THE COMMISSION (Hansard, 16 January 1997)
HC Deb 16 January 1997 vol 288 cc503-15
Mr. Wilshire

I beg to move amendment No. 2, in page 4, line 10, leave out from 'State' to 'may' in line 11.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)

With this, it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 3, in page 4, line 13, leave out from 'State' to 'may' in line 14.

Mr. Wilshire

The amendments leave out the phrase: after consulting the Minister for Justice of the Republic of Ireland". I cannot believe that I am alone in the House in being amazed that a sovereign Parliament is being asked to enact legislation relating to an integral part of its sovereign territory that requires one of the Queen's Ministers to go cap in hand to a member of a foreign Government before we do something. I know that we have had problems with our sovereignty in relation to Brussels, but whatever we might think about that, the issue has not become so bad that we should write into legislation a commitment to go cap in hand to the Dublin Government before we take certain actions in our own country.

If that were not bad enough, the Minister in the Dublin Government to whom we must go is the very Minister who has let out of prison this week someone whom the German authorities want to interview for terrorist activities. I am against the principle of going to a Minister in the Dublin Government, and I am against the Minister who has been selected to have something of a say in our affairs.

It may seem that I am raising a small point. It may seem also that I am being unhelpful, as the hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Dowd) implied a while ago. I see, however, the start of a slippery slope. First, the Secretary of State must consult. When we next have to legislate, he will have to seek permission. After that, we shall have to seek the permission of the Dublin Government and the involvement of a supervisory joint body. I am raising more than a small point. Indeed, we are facing the thin end of a wedge.

Mr. Worthington

Everyone seems to assume that the great majority of the armaments that we are discussing are within the Republic, and that we should be seeking to get the full co-operation of the Republic for there to be decommissioning. How can that occur if there is not consultation, which should be built upon so that we might get rid of weaponry throughout the island of Ireland?

7.15 pm
Mr. Wilshire

The purpose behind the amendments is not to forbid consultation. My objection to the Bill is that it fetters the sovereignty of this Parliament by placing a requirement on the Secretary of State to go cap in hand to a foreign Government. Any Secretary of State worth his or her salt will consult, but to introduce a statutory requirement to consult is to begin to concede that Northern Ireland is somehow not a proper part of the United Kingdom. I cannot go along with that. I am sure that the requirement is not necessary, and on that basis I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will be able to tell me that common sense will break out, discussions will take place and the requirement will not have to be set out in the Bill.

Mr. Trimble

I support the amendment. If the Bill, when enacted, is to be effective, that will require co-operation. Indeed, it will require an agreement to be made between Her Majesty's Government and the Government of the Republic of Ireland even to establish the commission. No one wishes to exclude co-operation that will bring about the decommissioning of terrorist weapons. We want, of course, to see all such weapons removed.

I am concerned about the references to consultation with the Minister for Justice of the Republic of Ireland because we are in danger of bringing about a situation in which the Secretary of State will not be able to act. He will not be able to bring legislation into force if there is not that consultation or if the consultation is not effective. It might be possible for a future Minister for Justice of the Irish Republic to stultify the operation of the proposed legislation that is before us.

We must—especially as there are elections pending in the Republic of Ireland—take into account the possibility that we might find ourselves with a Government who will not be co-operative in the way that we now expect.

Rev. Ian Paisley

The hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) has raised an important issue. Has the Minister been consulted about the Bill that is now before the Dail Eireann? Is there a reference to consultation in that Bill? Does that Bill refer to the Secretary of State for Great Britain and Northern Ireland? Is that term used in the Bill?

Let us get things straight. We had the southern Republic refusing at the time of the Anglo-Irish Agreement to give the United Kingdom its proper term. I have had to fight the issue in Europe. The Eire Government want to refer only to the United Kingdom and not the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. What is the reference in their Bill? If a reference to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is not in their Bill, why should we have the requirement to consult in the Bill that is before us? If the Eire Government are not prepared to recognise our proper jurisdiction and description, we should not have to consult them.

