I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
The origins of this Bill are in the Joint Communiqué agreed by the Taoiseach and the Prime Minister on 28 November 1995, when it was agreed to launch a twin track process to make progress in parallel on the decommissioning issue and on all-party negotiations.
The process launched in November 1995 resulted in the establishment of the International Body, comprising Senator George Mitchell, General John de Chastelain and former Prime Minister Harri Holkeri, to provide an independent assessment of the decommissioning issue. The body was also asked to report on the arrangements necessary for the removal from the political equation of illegally held arms and, to that end, to identify and advise on a suitable and acceptable method for full and verifiable decommissioning and report whether there was a clear commitment on the part of those in possession of such arms to work constructively to achieve that.
The report of the International Body was presented to the Irish and British Governments on 22 January last and published two days later. Following its publication, the Government made clear that it accepted the report without reservation. As I said in this House at that time, "The Irish Government agrees with the report and is convinced it provides the basis to move forward confidently and with renewed vigour now in the political track". Those were also the views of this House generally.
Since then the Government has repeated on many occasions its commitment to all aspects of the report. It has also consistently made clear in public statements its willingness to work with others to give effect to the report and to take the legislative and other measures necessary to that end, consistent with the proposals in the report. That is the purpose of the Bill we are discussing today.
Work on the Bill has been taken forward since January by my Department, in close consultation with the Attorney General's office. That process has also involved consultation with the Northern Ireland Office, and a key objective for both Governments was to ensure a legislative framework which would permit a co-ordinated approach and the implementation of complementary arrangements in both jurisdictions. I am satisfied that the combined effect of this Bill and the corresponding British legislation — the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Bill — will be to permit such an approach.
Before turning to the Bill, I want to say something about the approach of this Government to the issue of decommissioning and its role in the Northern Ireland talks process. Our approach to decommissioning has, from the beginning, been informed by the conviction that a resolution of the Northern Ireland problem must be sought and established exclusively by peaceful and democratic means. More generally, that principle has informed the approach of successive Irish Governments to the Northern Ireland issue.
Our approach continues to be guided by that conviction. We have also, consistent with it, long recognised the importance of securing the decommissioning of arms held illegally both in this State and in Northern Ireland and Britain. Decommissioning is not only important in its own right in terms of upholding the rule of law but is capable of underpinning the peace process in a way that is both real, in terms of providing reassurance, and symbolic, in terms of demonstrating longer-term intent to resolve political differences by peaceful and democratic means.
The Government has equally recognised, however, that decommissioning on its own cannot guarantee peace and would not in itself be decisive in preventing a return to violence at a future date. The broader guarantee that the peace process is irreversible must come form the political process, underpinned by a negotiated settlement. As the International Body's report puts it in paragraph 23: "What is ultimately essential if the gun is to be taken out of Irish politics is an agreed political settlement and the total and verifiable disarmament of all paramilitary organisations".
Nor have we sought to underestimate the difficulties that are likely to be involved in securing the voluntary decommissioning of illegally held arms. The International Body recognised that the decommissioning question is closely related to the underlying issue of trust. Much as we might wish it were otherwise, therefore, the reality we have to deal with is that progress on decommissioning cannot be divorced from the need to secure political progress. Nor, as the report of the International Body also makes clear, can decommissioning be divorced from other confidence building measures, such as the early termination of paramilitary activities and continued action on prisoners, illegally held firearms, policing and emergency legislation.
The objective situation has undoubtedly changed since the International Body issued its report. Events since January last have impacted negatively on the process of building trust between the two communities in Northern Ireland. They do not, however, in the view of the Government, invalidate in any way the central argument advanced by the International Body that decommissioning will not be brought about separately from progress in political negotiations no more than political negotiations are likely to result in agreement unless the recommendations made by the International Body are also brought forward.
The Government therefore, remains convinced of that reality and the value of the report as a means of taking forward the decommissioning issue. We believe that it sets out, in a realistic and practical way, a means of resolving the many practical problems associated with a process of total and verifiable decommissioning. Sensibly, it also left many of the details for subsequent negotiation and agreement.
The International Body recommended that decommissioning should receive a high priority in the all-party negotiations. The convening of such negotiations was the key objective of the twin-track process launched by the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister in November 1995. Much work by both Governments meant that it was possible to convene multi-party negotiations on the 10 June last and those talks have now been under way for some time.
