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Lord Harris of Greenwich: My Lords, in echoing some of the words of the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, perhaps I may inform the Minister that the Statement made in another place by the Secretary of State carries with it our firm and unqualified support. It is right to plan and hope for success. But it is also necessary to spell out the consequences of failure. In particular I welcome two statements made by Mr Mandelson. First, he said that he would in those circumstances,

Secondly, he stated:

    "I would not shrink from suspending the institutions if it proved necessary".

In the light of the forthcoming meeting, it is highly desirable to indicate in the firmest terms the price that would be paid by politicians in Northern Ireland if anyone succeeded in undermining this agreement.

Having said that, I again echo some of the words of the Statement. In particular I think it right, first, to pay tribute to Mr Mitchell, a man who has demonstrated

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extraordinary patience and good humour over a period of weeks in dealing with those with whom he has had to negotiate; and, secondly, to President Clinton because without the commitment of the President of the United States Mr Mitchell would not have arrived in Northern Ireland in the first place. It is right also to pay tribute to some on this side of the Irish Sea, to the former Prime Minister, Mr Major, and the present Prime Minister, Mr Blair; and, as the Minister rightly said, to Mr Trimble who has had an extremely difficult role to play. He must often have found himself in a very lonely position. That being so, he deserves a great deal of credit.

I think that all of us pray that after next weekend we shall be able to make the progress which everyone so fervently desires.

4.3 p.m.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I am grateful for the support that the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, has given on behalf of his party for the Statement today and for the Belfast agreement in general. I appreciate that there have been some differences of view over the past year, but this is a day when essentially we should look forward in agreement to see how we can consolidate peace in Northern Ireland.

I agree with him that the process of decommissioning should get under way as soon as devolution is in place. I support Senator Mitchell's call for paramilitaries to appoint representatives on the same day as devolution. Indeed, the IRA's statement indicates its willingness to appoint such a representative to the decommissioning commission.

On a day like this one does not want to give too much credence to pessimism. I do not say that the noble Lord was being pessimistic; he was being cautious. However, if there were to be default, and if there were to be any move to exclude from the new executive one particular party, that would be a matter for the assembly which alone has the powers to exclude a party under the Good Friday agreement. The Government's determination is that no party should profit from such a default and we have indicated in the Statement how we would proceed if that were to happen.

I deal also with the noble Lord's point as regards the statement recently made by two members of Sinn Fein, Mr Doherty and Mr Ferris. Those statements, quite rightly, have been questioned by Mr Trimble when he heard them. However, let me put it this way. The statement by Mr Ferris was a quotation of something that he is alleged to have said. Mr Doherty, I think, was quoted more directly, but he has put the record straight. He has repeated and endorsed Sinn Fein's commitment to discharge all its obligations under the agreement including those relating to decommissioning. He accepts, like Sinn Fein, that decommissioning is an essential part of the process, and he has confirmed that,

    "Sinn Fein are not in the business of double crossing or misleading anyone. Such a course of action would be disastrous. We are in the business of making peace".

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That is a quotation by him. On that basis, I believe that we can now go forward on the understanding that both Sinn Fein and the IRA are totally committed to this process.

I thank also the noble Lord, Lord Harris, for his support. I very much appreciate the firm words that he uttered and his endorsement of the part played by Senator George Mitchell, the Prime Minister, and John Major when he was Prime Minister. I concur with all those sentiments.

If there were to be failure, the consequences would of course be very serious. That again is something that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State made clear in his Statement. I hope that we shall not consider failure as too likely an outcome. We believe that the success of the process is overwhelmingly the most likely outcome and we are committed to that success, and to helping it in any way possible.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead: My Lords, the Minister will have been supplied with high grade intelligence warning of a decision already taken by the Provisional IRA to resume its campaign whatever the outcome of the next two weeks, including next Saturday. Can we be assured that Her Majesty's Government will take all the necessary measures to protect lives both in this island and in Northern Ireland, given the likelihood that maverick groups will support the Provisionals' campaign?

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I do not have any such information about the IRA. The only information that I have about the IRA is the statement that it made and its commitment to this particular process. But there are dissident republican groups, the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA, from which a threat remains. I can assure the noble Lord that the security forces are aware of that threat. Indeed, on a number of occasions, the chief constable has given warning of the possibility of such activities by dissident republican groups. I am confident that the security forces will be on the alert lest any such unpleasant eventuality should happen.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, this is an optimistic Statement. We all wish the process every success and congratulate Senator Mitchell who, I believe, has been most painstaking in his time and energy. His commitment over the past five years has been remarkable.

We have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, and the Minister's response to my noble friend who was justifiably cautious about "what happens if". I accept that today is a day when we look forward with great hope that the process will succeed. However, when we legislate the "what ifs" matter. Not to put too fine a point on it, it seems disappointing that should one party default on the agreement all parties should be penalised for it. If one party defaults, the most logical consequence--it avoids the disappointment not only of the other parties to the agreement who are not defaulting but also of the people of Northern Ireland--is that not all the institutions should be closed down but that that party

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should be excluded from the executive, and that the executive and assembly should continue in the interests of peace in Northern Ireland.

When we deal with the legislation, I hope that there will be a mechanism for addressing that point; and some definition of the deadline for default. Eighteen months of the two years allowed for decommissioning have now elapsed. No one has said anything about the last six months being the deadline. I assume that May is still the deadline. What happens if there is default by May 2000?

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I understand the point that the noble Baroness is making, but, under the terms of the Good Friday agreement, exclusion of a particular party from the executive is a matter which only the assembly may decide. It would be wrong in principle for us to depart from the Good Friday agreement having made it the basis of everything we have done since it was developed. It would not be realistic to talk in the terms set by the noble Baroness. However, it is up to the parties in the assembly to make that decision if that is what they choose to do at the time.

May 2000 is the date specified in the Good Friday agreement. We clearly believe that that is the date by which decommissioning should take place. If it were not to happen by then, we shall take a decision in the light of the circumstances prevailing at the time.

Lord Blease: My Lords, I join others in thanking the Minister for putting the Statement before us today. I believe that there are others who should be thanked but this is not the time to do it. Many will be thanked in this House and in the other House for the way in which they have participated in the affairs of Northern Ireland over the years.

The Minister has travelled the length and breadth of Northern Ireland. He has met representatives of the farming community, the business community, local government, trade unionists, business people and women's organisations. No other Minister has come to understand the people of Northern Ireland over such a broad spectrum. Certain factors have been announced during the past few days. There is perhaps no one better able than the Minister to respond to the points that I wish to make. Does he agree that politics must transcend old dogmas that have blocked progress for so long? Politics is not about Nationalist against Unionist, Catholic against Protestant. It is about respect as against intolerance, democracy as against tyranny, peace as against violence. It is about making a palpable difference to people's everyday lives. Has the Minister detected a change in the people of Northern Ireland? The rank and file people have been moving in that direction.

Mr Trimble has said that we now have a realistic chance to enter,

    "a new era of respect and tolerance of cultural difference and expression".

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Therefore, Mr Trimble tends to agree with me. Only a few days ago Sinn Fein stated that it is now possible,

    "to put behind us the failures, the tragedy and the suffering of the past".

I thank the Minister for all his efforts, and I know that it is a weary road that he has travelled on many occasions. I should like to hear his impression of how he perceives that the people of Northern Ireland at this time would like their representatives and others to act on their behalf.

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