Mr. Robert McCartney

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will recollect that when the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 was signed, there were two forms, one signed by the United Kingdom Government, which was an agreement between the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Government of the Republic, and one signed by Dublin, which was between the Government of the United Kingdom and the Government of the Republic. I take it that that is the point to which the hon. Gentleman alludes.

Rev. Ian Paisley

That is the point, and it is an extremely important one. In Europe, a subtle change was introduced under the Irish presidency on one occasion. It was only after representations were made to the President that it was reversed. We joined the European Union as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Thereafter, there was a reference to Great Britain only, followed by a reference to the UK. The final part of the UK's description was omitted. As I have said, the hon. Member for Spelthorne has raised an important point.

Is it not the first time in British history that a Minister of another regime is written into our legislation—a reference that has the effect that our Minister can do nothing until he first consults that foreign Minister? Who will prove that we have consulted him? Will the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Ireland have a right to tell a British court, "I am supposed to be consulted, but I was not"?

Such a scenario is where this provision—which was formulated by Irish civil servants—will lead us. We have seen posters showing people with demon eyes. I have sat at the talks and looked at the whites of those boys' eyes, and they have demon eyes. Some of them would do Loyola and the Jesuits credit, because they know every way in which to try to put a dagger in the back of the Ulster people and of the United Kingdom. The Minister needs to tell us what we are trying to do.

Mr. Robert McCartney

The suggestion seems to be that consultations with Ministers of the Republic of Ireland, and particularly with their Minister for Justice, are necessarily beneficial. Earlier in the debate, the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) alluded to the recent matter of the extradition of Mr. Lowry, who is wanted by the German Government in connection with the post-Canary wharf, post-ceasefire outrage at the British base in Osnabrück. Although somewhat belatedly, the Irish Government signed the European convention on the suppression of terrorism, and they did so knowing that the convention's function was to ensure that terrorists are provided with no hiding place in the territory of European Community member states—each of which, to achieve membership, must have been defined as a democracy, not a police state, which operates under the rule of law.

Dr. Godman

What does the hon. and learned Gentleman make of the claim made by the Minister for Justice that no extradition treaty exists between those two member states of the European Union? Are not the Government of Germany as responsible for the situation as the Government of the Irish Republic?

Mr. McCartney

I take that point on board. However, if the purpose of the convention was to ensure that terrorists should find no hiding place in the Community, all the signatories must have realised that their domestic law would have to be modified by agreeing a treaty, or by agreeing that the convention itself provided sufficient legal authority to achieve the convention's intent. Is it not passing strange that the Irish Government, since 1987, after signing the convention and realising its purpose, have failed to make any modification of their internal law or to alter their relations with Germany to effect the purpose of the convention?

Rev. Ian Paisley

Will the hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. As far as I can tell, the amendment is not about extradition arrangements between the Republic of Ireland and Germany.

Mr. McCartney

I am dealing with the broad principle of consultation and the issue of whether it is a good idea to consult someone about whose bona fides one has an element of doubt. However, I take on board entirely your suggestion, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I may have strayed beyond the bounds of strict relevance.

It is curious that it should be necessary to consult the Republic's Minister for Justice on a decommissioning scheme for arms found in Northern Ireland. Clause 8, which provides for arms in England, Wales and Scotland, does not require a similar consultative process. Is that because—as I said earlier in the debate—Northern Ireland is not considered a bona fide, real and first-class member of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, thereby making consultation with the Irish Government necessary? Is consultation necessary on arms in Northern Ireland, but entirely unnecessary on arms in a first-rate member of the United Kingdom, such as England, Scotland and Wales?

Mr. Maginnis

I am anxious not to contravene your reminder to stay close to the subject, Mr. Deputy Speaker. However, as we are discussing the role of the Irish Republic's Minister for Justice, I should say that—irrespective of which treaty or arrangement the Irish Republic willingly enters into—primacy rests in that state's constitution.

In 1985, that fact was demonstrated in the Anglo-Irish Agreement. I was party to a challenge, in their own supreme court, to the Government of the Irish Republic. The senior judge in that court ruled that the status of Northern Ireland—which the Irish Republic stated that it would respect—was not defined, and carefully not defined. When we have to deal with wordsmiths who can concoct language, which is always secondary to the constitution of the Irish Republic, we have to be aware and wary of what is intended. Before you remind me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall sit down.