The issue of decommissioning is being addressed within the talks. As part of that, the two Governments tabled a joint paper on 1 October setting out their proposals on how the issue could be dealt with as part of the wider talks process in a manner consistent with the broader considerations underlying the international body's report which I have already mentioned, Those proposals have, regrettabbly, not yet attracted sufficient agreement to allow progress to be made on decommissioning and substantive negotiations. The Government is working actively with the other participants to secure an agreement which will enable progress on both issues to be made simultaneously. This Bill has its part to play in that regard in that the Government hopes that its publication and enactment will contribute to a climate in which real progress can be made in the talks.
I now turn to the Bill and how it seeks to give effect to the International Body's report and the recommendations it contains. A number of key considerations have determined the nature and approach adopted in the Bill. First, there is a need for the legislative framework intended to facilitate decommissioning, in the sense that term is used in the body's report, to be realistic by recognising the basic and inescapable reality that decommissioning can only be effected by the parties who have possession of the arms and in circumstances where they are prepared to decommission. Second, the International Body recommended guiding principles which should govern the decommissioning process. These require that that process should suggest neither victory nor defeat; take place to the satisfaction of an independent commission; result in the complete destruction of armaments in a manner that contributes to public safety; be fully verifiable; not expose individuals to prosecution and be mutual. The report contained detailed recommendations intended to give these guiding principles effect.
Third, there is a need, if decommissioning is to contribute to a progressive pattern of mounting trust and confidence, for the details of decommissioning to be determined by the parties themselves — a requirement to which the proposals tabled by both Governments on 1 October was directed, in that those proposals would have facilitated the involvement of the talks participants at all stages of the process, as progress was made on decommissioning. Fourth, there is a need to permit a co-ordinated approach and the implementation of complementary arrangements in this jurisdiction and in Northern Ireland and Britain. Fifth, there is a need to ensure public safety and that the rights of citizens are not otherwise prejudiced.
Those considerations have meant that a number of important provisions in the Bill are enabling in character and are intended to preserve maximum flexibility in order to permit me to give effect to any arrangements that may be agreed as to how decommissioning would take place. That is true of section 2, for example, which provides for the regulation making power, by means of which I will be empowered to make provision for the decommissioning of arms in this jurisdiction. Furthermore, it provides for the introduction by regulation of the four methods of decommissioning identified by the international body. These are the transfer of arms to a commission to be established by an agreement between the two Governments or to the designated representatives of either Government, for destruction; the provision of information to the commission or to designated representatives of either Government, leading to the discovery of arms for subsequent destruction; the depositing of arms for collection and subsequent destruction by the commission or by designated representatives of either Government and the destruction of arms by those in possession of them.
I will be able to give effect to any combination of these methods of decommissioning or to other methods identified by the parties or any variation of them which may be agreed. The section will also permit the transfer of arms from one jurisdiction to the other for the purpose of decommissioning as will the corresponding Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Bill. Provision is also made in the section for regulations to deal with such matters as the locations and times for decommissioning or any particular method or manner of decommissioning by reference either to particular methods of decommissioning or to the decommissioning of arms generally.
The international body also recommended that the decommissioning process should take place to the satisfaction of an independent commission to be appointed by the Irish and British Governments on the basis of consultations with the other parties to the negotiating process and that the commission should be able to operate independently in both jurisdictions and enjoy appropriate legal status and immunity. Section 3 makes provision for such a commission which it is intended will be established by agreement between the two Governments. The section guarantees the independence of the commission by providing that it will be independent in the performance of its functions and will have the legal capacity of a body corporate. The issue of immunity is also dealt with by providing that I may make provision for inviolability, exemptions, facilities and immunities, privileges and rights in regard to the commission, its property and persons connected with the commission.
Section 4 will enable regulations to be made by me regarding the commission. The precise nature of the regulations will depend on the role which the commission will be required to perform in the context of whatever modalities of decommissioning are agreed. Such a role under the section could include the making of arrangements for, and joining or assisting in, the decommissioning of arms; the taking possession of arms decommissioned; the observation, verification and supervision of the decommissioning of arms; the recording of information relating to the decommissioning of arms; the making of reports and the facilitating and securing of the safe and secure movement, handling and storage of arms during and after decommissioning.
The section also provides that the regulations, without prejudice to the generality of the regulation making power, may also provide for such matters as the membership of the commission, the terms and conditions under which members of the commission may hold office and staff may be employed, the provision of moneys, premises, etc. to the commission and other related matters.
