Decommissioning Bill, 1996: Second Stage.

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.

I wish to share my time with our justice spokesperson, Deputy O'Donoghue.

I am sure that is satisfactory. Agreed.

This Decommissioning Bill is essentially enabling legislation, broadly in line with the recommendations of the Mitchell report. That report and the legislation approach the whole issue in a flexible manner. Both accept that the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons could be carried out in a wide variety of ways. The organisations holding the weapons may want to carry out decommissioning themselves or they may seek technical assistance from an independent third party such as the commission. Two things are important: that decommissioning should take place as part of a settlement and that it should be verifiable. The establishment of an independent commission by the two Governments is designed to assist that.

Any reservations we would have about the approach of the two Governments to decommissioning legislation, which has been introduced by both Parliaments — this matter will be dealt with by Deputy O'Donoghue — relate mainly to its handling in a wider political context. We would be against any attempt to present the legislation as reinforcing a precondition. I am concerned that the passage of this legislation might encourage those parties who want to use decommissioning as a means of blocking the peace process more or less indefinitely, and with it Sinn Féin's access to the talks table, even in the context of an irrevocable IRA ceasefire. On the other hand, we too in this Parliament have an obligation to show good faith and to take the legitimate concerns of others seriously.

The Fianna Fáil Party, from our time in Government, has not doubted the importance of the decommissioning issue. Huge arsenals of sophisticated weaponry have been built up by paramilitary organisations on both sides up to recent times. There are no precedents for this in any previous period of Irish history to guide us. In conflicts in Latin America, South Africa and elsewhere the issue has been tackled, but not in such a way as to block peace negotiations. The issue of illegal arms, however difficult, cannot be avoided when it comes to a peace settlement. Fianna Fáil does not wish to see the issue kicked into the long grass, in the sense of the issue being treated in advance as a lost cause that will eventually be forgotten about. Neither Government could accept the continued existence of large arsenals, even in cold storage, as there would always be a temptation in times of political tension or crisis to resort to their use. There is also the danger that paramilitary weapons could find their way into the hands of criminals or be used for criminal purposes. Above all, lasting peace requires a clean break with the past, which is not possible if there are hidden arms dumps around the country.

Fianna Fáil has argued strongly and consistently that decommissioning should not be a precondition to any progress in the peace process. That seems to be putting the cart before the horse. It is to ignore the lessons of history. The War of Independence could have ended six months earlier in 1921 if Archbishop Clune's initiative had not been sabotaged by the Tory demand for a surrender of weapons. It has always seemed inconsistent, in a talks process based on the principle that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, to demand that the decommissioning of illegal arms be settled in advance of any political progress. We have been equally determined that decommissioning is an issue that must be tackled along with all other issues at the appropriate time. Part of the commitment to a peaceful, democratic future will be demonstrated when decommissioning eventually takes place.

I would, therefore, like to dispel any illusions or cynicism that somehow or other the issue can be put off forever and that it need never be confronted. While there are key issues of timing and monitoring to be resolved, it is a central and crucial confidence-building measure as Mitchell identified. It is not entirely easy, however, for the Government to convey that message with the authority required. No account has ever been given of whether Official IRA weapons, which were in use in the North until quite recently, have been decommissioned. It is often argued, even by Unionists, that this is no longer a live issue. On the other hand, however, it sets an undeniable example of a party and an organisation involved in the present troubles that got away with doing nothing about their arms, ultimately by the expedient of disassociation. There are few issues on which it would be more important to have openness, transparency and accountability. This is not least because the present position implies that there can be one standard required of the Provisional IRA and the loyalists and another standard required of others.

