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Statement by Mr. Peter Mandelson to the House of Commons, 22 November 1999

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Research: Fionnuala McKenna
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Statement by the Secretary of State, Mr Peter Mandelson to the House of Commons on Tuesday 22 November 1999

Madam Speaker, I would like to make a statement on political progress in Northern Ireland.

In July, my Rt Hon friend the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach asked former senator George Mitchell to facilitate a review of the implementation of the Good Friday agreement. The review was to focus on breaking the deadlock over devolution and decommissioning which has prevented progress for many months.

Senator Mitchell concluded his review last Thursday, after 11 weeks of intensive negotiations.

I would like to pay tribute to his balanced, persistent approach which was good-humoured, evidently fair and respected on all sides. For nearly five years he has devoted his time and energy to helping resolve the most intractable of problems. Whatever now happens in the coming days, the whole House will want to join with me in thanking the senator for a job extremely well done.

The review has not produced a single text like the Good Friday agreement. Instead, it has concentrated on building trust and confidence by means of a number of important steps forward rather than waiting for one giant leap that might never be made.

As a result, last week saw a series of statements by the Decommissioning Commission headed by Gen de Chastelain, by the parties, by the IRA, by the British and Irish governments, and by the senator. None of these was in itself decisive. But cumulatively, I believe these statements, together with the further steps that are planned, have created the conditions in which the agreement can now be fully implemented.

I draw the House's attention in particular to:

  • Mitchell's belief that "a basis now exists for devolution to occur, for the institutions to be established and for decommissioning to take place as soon as possible";

  • The assumption of a more active, assertive role by the Decommissioning Commission in circumstances which they recognise will be transformed by the full implementation of the agreement;

  • To Sinn Féin's acceptance that decommissioning is an essential part of the peace process, to be brought about under the aegis of the Decommissioning Commission in accordance with the agreement, and their acknowledgment that conflict must be a thing of the past;

  • To the Ulster Unionist Party's recognition of the legitimacy of the peaceful pursuit of nationalist aspirations, and their commitment to the principles of inclusiv ity, equality and mutual respect; and

  • To the IRA's acknowledgment of the Sinn Féin leadership and their willingness to appoint someone as an authorised representative to enter into discussions with the Decommissioning Commission.

  • I plan to call a meeting of the Assembly on Monday, November 29th, for the purpose of nominating ministers in the new Northern Ireland executive. Assuming ministers have been nominated, parliament will be invited to approve a devolution order under the Northern Ireland Act, 1998, on Tuesday, November 30th. And powers will be transferred on Thursday, December 2nd.

    Like Senator Mitchell, I believe that, with the institutions established and everything up and running, decommissioning will happen as a natural and essential development of the peace process. Sinn Féin have previously argued that decommissioning must take place in the context of full implementation of an overall settlement. They now have this in prospect as a result of the review. We are, therefore, planning for success, not failure.

    But if there is default, either in implementing decommissioning, or indeed for that matter, devolution, it is understood that the two governments, British and Irish, will take the steps necessary to cease immediately the operation of the institutions - the executive, the Assembly, the NorthSouth ministerial council, the British-Irish Council, the Civic Forum and the North-South implementation bodies.

    Nobody should doubt my resolve to ensure that no party profits from preventing progress in all aspects of the Good Friday agreement. Of course, we are talking about voluntary action by all parties to achieve devolution and decommissioning. Nonetheless, in terms of the steps taken and those in prospect, a heavy political price will be paid by those who default.

    Unionists, and indeed nationalists, can be assured of this. It would pain me to do so, but I would not shrink from suspending the institutions if it proved necessary, thus restoring the status quo so as to consider how to rectify the default.

    But as I said, Madam Speaker, we are planning for success, not failure.

    Whether the agreement can move forward now depends on the meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council which has been called for this Saturday.

    I pay tribute to the courage and leadership of the Rt Hon member for Upper Bann, who is advising his party to seize the opportunity which these developments present. It is, for the Ulster Unionist Party, a decision of historic importance. A great responsibility rests on them.

    I cannot take that decision for the UUP, and I would not, for a moment, overstate the merits of the deal which has now been secured. I would, however, say this.

    First, the Good Friday agreement is, by any standard, a good deal for unionists. As the Rt Hon member for Upper Bann said at the time, it secures the Union for as long as a majority of the people of Northern Ireland continue to support it. It brings government closer to the people in local institutions which will be responsive to local needs. It ends the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, and it removes the territorial claim in the Irish Constitution.

    Second, I have already said that in the new situation which devolution will create, I believe that decommissioning will take place. No longer are the IRA ruling out decommissioning either by the front door or the back door. I do not believe that the republican movement would have raised expectations as they have if they did not intend to deliver.

    Let us be clear though about one thing. The process so outlined may not be perfect but if it is not attempted there will be no chance whatsoever of any decommissioning. The Rt Hon member for Upper Bann's critics have offered no alternative way of meeting their objective, and it is certainly not for want of asking.

    We will know before long if the IRA and the loyalist paramilita ries are engaging constructively with the Decommissioning Commission. Their representatives should be appointed within hours of devolution. The commission will arrange early meetings with all the representatives of the paramilitaries. They will issue a further report within days of these meetings.

    Gen de Chastelain is an internationally respected figure. We can be sure that he will tell it as it is, and will set the highest of standards.

    Finally, let me say to them that those who are embarking on this journey in good faith will not be left on their own. If all our expectations of the Good Friday agreement are not met, I will be seeking a way forward in co-operation with those committed to the process, based on the principles of this agreement.

    We stand on the brink of a remarkable transformation in Northern Ireland. There are already signs of growing economic confidence.

    The security situation, while not perfect, has been transformed. Bombs and barricades no longer interrupt daily life. People are once again able to lead a normal existence.

    We must not go back to the bad old days, and with a settled political future in which the needs of both communities are met in a fair and equal society, we will not have to.

    The alternative is to hold back, to risk the renewal of instability and all that brings, Never to know whether decommissioning would have occurred, and to create an overwhelming sense of disappointment and uncertainty which could not be more harmful to Northern Ireland's interests, now and in the longer term. In my judgment, that is no real alternative at all.

    People in Northern Ireland are demanding a safe, secure future for their children. It is the politicians' job to create that for them. We must give peace a chance. I commend the steps that are being taken to the House.

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