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Northern Ireland Bill

8.55 p.m.

House again in Committee on Clause 15.

Lord Cope of Berkeley moved Amendment No. 45:

Page 9, line 6, at end insert--
("( ) Where a political party is linked to a terrorist organisation, which has not been certified to the Presiding Officer by the chairman of any Commission of the kind referred to in section 7 of the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997 as co-operating fully with that Commission, that political party shall be disregarded for the purposes of subsections (4) to (9) of this section.").

The noble Lord said: We now come on to a most important and topical matter; that is, decommissioning. It comes in the part of the Bill in which decisions are being made as to who can be members of the new Northern Ireland Executive. On these Benches, our

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belief is quite clear and can be very simply stated. It is that no one can be a terrorist and a democrat at the same time. Democracy cannot function properly under threat.

Of course, ex-terrorists can become democrats. Having been one does not exclude the other and there are good examples of that in Northern Ireland as well as in many other countries overseas. But how do you tell a terrorist from an ex-terrorist? Perhaps I should put that question the other way round. How can you tell an ex-terrorist from a continuing terrorist or, for that matter, how do you tell a democratic party from a group of terrorists? The answer is that when people give up violence, they have no more need for semtex or guns. It is that indication, that proof of the fact that a particular individual or group of individuals has moved from being terrorists to being democrats, that we seek in these amendments.

A great deal has been happening on this matter in public and on the airwaves as well as in private, of which we have no knowledge. I heard it said on Radio 4 this morning by a Sinn Fein representative that decommissioning is a matter only for General de Chastelain and the decommissioning commission which has been set up under the Belfast agreement to put all those matters into practice. I most strongly disagree with that. Whether or not there is decommissioning is a matter for everyone in Northern Ireland and it is most certainly a matter for this Parliament at this point.

I know that some of those in Sinn Fein-IRA talk as though what we require by this process is surrender. That is not so. I want to make that point extremely clear. If an army surrenders at the end of a conflict, it not only gives up its guns; it also holds up its hands. The soldiers are taken prisoner and are at the mercy of the victor to be placed in prisoner-of-war camps or whatever it may be. That is surrender. But that is not what we are looking for. Nor what is expected. On the contrary, prisoners are being released even now who would otherwise be held. There is no question but that people who come forward and hand in their guns will later be released. Indeed, the legislation we passed not too long ago specifically provides that the possession of a gun that has previously been used to commit murder or some other crime shall not be used as evidence in court to put people in gaol.

Therefore it is not a question of surrender. At the end of a conventional war--if one wants to use an analogy--we do not get surrender; we get demobilisation. That happened to the British Army and the allied armies that won the war in 1945 and has happened in every other major war. It is demobilisation with which we are concerned. That is what is happening with the British Army in Northern Ireland. As the situation allows, troops are being withdrawn. That will continue to happen provided that peace becomes a reality.

The reasons for having a decommissioning commission, the instructions it is given and the way it operates do not involve surrender; they involve verifying that people have given up their weapons and taken up democracy. That is what we are talking about. The commission is extremely important not only on its

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own account, but also because in people's minds it is symbolic of a movement away from terrorism to democracy.

It may be said that Amendments Nos. 45 and 81 set up in some way a new pre-condition. We have heard that many times. But they do not. They build on the Belfast agreement. Amendment No. 45 provides that nobody can become a member of the Executive or a Minister in the Northern Ireland Government unless their party has given up its weapons. The judge of that will be the chairman of the decommissioning commission. Amendment No. 81 strengthens the powers that the Assembly already has to reject a party for ministerial office because it does not support democracy.

Decommissioning has moved higher in perception over the time since the agreement was signed. The reason is simple. Decommissioning was agreed as part of the Belfast agreement and is supposed to be completed by May 2000--two years after the referendum took place. We are five months into that period and nothing whatever has happened in relation to Sinn Fein-IRA. Those on the other side of the divide are still waiting for action from the principals of that organisation.