The decommissioning issue has bedevilled the entire peace process. It was turned into a blocking mechanism or a plausible excuse for inertia, as a leading journalist once put it, in Washington in March 1995 by the Secretary of State under pressure from the Ulster Unionist Party which was not prepared to negotiate on the basis of the Framework Document. The reason the ceasefire was not restored and Sinn Féin did not take part in talks on 10 June was that they foresaw that the talks would be totally dominated by the decommissioning issue. The question of permanence holding up admission to talks, followed by decommissioning, are the two lines of defence constructed by the British Government-Ulster Unionist Alliance to put off as long as possible, if not indefinitely, Sinn Féin entry into meaningful talks. The Stormont talks have been held up by this issue for much of the autumn. The full passage of this legislation through all Stages should await a satisfactory conclusion to the talks. While we are not opposing this legislation on Second Stage we will reserve our final position on whether we believe its passage will assist and facilitate the peace process or merely serve to obstruct it further.

It has been evident to us that there is a good opportunity for renewed peace at present. The Hume-Adams initiative and the signals from the republican movement are clear. Unfortunately, Anglo-Irish diplomacy at the highest level has signally failed to resolve the impasse. The gap could be bridged with sufficient effort and as an experienced negotiator I urge people not to give up at this stage, particularly the Governments. I regret that there was no time for an Anglo-Irish meeting in the margins of the EU summit but I am glad President Clinton was sufficiently interested to seek a bilateral meeting en marge of the EU Summit with the US. To leave matters where they are would be a failure of statesmanship.

While I admire John Major's earlier contribution to the peace process I regret that he has not attempted or been able to follow through the vision contained in the Downing Street Declaration and the Framework Document, because of his parliamentary situation. The Ulster Unionist Party has exploited its position in Westminister in a way that is short-sighted.

In the absence of an accommodation and with continued tensions and instability, Northern Ireland as a society and as an economy will inevitably lose competitive ground. Peace and prosperity are interlinked. It is a time for firm and courageous leadership on all sides. The message the Unionist parties are sending out is that, even in the event of a durable ceasefire, they are reluctant to talk to the elected representatives of the Nationalist 40 per cent of the population, except under conditions that will not be accepted. That smacks too much of the mentality of the old Stormont.

The ugly scenes at Drumcree and outside Harryville Church and the arson attacks on Catholic Churches and schools show a basic religious intolerance which the vast majority of people of goodwill on all sides do not seem able to overcome. There was a bemused reaction to the new Grand Master of the Orange Order standing over his remarks that the marriage of Mr. Tony Blair, MP, to a Catholic was "disloyal". Neither this House nor the public might be inclined to take that too seriously, when applied to a British Labour Party leader but unfortunately it is deadly serious for anyone in a Protestant housing estate who forms a mixed marriage with a Catholic to be branded as disloyal. He or she quickly finds out that the right to live wherever one chooses without hindrance as set out in the Downing Street declaration is seriously curtailed in those circumstances. People have been killed, burnt to death even, purely because they were involved in a mixed marriage.

I have repeatedly condemned the continuation of boycotting to the extent that it is still occuring. It is not just a one-sided phenomenon. There is an onus on Nationalists and republicans to resist the temptation of a sectarian response to provocations. We have a duty to maintain the highest standards of tolerance in our own jurisdiction. The Taoiseach was eloquent at the Inchicore War Memorial last year in demanding that the British tradition be honoured here but it is always easier to preach than to practise. The Times of London, in a prominent article and editorial yesterday, contrasts that aspiration with dated jibes directed by the successful Fine Gael candidate in Louth against an unsuccessful titled rival, who has done his bit for those who enjoy open-air pop concerts. The Taoiseach has so far passed no comment but Councillor Brannigan of Drogheda Corporation had it right when he said, in a letter to the Drogheda Independent on 6 December that “nobody in this Republic feels themselves inferior to anybody else” and that we could do without divisive remarks against those of a different Irish background.

This legislation does not cover the decommissioning of baseball bats and iron bars. I say bluntly to our republican and loyalists friends that nothing alienates public opinion so much in this State than daily reports of continued brutal punishment beatings inflicted mostly on young members of their own community. Sympathy and support for the human rights of prisoners is sought from Members of the Oireachtas and freely given on all sides of the House but human rights are indivisible. Corporal punishment was abolished long ago in civilised societies. Punishment beatings are a reactionary throwback and send a profoundly anti-democratic message.