Sections 5 and 6 are concerned with the position of those in possession of illegally held arms who participate in the decommissioning process. They provide protection for them in keeping with the recommendations contained in the international body's report. The body recommended that individuals involved in the decommissioning process should not be prosecuted for the possession of those arms; amnesties should be established in law in both jurisdictions; arms made available for decommissioning should be exempt under law from forensic examination and that information obtained as a result of the decommissioning process should be inadmissible as evidence in courts of law in either jurisdiction.
Section 5 will introduce an amnesty linked to the decommissioning process by prohibiting the taking of legal proceedings by the State in respect of an offence with regard to any particular arms provided that at the time of the commission of the offence the person concerned was engaged in the process of the decommissioning of those arms in accordance with regulations or arrangements; the regulations or arrangements were satisfied as respects both the person and the decommissioning the decommissioning was taking or took place at a time or during a period specified in the regulations and the act constituting the offence or an act that is an ingredient of the offence was a part of the process of decommissioning and was done in pursuance of regulations or arrangements under which decommissioning was taking place.
Provision is made for regulations which may specify particular offences to which the section applies either generally or by reference to particular methods of decommissioning if this is considered desirable. The prohibition on proceedings will not apply to an offence alleged to have been committed by the use of arms before they have been decommissioned or, by virtue of subsection (4), to an offence alleged to have been committed by the use of arms after they have been decommissioned. This latter provision is intended to meet the possibility of decommissioned arms being misappropriated after their decommissioning.
Section 6 prohibits the forensic examination or the testing of arms or related material made available for decommissioning in accordance with regulations or arrangements. The prohibition will apply not only to arms themselves, but to anything resulting from the process of decommissioning; any substance or thing found on or in arms decommissioned; anything on or in which arms were when they were decommissioned or any substance or other thing found on or in such a thing. That prohibition is subject to certain specified and limited exceptions which are directed to ensuring that decommissioned arms or other substances can be handled safely, by allowing for testing for the presence, quantity and stability of ammunition, explosives or explosive substances, and the prohibition will not prevent the examination or testing of arms for the purpose of discovering information concerning an offence alleged to have been committed by the use of arms after they had been decommissioned. The section will also prohibit the use by, or on behalf of, the State of arms or information, obtained in the course of, or as the result of, decommissioning, in criminal proceedings or in any appeal in relation to such proceedings. Also prohibited is the use by, or on behalf of, the State of evidence of anything done for the purposes of decommissioning in such proceedings or appeals. The only exception to those prohibitions is where the arms, information, etc. would be relevant to proceedings in the case of an offence alleged to have been committed after the decommissioning concerned.
These are the core provisions of the Bill which are linked to the recommendations in the report of the International Body. The other provisions are in standard form. Section 1 contains the definitions for the purpose of the Bill. Section 7 contains the general provisions relating to the regulations which, in accordance with our standard practice, will require that regulations are to be laid before each House of the Oireachtas and shall be annulled if a resolution annulling them is passed by either House within 21 sitting days. Section 8 contains the standard form of expenses provision. Section 9 deals with the short title and commencement provisions.
The enactment of this legislation will represent the first step in a process which can and should lead to the removal of the gun forever from the political equation in Ireland. Other steps will have to be taken before that process can begin. There is much significant and important work ahead before decommissioning can become a reality. That will require, first, the creation of conditions of peace. In that connection I renew the appeal the Taoiseach has once again directed to the republican movement for an IRA ceasefire so that representatives of all the people can negotiate our future together free of threat. There is also much work to be done within the talks framework, both in terms of creating the conditions in which decommissioning will be possible and on the decommissioning issue. The parties to the talks will, in that latter connection, be able to contribute to the development of the detailed schemes on the modalities of decommissioning decisions on the independent commission and its role and the role of other confidence building measures.
The regulations which I, as Minister for Justice, will make will flow from those discussions. The two Governments will in the meantime proceed with the preparatory work that will enable both Governments to give effect to agreements reached within the framework of the talks. I am convinced this Bill can act as an important element in achieving progress towards a comprehensive political settlement in Northern Ireland, one which we all hope will ensure that violence is never used for political ends.
Many people thought this legislation might not be introduced because we did not think we would reach a stage where we could look forward to politics without the gun. I pay tribute to the officials in the Department of Justice and the Attorney General's office who worked long and hard in preparing this sensitive legislation. There was much co-operation with the Northern Ireland office and the British authorities in general. I hope when our legislation and the British legislation, which is due to pass around the same time as this Bill — early in the next session — are passed, we will have the enabling legislation that will allow for the decommissioning of arms once and for all I commend the Bill to the House.