour in trying to maintain the peace process.

Secondly, in the press this morning a breakthrough was mentioned. I urge the House to treat that word with the utmost caution in this matter. Is the Minister aware that I note from what he said that an international body will be set up to advise on disarming the Provisional IRA and that the Provisional Sinn Fein will be allowed to take part in talks to set the agenda for full-scale discussions on the future of the Province--the twin-track approach?

Is the Minister further aware that as regards the first point the Provisional Sinn Fein will have to answer that a clear commitment exists to work constructively towards the decommissioning of arms, and then--and only then--will they be allowed to enter into the preparatory talks which may eventually lead to substantive talks? Is he also aware that they are not prepared to move on decommissioning--not now, and it is doubtful in the future? That is the major sticking point because to the Provisional IRA it is the signal of surrender and so far they see nothing in return. That is the major obstacle which has to be overcome.

Finally, on the twin-track approach, in previous discussions with the Prime Minister, have not the Unionist parties turned that down? Do I gather now that their views have changed or are changing?

Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, I am constantly reminded, in sessions of this kind in your Lordships' House, of the care with which I have to approach making statements because of the very large number of former Secretaries of State that there are about on any given subject, and the noble Lord is no exception.

I am grateful to him for the congratulations that he gave. I certainly agree with him about the indiscriminate use of the word "breakthrough". I would rather publicly expect little, and for those expectations to be exceeded rather than the other way round. Nevertheless, I believe that the word "breakthrough" was perhaps justifiable in one sense in that this has been a difficult negotiation, as many of your Lordships have acknowledged this afternoon. It looked at one moment as though it was going to be difficult to translate the goodwill of both sides into something concrete. To that extent I believe

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that the word "breakthrough" is justified, but I certainly agree with the noble Lord's clear implication that we are not there yet and that the difficult part is still to come.

Perhaps I may change the emphasis of one part of what he said. The second part of the twin-track--the "talks about talks" as the noble Lord, Lord Richard, called them--does not allow Sinn Fein to set the agenda. They are exploratory talks to see whether we can agree on the agenda for the substantive round table talks which we hope will follow. Sinn Fein does not have a monopoly on setting that agenda; indeed, I suspect that unless, for instance, the present constitutional parties were all able to agree as well, the term "round table talks"--if Sinn Fein were to be the only people there--would be the ultimate misnomer. Therefore, I say to the noble Lord that for them to say that they will set the agenda is not strictly right.

Of course, decommissioning is a major obstacle. I should like to emphasise that Her Majesty's Government have in no way changed their stance on this matter. At the very beginning they made it clear that there will have to be clear and substantial progress towards the decommissioning of weapons before the parties who were identified with terrorist organisations can take part in round table talks for the reasons that my right honourable friend gave in his Statement. That position has in no way changed, and I hope that the noble Lord will be reassured by that.

Lord McConnell: My Lords, I also wish to welcome the Statement that has been made by the Lord Privy Seal. I believe it is true to say that virtually everyone in Northern Ireland has a burning desire for a permanent peace, and the Ulster Unionists are second to no one in that desire. I was glad to hear mention of an elected body. That is a suggestion which was made recently by the leader of the Ulster Unionists in the other place. I believe that that might be a useful move in securing a permanent peace because any peace must be a permanent one and on sound foundations.

I am also glad to hear that the Government are standing firm on the question of handing over private arsenals and decommissioning, not merely in the sense of armaments, but also as regards the personnel of some of these gangs because there may not be so much shooting going on, but there is still a great deal of beatings up, intimidation and terrorising people. Unless that stops we cannot have a real and permanent peace. That problem has to be addressed somewhere in the process.

I also welcome the establishment of a commission. I am glad to hear that the Government have not handed over their responsibility, but that this commission will be advisory and that the Government will, in the end, have to make the decisions. I look forward to a permanent peace, which I hope that we can achieve, that is fair to all parties and all people in Northern Ireland.

Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord who of course speaks with obvious authority on these matters. Perhaps I may refer to the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Mason, a moment ago. It is interesting that, as an Ulster Unionist, the noble Lord approved of the twin-track approach.

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I believe that I was right in hearing the security spokesman for the Ulster Unionists imply on television last night that they were one of the original begetters of the idea of a twin-track approach. So it is clear that the noble Lord's party is behind that particular initiative. I am grateful for the confirmation that the noble Lord has given us today.

I am also grateful to the noble Lord for his acknowledgement that the elected body could be a useful move. Indeed, that idea has been very much promoted by Mr. Trimble, the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party. There is no doubt that that is something that cannot be imposed. As I said earlier, it must be done by negotiation.

I should like to emphasise how very much I agree with what the noble Lord said about the continuing violence in the Province. Shootings have decreased as, thank God, have bombings, but we should be aware that, far from diminishing since the cease-fire, the problem of punishment beatings has worsened. I am told that, in total over the past 16 months, Republican attacks have been running at almost twice the level of the equivalent period last year--about 150 as against about 85--and that Loyalist attacks are still occurring also. Such attacks are clearly designed to assert the terrorist gangs' control over what they term "their" communities. Therefore, there is a distinctly political element to those attacks. The brave individuals who have risked reprisals by daring to criticise that practice deserve our most fervent admiration.

Lord Merlyn-Rees: My Lords, I too congratulate the Government on the steps that they have taken and wish them well. However, I am not yet clear on one point. Yesterday evening I was watching the news and I then watched "Newsnight" and in came reports about what was happening between the Taoiseach and the Prime Minister. Eventually it got to midnight and I listened to the midnight news. I asked myself and my wife, "What's new about all this?" because the twin-track approach has been going on for weeks. Even when I went to sleep I was not clear about what was new. Is it the preparatory talks as opposed to the multilateral talks? Indeed, are the parties going to turn up for those preparatory talks? Have we asked the parties whether they will participate in those preparatory talks? I am still not clear.

On the election, I discussed that proposition with a number of Irish TDs and British Members of Parliament on the Border the other evening when we were looking at policing there. I cannot speak for them but, speaking for myself, there is a worry. There were convention elections in 1975 and I think that the statute is still in the law books. That did not succeed because, when people vote for a convention, they are not voting for a Christmas tree being lit up in Belfast; they will vote along these lines: "We are going to vote for our people on the Loyalist side" and similarly on the Nationalist and Republican side. Let us not run away with the idea that an election will bring sweetness and light simply because everybody is pleased that Northern Ireland is quiet. Some of us have held the view that that might harden the situation.

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I am glad that the international body is to be independent, but I hope that its members know something about Northern Ireland and that they will not confuse it with Bosnia or Palestine, because it is a different place. What might be appropriate in another place may well not be appropriate in Northern Ireland. I hope that we shall ask that body to consider the question of the shootings in recent weeks which have involved illegal arms. The noble Viscount has given us evidence of the great growth in the number of such shootings in recent weeks. If there are illegal arms that we want to decommission, it would be just as well to ask the IRA--or Sinn Fein, its political wing--or the UVF--or its political wing: who is doing all those shootings? Where are the arms being held? We must ask those questions because there was a continuation of violence in 1922 and the same thing happened in Europe at the end of the war when there were great problems in bringing in arms from the Maquis. It is not nice and easy. Therefore, when I congratulate the Government, it is because they are still talking. I have grave doubts--not about what the Government are doing, but about what will come out of it.

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