Mr. McCartney

I do not want to incur your wrath, Mr. Deputy Speaker. However, on the issue of consultation with the Irish Government, my experience has been that virtually no extradition warrant on which they have been consulted has ever been successful—the papers have been lost or the name or address of the wanted person has been wrong. Inevitably, a technicality has been found to refuse the warrant, which is why I have reservations about the value of consultation.

Sir John Wheeler

I am again grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) for enabling the House to have such an ingenious and interesting debate. I hope that I shall be able to satisfy hon. Members who have spoken in the brief debate on the amendments.

The Bill's provisions have been carefully constructed in co-operation and consultation with the Government of the Republic of Ireland because we realise—as I am sure that the House does—that, to achieve success, decommissioning must take place in both the north and south of the island of Ireland. We also realise that, on 28 November, when the two Governments announced that they had agreed in parallel to establish an international body to facilitate decommissioning—

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

May I ask the Minister, to satisfy those of us within the Unionist community, to use the term "Northern Ireland" instead of "north and south of Ireland", which contains many incorrect connotations?

Sir John Wheeler

I acknowledge, of course, that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom; that is beyond dispute. I am happy to give the hon. Gentleman that assurance.

As currently drafted, clauses 5, 6 and 7 do no more than provide for a continuing and essential joint approach to the problem of decommissioning. The Bill provides for the two Governments to consult on the timing of commencement of clause 7.

The equivalent provision of the Government of the Republic of Ireland's decommissioning Bill requires consultation with the Secretary of State before it comes into operation. I have a copy of that Bill and I quote from clause 3(1): The subsequent provisions of this section shall come into operation on such day as the Minister"— meaning the Minister for Justice in the Republic— after consultation with the Secretary of State, may for the purpose of enabling the agreement to have full effect, by order appoint. I can further assure the House that in the Republic's Bill 'Secretary of State' means a Secretary of State in the Government of the United Kingdom".

Several hon. Members

rose

7.30 pm
Mr. Maginnis

That illustrates better than I could have hoped my point about ambivalent language. There is no such thing as "the Secretary of State". There is a Secretary of State for Defence, a Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and a Secretary of State for Scotland, but there is no such thing as "the Secretary of State". That is an example of the disingenuous language of Dublin's wordsmiths. I need say no more.

Sir John Wheeler

There is, at least in the lifetime of this Parliament, a Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. What there will be in any future Parliament depends on the will of any future Prime Minister and the structure that the House chooses.

Rev. Ian Paisley

The measure refers to the United Kingdom and not the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. That is the legal term. Our coinage depicts the Queen of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Let us get the matter straight. It is an example of the evil skulduggery of Dublin and we are right to raise the issue. Dublin is always after the same thing. The Irish Government would not allow us to describe their country as the Irish Republic. It would be impossible to get that on to a document. It has to be the Republic of Ireland, but it is not; it is the Irish Republic. The Irish Government certainly do not govern all Ireland, but if we described their country as the Irish Republic, they certainly would not put that title in their law, but by hook or by crook they will get their knife into the Union.

Sir John Wheeler

I am not sure how to respond to that intervention. However, as far as I am concerned, we are the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and I refer to the Republic of Ireland when I refer to that country.

I have explained what is in the measure to be laid before the Parliament of the Republic of Ireland, the provision for consultation and what it means. The consultation is just that. It does not give one Government a veto over the affairs of the other or constrain their actions, but joint action is the only sensible approach. Unless we proceed together as two countries, we shall not achieve our aim of establishing a joint strategy basis for decommissioning terrorist arms wherever they may be. That is the purpose of the clause, and I hope that, having heard my remarks, my hon. Friend will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Wilshire

At the start of the debate I assumed automatically that there would be no question but that I would withdraw the amendment. However, the debate has taken on a slightly different complexion.

First, let me address the point raised by the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney) about the value of consultation. In all fairness, having heard the debate, I should put it on record that I was attacking the office of Minister for Justice in the Republic. I have known Nora Owen, the current postholder, for a long time and I should make it clear that I was not casting any slur on her, but was criticising the office of the Minister for Justice in the Republic. As the hon. and learned Gentleman said, when people take on that role, something seems to happen to them, and they take strange decisions.

