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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Lord Dubs): My Lords, "decommissioning" is the destruction of arms and explosives or their transfer, depositing or collection for subsequent destruction, in accordance with the decommissioning scheme made under the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997, or in accordance with regulations and arrangements made pursuant to them by the Republic of Ireland's Decommissioning Act 1997.
Lord Marlesford: My Lords, does the Minister agree that Sinn Fein/IRA has repeatedly made it clear that it has no intention, and never has had any intention, of giving up its weapons and ammunition and that "decommissioning" to it means not using those weapons and ammunition? Does the Minister further agree that Sinn Fein/IRA intends to retain its arsenal so that, if it so chooses, it can recommission that arsenal and start to use it again? Does not that have significant implications for any possible recommendation by the Patten Commission for the future of the RUC? Frankly, would it not be better if we all stopped misleading ourselves by thinking of a peace process and recognised that whether even the cease-fire is intact is questionable?
Lord Dubs: My Lords, the Government would certainly not agree that we should question the existence of the peace process. The peace process has represented enormous progress for the people of Northern Ireland, supported by the majority of people in Northern Ireland and, indeed, in the Republic. Every party that supported the Good Friday agreement is under an obligation to decommission. That includes Sinn Fein as well as the other parties associated with paramilitary organisations. The Government expect all parties to go along with the agreement and to decommission. The issue is not whether they decommission, but when. I am not totally clear about the relationship of the noble Lord's Question to the Patten Commission. I believe that the commission will report towards the middle of the year. The Government will have to consider how to give effect to any recommendations that come from it.
Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: My Lords, how is the Minister prepared to deal with the view of Sinn Fein/IRA which equates its position with that of the RUC and the British Army, which are the representatives of a democratic state? Is the Minister prepared to say that he will stand by the rules that are given to the instruments of a democratic state and that he will not equate them with Sinn Fein/IRA?
Lord Dubs: Yes, my Lords. The Government certainly do not equate the RUC, the Army or other security forces with paramilitary organisations or the political parties associated with them. That is why I have consistently spoken about paramilitary organisations and their obligation to decommission their weapons, as have the Government.
Lord Fitt: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that only last week 81 per cent. of the people polled in Northern Ireland, right across both communities, demanded the decommissioning of weapons and that on Sunday morning when they read in the press that the Taoiseach of the Republic was demanding exactly the same thing, there was a great sigh of relief, only for that to be demolished within two hours when it appears that the Taoiseach came under tremendous pressure and then began to qualify what he had said in the interview? Does my noble friend recall, as I do vividly, all the circumstances that brought about the downfall of the Sunningdale agreement? Does not my noble friend recognise that a decided pattern is now emerging? Does my noble friend accept that the decommissioning issue could be satisfied by, for example, the handing in of Semtex--Semtex is offensive--even without the handing in of guns and that that would be a gesture to the overwhelming majority of the people of Northern Ireland? Unless the decommissioning issue is satisfactorily resolved, the whole peace process could be brought tumbling to the ground.
Lord Dubs: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that point. As I said earlier, it is the Government's view that decommissioning must happen, and the only question is when. It is clear that a start to decommissioning would do more to create confidence between the communities than would any other single step. That is why we are urging all the paramilitary organisations to get on with it and to do it.
Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, following the question from the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, can the Minister confirm that the Taoiseach appears to have retracted his retraction and now seems, once again, to believe that it would be extremely unwise, to put it mildly, to encourage members of Sinn Fein/IRA to be members of the new executive unless decommissioning had started? If that is the Taoiseach's view once again, is it also the Government's view?
Lord Dubs: My Lords, the Taoiseach made an important statement urging the various paramilitary organisations to get on with decommissioning. I do not think that it would be particularly helpful if I tried to comment on the other statements made by the Taoiseach; I might add confusion. The Taoiseach and the Irish Government can perfectly well explain their position--and have done so consistently. The Government's view is that decommissioning must happen. We urge all the parties to get on with it. We have never said that it was a precondition--it is not,
Earl Attlee: My Lords, the decommissioning process must be complete in two years. Has the independent commission on decommissioning made any report to the Government on the progress of the decommissioning of illegal arms, as per the Good Friday agreement? We are now 10 months into a two-year process, so the report must be due soon.
Lord Dubs: My Lords, I am not aware of any formal report, but the decommissioning commission has had meetings with those individuals nominated by the various parties and organisations to liaise with it. That process is continuing.
Lord Craig of Radley: My Lords, in view of the Minister's definition of the word "decommissioning"--that it involves the destruction of weapons and arsenals--does he not agree that the time has come to use the word "destruction" rather than "decommissioning"?
Lord Dubs: My Lords, I think that the words mean the same. The noble Lord will recall that when the LVF recently decommissioned some of its weapons, pictures on television showed those weapons being destroyed in, I believe, an engineering workshop. We use the word "decommissioning" because that is the word in the Good Friday agreement and in our legislation.
Lord Carter: My Lords, at a convenient moment after 3.30 p.m. my noble friend Lord Donoughue will, with the leave of the House, repeat in the form of a Statement an Answer to a Private Notice Question in another place on the safety of genetically modified foods.
Lord Henley: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord the Chief Whip for that statement. However, may I ask him to cast his mind forward to the business for next week? As the noble Lord and the House are aware, on Monday we are to debate the Motion in the name of the noble Baroness the Leader of the House on the White Paper on the Royal Commission and reform of this House. When I last looked at the list of speakers just before lunch it contained some 75 names and I think that it is now somewhat longer. I am sure that most noble Lords would agree that it would be regrettable if we debated such an important Motion very late into the night. Of those 75 noble Lords, who represent all sides of the House, I believe that about one third are Privy Counsellors. It is a very impressive list of speakers. Therefore, I wonder whether the noble Lord will agree now to offer the House--I think that this is what the
Lord Carter: My Lords, the noble Lord is correct that the number of speakers on such lists tends to increase after lunch. I am aware of the length and the quality of that list of speakers, which now numbers 79. I am also aware that an official request has today been received from around the House for a second day of debate on the Motion in the name of my noble friend the Leader of the House which is currently scheduled for Monday. I shall need time to reflect on that request and to consider carefully the other pressures on the time of your Lordships' House and on those who wish to participate in debates. I am sure that discussions can proceed within the usual channels and in the usual way. I undertake to ensure that the House receives an answer to those requests, one way or the other, after Question Time tomorrow.
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