Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Owen Paterson yesterday challenged his opposite number Shaun Woodward.
The Secretary of State had announced that following advice from the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning, he was extending the weapons decommissioning amnesty to February 2010. This amnesty comes under the provisions of the 1997 Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act.
Bromsgrove MP Julie Kirkbride (whose husband Andrew Mackay is a former Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary) made a particularly persuasive point:
"Since the Northern Ireland peace process began more than a decade ago, the people of Northern Ireland have been promised a deal, which is to say a compromise on political issues in return for the decommissioning of the vicious paramilitary groups whose activities have scarred Northern Ireland for far too long. The public have delivered their side of the deal, so why are the Government prevaricating on their side?
Mr. Woodward: Let us be clear about what the purpose of this process is. We all want to see every gun and every weapon removed from the streets. The decommissioning order provides an additional route towards seeking that goal. The record of achieving decommissioning over the years has been successful. I have to weigh the advice of the Chief Constable, as well as that of the IICD and the other bodies that give me security advice, about whether they believe that it would be useful to continue for another year to provide that additional way of getting weapons off the streets. It does not prevent the police from doing their work and removing those weapons, which are of course illegal, but if it provides an additional route that may be successful in removing the guns, it would be foolish of me to ignore that advice."
Mr Paterson later weighed in:
"Eleven years on from the agreement, it is unacceptable that there are armed gangs operating in any part of Northern Ireland. The Secretary of State has just mentioned new evidence that has convinced him that the amnesty should be extended. Will he give us some of that evidence now?
Mr. Woodward: The purpose of sharing with the House the advice from the Decommissioning Commission is to encourage Members of this House to listen very carefully to that advice, as well as to me. I am not in a position to disclose the commission’s current negotiations, but I simply say to the hon. Gentleman that there are channels available to him through which I am prepared, and happy, to engage.
Mr. Paterson: The Chief Constable has consistently said that anyone who has guns should give them up immediately. One officer has been shot in the back, and five have had to be rehoused. By extending the amnesty period, the Government are letting down local communities and the police who are trying to protect them. These are parasitical gangsters, drug dealers and protection racketeers. They do not deserve another extension. As we are strongly opposed to what is proposed, will the right hon. Gentleman consider withdrawing this statutory instrument?
Mr. Woodward: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has a hearing difficulty, but as I have just explained to him, it is advice to us from the commission that has ensured that, on balance, we have made this decision. In my last answer, I made the offer to the hon. Gentleman that it would be possible through the usual channels to discuss with him further details, but if he really thinks it would be helpful for me to make public now the content of discussions that might result in guns being removed from the streets, I have to question what his motives are. If his motive is to remove the guns, I suggest he listens to the advice from the commission. On the other hand, if his intention is simply to proceed with a decision he made before that information emerged, I am afraid that even I am unable to help him."
Conservative members are right to raise these concerns. Northern Ireland may be unlike other parts of the United Kingdom, but its residents are no less entitled to protection from gangsterism and violence than anyone else.