I am not impressed by the argument that, because the Republic's Bill referred to us, it must be right. If the Government of the Republic want to get involved, let them rejoin the Union. That would be one way in which they could talk to the rest of us. I certainly do not buy the notion that somehow two wrongs make a right.

My right hon. Friend the Minister sought to reassure us by reading out those words from the Republic's Bill, but that turned an otherwise pleasant, brief debate into a fundamental issue. The reaction of the House spoke volumes. We did not need to hear what was said; we could see the rightful anger that was generated at that moment.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that anger has existed for a long time, but it has intensified because there is no evidence that our Government are arguing that very point? Some years ago, at the Inter-Parliamentary Union in Ottawa, delegates from the Irish Republic did what they have tried to do in Europe. By majority voting, they changed the title of United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to the United Kingdom because they had a political axe to grind. Does the hon. Gentleman share our concern that representatives of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland do not appear to have the same determination to maintain our integrity?

Mr. Wilshire

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. I hope that, over the past few years, I have made it quite clear, at least to him, that I understand his concerns and I am prepared to speak up for them.

My right hon. Friend sought to reassure us by quoting those words, but he did the exact opposite. They were weasel words. If anyone had any doubt, they laid bare exactly what the Dublin Government get up to whenever they get involved in the subject.

If I am being asked whether I will withdraw the amendment because I am reassured, I can say that I am not reassured and I will not withdraw on those grounds. However, I am prepared to consider withdrawing it because I am a realist. On the basis that there is not the slightest chance of the amendment being carried by the House, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Order for Third Reading read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be now read the Third time.—[Mr. Ottaway.]

7.37 pm
Dr. Hendron

I had not intended to make this point, but I found the last 10 minutes of the previous debate rather amusing. Occasionally, I spend a weekend in Donegal, which is in northern Ireland. I realise that it is not in the state of Northern Ireland, but it is definitely in the north of Ireland. No member of my family feels that we are visiting a foreign country. I shall not bore the House by explaining that there are two traditions in Northern Ireland as hon. Members know what I mean.

I listened carefully to the debate in Committee and on Report, and I am sure that I shall say nothing new. I have listened carefully to all the arguments and I shall make only a couple of points.

All hon. Members, and 98 per cent. of people in Northern Ireland, want peace and want the gun out of Irish politics permanently. The hon. Members for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) and for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis), and the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney), spoke about the role of the Irish Republic. I remind hon. Members that, when the Irish Government had the presidency of the European Union, they were present daily at Stormont castle to participate in the peace process.

A Bill similar to this is going through the Dail Eireann. I do not know whether it has become law yet, but as an act of good will the Irish Government showed the Ulster Unionist party the proposed legislation, at that party's request. The hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone accepted that it was a stronger Bill than this one. Aspects of it have been used in this Bill, but I shall not pursue that point because I am not sure of the details.

The Bill would not be before the House if we had not had the Mitchell report. The same applies to the Bill going through Dail Eireann. The purpose of both Bills is to implement that report. As other hon. Members have said, decommissioning is a voluntary exercise. When peace comes to Northern Ireland—I believe that it will come—it will not be at the end of a gun. Perhaps those of us who hope for peace are naive. I accept the point made by several hon. Members, including the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) that the more we give, the more those people want. Those are not his words, but that is the implication of what he said. Somewhere along the road, a line has to be drawn in the sand to say that enough is enough. However, it can only be right to try to draw in those involved in violence, who are part of a tradition going back centuries—that historical fact is an important point.

I have spent a lifetime in west Belfast, which has seen more violence than any other part of these islands, Britain or Ireland—I do not care how anyone wants to define the United Kingdom or the Republic of Ireland. I have seen more than most of the violence and, wearing my medical hat, the suffering of families. The Catholic, nationalist people of the Falls road and the Protestant, Unionist people of the Shankhill road hope for peace. I link myself with them when I say that we cannot afford to stand on some sort of moral high ground, saying that we shall not speak to A, B or C. We want peace. It can only be right to try to involve the people who are involved in violence, as part of a tradition that goes back centuries.