That is the reason this issue has become so much more important. If a small amount of progress had already been made it would not loom so large in everybody's calculations; it would not be such a sticking point. Everybody agrees that the Belfast agreement must be taken as a whole. Decommissioning is part of that agreement and account must therefore be taken of it. It is not necessarily a matter, as David Trimble said on the radio this morning, of textual analysis; it is a matter of whether people trust former terrorists to be in government. Do they believe that they are no longer terrorists and are now democrats? That is what decommissioning is all about. It is because nothing has happened that we need to make progress at this time.

It was also said on the radio this morning that Sinn Fein must be on the Executive; that that is in the agreement. That is true--not in so many words, but it is implied; but so is decommissioning and we cannot pick out one piece and not follow the others. The agreement specifically says in several places and this Bill repeats that neither Sinn Fein nor anybody else can take their places on the Executive unless they are committed to democratic means. That has been spelt out by the Prime Minister, by the Taoiseach and everybody else since the agreement was concluded. The test of whether or not they are committed to democracy has become decommissioning.

It is also suggested that the pressure for decommissioning comes only from unionists. That is not true. The pressure for decommissioning comes from a wide spectrum of people throughout Northern Ireland; it certainly comes from this Chamber and many people here. It is time to be clear that in relation to terrorist supporters and the parties that have represented them over the years, if there is no decommissioning, they will not be allowed on the Executive. That may mean that the agreement begins to come apart and to founder. That would be dreadful.

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However, it would not be right--it would not be democracy--to allow people to serve on the Executive who still support terrorism, who are still fully armed and who continue to use those arms in punishment shootings to almost the same extent as previously. It would not be right to allow that. In practical terms, that would not be acceptable to either unionists or the British people, as far as I can see. I do not think that now is the time to be mealy-mouthed about this issue. That is why I believe, given that nothing has happened, that this provision should be on the face of the Bill. That is the purpose of the two amendments. I beg to move.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead: I refer to paragraphs 3 and 6 on page 20 of the Good Friday agreement. I am not deliberately omitting paragraph 4. For some reason, in my copy of the "sacred agreement", there is not, and never was, a paragraph 5. I do not know what the missing book, the Apocrypha, contained, but those paragraphs to which I have referred make it abundantly clear, as the noble Lord, Lord Cope, said, that decommissioning must be part of the package; it cannot be detached or left behind. Decommissioning must move forward in accordance and in harmony with all the other provisions.

As the noble Lord, Lord Cope, said, those who drafted the agreement, and the democratic parties which subscribed to it and have observed it since Good Friday, are not in the business of demanding humiliation, surrender or anything else. It is simply a question of talking in terms of demobilisation, of disbanding the command structure of terrorist organisations. In the words of Mr. John Hume perhaps democratic parties cannot be expected to sit down with those bodies which have guns on the table, under the table or outside the door. I have always admired Mr. Hume for his courage in speaking out as he did.

Why is it that paramilitaries of whatever complexion are determined to retain their weapons? It is simply a matter of ensuring that they retain the known capacity to issue threats or, when democratic parties reach a point where their electoral supporters will not permit them to make further concessions, that the threat becomes real and is implemented. In other words, when terrorists in future see the conveyor belt conveying concessions under the guise of confidence-building measures, a threat will be issued and if the democratic parties do not look sharp, make concessions and speed up the conveyor belt, we may have two more major explosions.

I do not want to labour the point because I deliberately did not speak on this subject at Second Reading, but I listened with great interest to all noble Lords who contributed and they were not far out of line with what I have just said. However, one point worries me. There appears to be a fiction that we have peace at the moment. We all know that peace-breaking in the form of punishment shootings, beatings, threats, shadowing, and targeting is continuing--and we can prove that at first hand.

One point concerns me acutely. On 8th October I went to the city of Armagh to fulfil a fairly important engagement. I learnt on that very evening that an Army unit came under sustained fire. I cannot identify the

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body concerned. It is not my business. There are those who are qualified and equipped to do just that. However, I wondered why news of that was suppressed when I listened the next morning to the radio--those involved are never behind in issuing statements; blood-curdling statements--and why the newspapers seemed to conceal it as well. I wondered why, and in whose interests, the news was suppressed that the cease-fire had been broken on the evening of 8th October. Some day, in the nature of things, we shall discover the answer to the question, "Who dunnit?", if I may put it in that way, and to the question of which organisation decided calmly that it would suppress the news that the cease-fire was not entirely perfect.

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