I noted with interest the Tánaiste's comment after the summit that both the British Government and Sinn Fein must move from their present positions. That was broadly my analysis in the debate before the summit. Our Government must also keep trying. The Taoiseach should have said publicly in the United States not only that he wanted a new unequivocal ceasefire but also that he wanted the British Government, in that event, to guarantee Sinn Féin access to talks at an early date. The current talks are essentially a resumption of the 1991-2 talks and so far have been less productive. The British Government has refused point blank to give any clear timescale for Sinn Féin entry to talks, the original quid pro quo that it offered publicly for an end to violence. The American public should be clearly told that it is not just the republican movement but also the British Government that is an obstacle to peace, a point well understood by the Irish public. It is not the business of the Taoiseach to provide diplomatic cover or make excuses for the lack of British co-operation. There is rarely any real diplomatic pressure on the British Government because the Taoiseach always tries too hard to keep up a false front that the two Government are totally united, whereas we know, not least from the Tánaiste, that they are not. I sincerely hope the Taoiseach will not waste the opportunity of his meeting with President Clinton today. The Americans can be helpful, if they are told the true position.

At my meeting with Mr. Tony Blair last week, he told me that if republicans were genuinely looking for peace he would facilitate them, but if a ceasefire were only tactical he would have serious difficulties. That was the tone of Mr. John Major in 1993 and 1994 but unfortunately this British Government is no longer in a facilitating frame of mind.

What underlies the decommissioning issue is a determination that a renewed peace must hold. Our fear is that too strong an insistence on decommissioning upfront will prevent or delay any renewed peace. However, while we might go about it another way, the demand of both British and Irish democracy is the same — that paramilitary and other violence end for good. Then any party previously associated with violence is entitled to have a place at the table as a matter of democratic right. That all along was our position in Government. Signature of the Mitchell principles upon entry into talks represents a formal commitment to democracy and they are essentially the substitute for the decommissioning precondition and the reassurance that other parties require. The difficulty since August 1994 has been the British Government's inability or unwillingness to guarantee Sinn Féin's place at the table and to make the exercise of their rights entirely dependent on Unionist agreement. On the other hand, any continued actions by the IRA will make it easy for their enemies to cast further doubts on the value or sincerity of any future commitment to peace and democracy that they may be prepared to make.

If it is the case that no further progress will take place this side of a UK general election, I appeal for a suspension of all further paramilitary activities and attacks so that the situation can be clarified post-election without adding further difficulties in the meantime. It appears that there may be no formal ceasefire this Christmas but it is the absence of further attacks that really matters. We hope there will be no further action this side of Christmas or ever again. We need the British Government — if not this one, the next — to guarantee Sinn Féin a place at the table within a short space of time, in return for a guaranteed and definitive end to IRA violence. Future political battles for peace and the rights of Nationalists must be fought politically, using exclusively peaceful and democratic means. At no stage will the going be easy, as we know from the events of the past few years but no other way has been found that shows any chance of lasting success. As this year ends we must hope 1997 will bring more progress to this area than was achieved in the year just ending.

Every democrat on this island can identify with the declared objective of this Bill. The removal of munitions from the political stage should be the ideal of every democratically elected representative of the people. It is a necessary component of a free and democratic society. Our focus ought to be on achieving that end. The order in which it occurs, the timing of its occurrence and the method by which it might be achieved are secondary matters. They are side issues in the peace process and ought not be afforded an exaggerated importance. We have seen, to our cost, what can occur when participants, for whatever purpose, become distracted about the means of achieving peace rather than the goal of peace itself.

