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Earl Attlee: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his explanation of the need for and the background to the order. The 1997 enabling Act was taken through this House by my noble friend Lady Denton of Wakefield during the time of the previous government. Because of the nature of the legislation--it is effectively an amnesty and severely limits the ability of the authorities to collect forensic and other information--there are strict time limits on the life of the order and on the Act itself, as explained by the Minister. Next week we will have the opportunity to debate the implementation of the Belfast peace agreement in detail. I therefore do not propose to say too much at this stage, but I welcome the comments of my noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew.
I have no doubt that the order needs to be renewed without delay in order to keep alive the hope of an early start to decommissioning by all paramilitaries. I say "all" because it is not just the Republican groups which are failing to take advantage of the provisions of the decommissioning order. The so-called Loyalists have just as much to answer for. Indeed, if they all started to decommission as the Loyalist Volunteer Force did last year--a point mentioned by the Minister and my noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew--the position of the IRA would become rather more stark. On the other hand, it might mean that the IRA would also find it easier to start decommissioning.
I would like to restate one of the principles from the report of the international body chaired by Senator George Mitchell. It was that the decommissioning process should suggest neither victory nor defeat; and my noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew touched on the sensitivities of decommissioning. The report went on to explain:
We on these Benches welcome the Taioseach's helpful clarification of his position with regard to decommissioning. This afternoon in the Dail he said that there has to be decommissioning. We will not get an executive until that reality is faced.
Lord Redesdale: My Lords, I wish to thank the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, for his kind words. I hope that I carry the House in paying tribute to my predecessor, my noble friend Lord Holme of Cheltenham, who spoke from these Benches for the past nine years, a period in which the situation in Northern Ireland has been transformed.
The order extends for another year the amnesty period for handing in weapons owned by former paramilitaries. The original Act of 1997 went to great lengths to ensure that there was no possibility of forensic evidence being taken from any weapons which were handed in. We on these Benches accepted that as a necessity in 1997, and we accept it now. Stopping these weapons being used in the future is of overriding importance in these matters.
The Good Friday agreement took this matter forward and led to the establishment of the international body on decommissioning headed by General de Chastelain. As we all know, the agreement called for complete decommissioning of all paramilitary weapons within two years. So, although it is acceptable to extend this legislation for another 12 months, when we come to renew the amnesty next February we do not envisage that it will be necessary to extend it for a further 12 months after that. We believe that the amnesty should be extended only as far as the deadline for decommissioning, as set out in the agreement.
In December, a very public decommissioning of weapons by the LVF led to the legislation being put into practice for the first time. I understand that it was a close run thing. For various reasons, the handover was delayed and the licence to transport the weapons was due to expire only a few hours before the weapons were handed in. Nevertheless, weapons were handed in; they were decommissioned and no forensic evidence was taken. The paramilitary LVF, when it gave up its weapons, went from being the pariah of Loyalist terrorist groups for having been so slow to call their ceasefire, to being one of the most respected groups. The whole operation gave the process in Northern Ireland a very welcome boost of confidence. Decommissioning can work, and it is working.
I mention the circumstances of the LVF handover in December for two reasons. First, to show that this legislation does work; all the mechanics of the decommissioning process were successful. For this we owe a considerable weight of thanks to General de Chastelain, who has done some very important, low profile work on the practicalities of the matter, as was pointed out by the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew.
My other reason for recounting the circumstances of the LVF handover is to explain that the process worked politically. The LVF was not laughed at or mocked for surrendering its weapons. In London and Belfast newspapers that day the word "surrender" did not appear at all. The LVF was not criticised or blamed. Instead, it was the object of much acclaim. Its actions were regarded as honourable and were very widely respected. It is a terror group that did not call a ceasefire until after the Good Friday Agreement. It is now viewed with esteem, which was unimaginable a few months before.
Decommissioning is not an easy business, practically or politically, for the manner in which the LVF decommissioned showed how both these matters have been resolved to the satisfaction of the terror groups. That is the message for Sinn Fein. It has everything to gain by decommissioning and everything to lose if it
If Sinn Fein is unsure about the best time to decommission, it should consider it in this way. If it decommissions just a few weapons before 10th March, it will take up its place in the executive amid a torrent of goodwill. If it delays a start to decommissioning until the deadline in the agreement for completing it, the process is sure to be in a much worse state than it is now. If it does not decommission and abandons the agreement that it made last year, the whole business could return to the dark days and the republicans would lose as much as everyone else. So it is in the republicans' own interests to start decommissioning sooner rather than later. I hope that they take heed of this debate and realise that at this point progress is in their gift and, I believe, in their gift alone.
Before I conclude, it is appropriate to mention loyalist decommissioning, as mentioned by the noble Earl, Lord Attlee. The absence of progress from the UVF and the UFF is as disturbing as the absence of progress from the Provisional IRA. They are out of the spotlight only because their political associates are not destined for a place in the executive. But we expect prompt action from them, too. If the IRA decommissions some weapons, loyalists should be aware that the clamour for them to decommission will be even stronger than the clamour for republicans to do so now.
Lord Rathcavan: My Lords, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, said, there is little ground for not agreeing to the order as it is essential to the continuation of the peace process. As I shall not be able to attend the forthcoming debate on Northern Ireland, perhaps I may be excused for making some brief comments on the decommissioning issue.
Those of us who live in Northern Ireland know that the huge majority of both communities in Northern Ireland want peace, prosperity and a normal life and are fed up with the posturing and the semantics of decommissioning. I ask the Minister this question. Is it not time that the Prime Minister took a cue from the interview in the Sunday Times with the Taoiseach in which Mr. Ahern, as the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, pointed out, clearly indicated that the new power-sharing executive should not proceed without substantial decommissioning? In a further interview in the Irish Times today, he dissented from only one word in that interview. He certainly did not depart from the essential point that was clearly reported. Should not the Prime Minister now join the Taoiseach in confirming that real decommissioning, as defined by the Minister at Question Time today, is the only way forward in fulfilling the wishes and aspirations of that vast majority of people in all parts of Ireland?
For the sake of future generations, the moment has now arrived, after months of prevarication, to appeal to all to compromise, to dig deeper for a solution and to seize this unique opportunity for genuine peace. The decision on decommissioning cannot be postponed much longer without disastrous consequences.
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