There is no excuse for violence, even though it is a tradition in the island of Ireland. The despicable recent attack on the children's hospital in the Falls road—the main regional hospital for Northern Ireland—happened in my constituency. The IRA attempted to murder the colleague of the hon. Member for North Antrim, or bodyguards, or both. That was a despicable act and did not seem like the behaviour of an organisation that was supposed to be talking peace. I certainly have a problem with that. Then, the other evening—I think that it was the evening before yesterday—there was a mortar attack in Andersonstown. An elderly couple were held hostage and an attempt was made to murder members of the security forces.

The strange fact is that the people who talk peace—I refer to the paramilitaries and their representatives—in addition to attempting to take life, are bringing soldiers on to the streets of my constituency. In so doing, they are ensuring that there will be many house searches. It is ironic that the organisation carrying out the violence thereby brings security forces on to the streets, causing more searches. The people in many housing estates resent those searches, but they do not seem to appreciate that the fault lies with the Provisional IRA.

The Minister referred to a settlement and to democracy. I have nothing new to say on the subject, but I should like stress that that is what the talks in Castle buildings are all about. That is why we had an election last May. Some of those who wanted that election are now saying that we can postpone the talks until after the next election. The people of the island of Ireland—including the Irish Government—especially the people of Belfast, want those talks to succeed, but for them to be total and inclusive, Sinn Fein must be present.

No hon. Member is better qualified than I am to put a question mark against the credibility of an IRA ceasefire, should one come about. We cannot judge the IRA by its words, but we judge it by its deeds. No one else—not this Government or the Irish Government—will know whether a ceasefire is credible. I accept that several murders took place during the last ceasefire. They were so-called drug-related murders—a term that I would not normally use. They were committed by the IRA. The Northern Ireland Office was slow to put the blame where it rightly lay, as were the Irish Government. I assume that they were hoping that the IRA and the republican movement would go down the road of democracy. I understand that, but it was the IRA that carried out those murders. Recently, in the heart of my constituency, a young man was tied upside down and had his legs broken, again for some so-called crime.

If a ceasefire is called, I, perhaps more than most, shall certainly put a question mark against it, but I still want the IRA to call one. Only time will tell whether it is serious. A ceasefire relates not just to soldiers and police. It concerns the communities of west Belfast and far beyond. It is to do with community control—a subject that others referred to earlier and which I could go on about for hours. It is to do with beating young people and with vigilante groups. When a ceasefire is called—it may be called before the election—instead of standing on some sort of moral high ground and saying, "We will not talk to them," people should say, "Let's see what is going to happen." Only time will tell. We shall have to judge the IRA by its actions, not by its words.

7.46 pm
Mr. Maginnis

As we come to the conclusion of the debate, we are, I suspect and hope, considering the Bill in the certain knowledge that IRA-Sinn Fein form an irredeemable organisation, inexorably wedded to a strategy of violence that is intended to take them through to the next millennium. On that basis, many will wonder whether the Bill is a waste of time. During the past quarter of a century, normal society has had to endure not just violence, but the propaganda and the justification of that violence nationally and internationally.

Throughout the world, the constant barrage of such propaganda has unfortunately fixed in the minds of some the concept of freedom fighter versus occupying force. We must constantly grapple with how best to show that that is not the case. It is essential that the Government and society have formal legislative measures in place to demonstrate effectively that we are a democratic society and that, as President Clinton said when he visited Belfast late in 1995: Violence has no place at the table of democracy and no role in the future of this land. If we use it to press home that point, the decommissioning legislation can convey the message that Northern Ireland is an integral part of a sophisticated democracy that has in place the means whereby men and women of violence can recant and come in from the cold. To protect innocent members of society, it will of course be necessary for the Government to continue to meet force with force. Let there be no doubt or equivocation about that. Terrorists must never be in doubt that they will face the full and unrelenting rigours of the law. At the same time, however, we must be able to show that there is prepared and ready a safe and privileged path along which today's terrorist can pass with impunity into the democratic mode. That will help to refute his assertion that he is in any way denied an alternative to the course that he has previously chosen in defiance of the expressed will of the greater number in Northern Ireland.

Whatever the response, what we are in the process of enacting today must not be seen as the property of the terrorist—something to be pigeonholed until he decides to respond. Instead, it must be employed as another weapon in the arsenal of democracy to be used unrelentingly to diminish the propaganda of the terrorist.

Like many in this House, I am jealous of the integrity of what I call my Britishness. I do not believe that other nations have any right to interfere in our internal affairs, but on the other hand I hold the view that our international friends have an obligation to us—and we to them—in times of trouble and distress. I wish that I could be convinced that those who live to the south of me were my international friends.

On such a basis, we have considered a Bill that allows the Government to invite people of international reputation and such technical skills as will be required to participate in the disarmament of the terrorist process, and we must use our openness to involvement by others to our best advantage.

Like others here, I do not believe in deals with terrorists. I hope that the Government learnt a salutary lesson between 31 August 1994 and 9 February 1996. They should now know that working assumptions that fly in the face of reality and ignore informed advice can only end in tears. That must never happen again. Since our society accommodates each individual on the basis of their willingness to abide by its norms, neither I nor anyone else has the right to preclude someone from either making that choice or making a positive adjustment. Disarmament must be a prerequisite of such a metamorphosis.

The issue of retribution must of course arise, for heinous crimes have been committed. Where the perpetrators can be brought to justice through the courts, that must be done and be seen to be done. We must never equivocate on that. Where that is not possible, and if the alternative to be accepted is the orderly and verifiable disarmament of terrorists, so be it. In the practical interests of the law abiding and the vulnerable in society, whom we represent in this place, every viable and justifiable avenue towards peace must be open. That, it must be understood, is the purpose of what we are attempting to enact today, and every aspect of what my party deems to be the Bill's purpose must be understood and implemented if we are not to make a mockery of this place.

The Bill must never be seen as a sop or an accommodation to the evil men of violence. It has to be the property, a bulwark and a defence of the most vulnerable in society. It must be what decent people can expect and hope to achieve—never what the terrorist, or indeed any inherently disingenuous Dublin Government, will permit.

7.54 pm
Mr. Worthington

I should like to raise a particular point and make some general remarks. The particular point is that, in Committee, we tabled an amendment and I should like to invite the Government to respond to it. As I said in a previous debate, the issue involves some imagination—that a decommissioning scheme was in place, that there was therefore a ceasefire, and that what we have been talking about today went forward satisfactorily.

I am sure that the great majority of people would be very unhappy if the police and security forces were about to make an arrest, or detect somebody for the commission of a crime, and the person's get-out was the decommissioning of their weapon. That scenario need not necessarily concern a terrorist offence; it could concern a criminal offence involving the use of guns or weaponry. The person might sense that the police were about to move in and that the evidence of the weapon would be crucial to detection. It would not be satisfactory for the person simply to say, "I wish to decommission that weapon." I would like the Government's response to that point.

I should like to follow along the lines of the speech of the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis). Since we debated these matters in Committee, there have been no grounds for optimism. When we debated these issues on 17 December, there was a sense of unreality, which has certainly increased since. I am sure that images of events over the recess have stayed in hon. Members' minds, as they have in mine. The realisation that there are thugs around who are willing, even eager, to let loose automatic fire in the vicinity of an intensive care ward for newly born children has been referred to. No political goal can justify such behaviour. We were similarly appalled by the 1,000 lb bomb in the grounds of Belfast castle near a wedding reception, where the destruction would have been random.

It is clear that the IRA has been trying to provoke a full-scale resumption of hostilities. It must not succeed. I commend all those who have used their influence to stop the decline into a full-scale onslaught. The crucial point, of which we must not lose sight, is that, at the moment, a framework is in place on which a genuine peace process and a negotiating process can be built. It includes an independent chair, the backing of the two Governments, and negotiating teams who represent a great majority of the people in Northern Ireland. It has taken a great deal of effort to reach that position, and it must not be thrown away. It takes no effort whatever to go downhill to mayhem but, as the Minister knows, it has taken immense effort to crawl upwards to something near peace.

One of the most memorable parts of the Mitchell report was where Mitchell said that what was most needed was the decommissioning of mindsets. Unfortunately, in recent times, the dominant sound has been of the recommissioning of mindsets. Indeed, what Mitchell called the vast inventories of historical recrimination are reasserting themselves.

We ought to congratulate the police—I do not think that anyone else has—on their recent successes. It is clear that the IRA is disturbed by the improved information getting through to the police. We must give the security forces all the support that we can muster. No hope can come from the gunman: the only hope can come from the politicians. As the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone said earlier, that means that the onus on the politicians is as strong as ever to show that they can make progress through negotiation. When I hear the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) debating in the House, I am convinced that they can find an agreement—I hope that that does not destroy their political careers—and that there is a solution that could command the support of the great majority of people. Efforts have to be redoubled to find points of agreement and obtain movement and progress.

It was clear that all members of the Committee felt uneasy about some aspects of the procedure. It is impossible to feel sanguine about the fact that the person who fired the bullets in the intensive child care ward would be able to decommission that weapon and that the evidence of that weapon could not be used against that person. No one could feel content about that, but we are pursuing a greater good in an attempt to take the gun out of Northern Ireland politics and to remove hideous weapons of destruction. There is a compromise, which the Bill embraces; giving up the evidence that the weapons would provide in return, for the knowledge that they will not be used for destruction, and for the contribution that decommissioning would make to the building of trust.

The Government were right to resist the amendments tabled by Unionists and Conservative Members that would have destroyed the idea of decommissioning as a voluntary step. It could not work if evidence from the weapons was to be collected and used. Mitchell concluded, and we agree, that arms decommissioning should not expose individuals to prosecution. Either we have voluntary decommissioning without the threat of prosecution or we do not have decommissioning. At the moment, decommissioning seems a long way away, but at least the Bill will put a framework in place if it ever becomes reality, and that is why we have supported it.

8.1 pm

Sir John Wheeler

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) for his words and I shall come at once to the point to which I undertook to respond on Third Reading when we considered the Bill in Committee. Of course I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the use of terrorist arms in evidence and the relationship between a decommissioning scheme and criminal proceedings. The way in which decommissioning will fit in with criminal proceedings when they have been instituted, or when the investigations of the police are well advanced, is indeed an important issue.

We cannot permit someone who is caught red-handed committing a crime to plead that any weapon in their possession cannot be tested or used in evidence because when they pulled the trigger they declared they were engaged in the process of decommissioning. I undertook in Committee to seek to address that point when we come, in conjunction with the participants in the talks process, to draw up the details of the decommissioning scheme. There must be no room for criminals to abuse the scheme. Any such scheme will set out as clearly as possible the circumstances in which a person will be held to be acting in accordance with the scheme. Everything possible will therefore be done to minimise the possible mischief to which the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie referred in Committee. I hope, therefore, that I have been able to give him that assurance: it is of course dependent on the future.

I am grateful to the hon. Members for Belfast, West (Dr. Hendron) and for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis) for their contributions. I listened with great care to what they had to say. As has been said, this decommissioning measure is being considered against the backdrop of increasing tension in Northern Ireland and further and continuing terrorist acts by the Provisional IRA and others. They are to be deplored; there is no excuse for them. However, I share the satisfaction of the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie at the success of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and others in the prevention of terrorist crimes. People are being arrested, people will be processed through the criminal justice system and terrorism will not win, but I apprehend that Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom will go through difficult times.

The Bill will provide a statutory basis for enabling detailed decommissioning arrangements to be put in place and ensure that there can be no delay or prevarication. The Irish Government share the determination of the United Kingdom to attain agreement on this most difficult and complex issue and to that end they have worked closely with us in preparing similar legislation, which will be put before their Parliament before the month is out and which will mirror clauses in the Bill.

Agreement on decommissioning would transform the prospects for political progress and I am in no doubt that it is achievable. The opportunity is there: I hope that in due course it will be taken. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill read the Third time, and passed.

GLOBAL ISLES COURT OF RECORD