The discussions and negotiations of recent years have revealed decommissioning as a step to be taken on the road to permanent peace. Whether it be the first, the last or an intermediate step has been the subject of much debate. Not all of that debate has been directed towards the goal of peace — it appears that some has been directed towards obstructing rather than assisting the attainment of peace. Whatever side of the debate is viewed, it is clear decommissioning is an issue which, sooner or later, must be addressed. It is an issue of importance and sensitivity. It has been the subject of much study and examination.

The international body, comprising Senator George Mitchell, General John de Chastelain and former Prime Minister Harri Holkeri, was established on 28 November 1995 to provide an independent assessment of the decommissioning issue and to advise on a suitable and acceptable method for full and verifiable decommissioning. The report arising from the deliberations of the International Body was presented to the Irish and British Governments on 22 January 1996. Nearly 11 months later, on 9 December 1996, the Minister for Justice presented this Decommissioning Bill to the House. It is regrettably clear that the Minister afforded the preparation of this Bill the same sense of urgency as her Government has afforded the peace process generally.

The objective sought to be attained by the Bill is laudable — the method chosen to give effect to the attainment of that objective is, regrettably, both shoddy and second rate. Despite the passage of 11 months since the presentation of the report the Bill, as presented, is hopelessly incomplete. It amounts to an admission by the Minister for Justice that she has, yet again, not completed the work assigned to her. It is more than regrettable that proposed legislation of this importance should have to acknowledge, as this Bill does, that substantial further work remains to be done before it will be ready to be implemented. Whether this deficit results from a lack of political will or a lack of political competence is unclear. What is clear is that the Bill is nowhere near to being complete and it has been served up to this House as the best the Minister could produce after nearly a year of endeavour.

The Bill has two central pillars; decommissioning and the establishment of a commission to oversee decommissioning. They are the reason for the introduction of the Bill. They are the matters to which the Minister for Justice had to apply her ability and efforts.

In relation to the first pillar, decommissioning, so incomplete is the Minister's work that section 2 is forced to state: "Regulations may provide for the decommissioning of arms". Why is this necessary? Why are the details relating to the necessary provisions for decommissioning not contained in the Bill?

That is the whole point of the talks.

Why is it necessary in December to introduce a Bill, known to be necessary since last January, which does little more than announce that further legislation is required? Why has the Minister not prepared the necessary legislation? The answer is depressingly clear — the Government entrusted the preparation of this legislation to the Minister for Justice and the Minister has let it down.

The Deputy is very lacking in his understanding of this legislation.

The Minister now seeks to disguise that failure by presenting a Bill which does little more than announce that at some unspecified date in the future she hopes to do what she should have already done.

Has the Deputy read the report?

As a result of the Minister's administrative error, this House is forced to debate proposed legislation which is nakedly incomplete. The first pillar of this Bill does not yet exist. It may or may not be lurking, in a state of unpreparedness, in an envelope in the Minister's private office. Nobody, least of all the Minister, seems to know, but I am not prepared to pretend the Bill is anything other than a parliamentary fig leaf to cover the Minister's blushes.

The second pillar of the Bill is a commission to oversee decommissioning, yet the same acknowledgement of inadequacy exists in relation to this. Section 4 states: "Regulations may make provision in relation to the Commission". The same questions need to be asked — the Minister can answer them at the end of the debate. Why is this necessary? Why are the details relating to the commission not ready to be included in the Bill? Why has the Minister, who has had 11 months to prepare this legislation, brought it to the House in an incomplete and dishevelled state?

The Deputy should read the Mitchell report.

Last summer I criticised the Minister for putting everything on her long finger. Since she went to the Department of Justice, promises of action have always been followed by periods of inactivity, committees are followed by procrastination and she has strived without success to implement her underlying philosophy, "Do nothing and it will all go away." This Bill does little more than promise regulations in the future.

Given that the Minister's efforts have not worked in the past, why does the Government presume they will in the future? Is it hoped that, like the Leader of Democratic Left, she will make a new beginning by having a bonfire in her back garden on which she can burn the details of her political career to date?

The Deputy is missing the whole point. I am surprised at him.

The reality is that the Minister has been as slow at producing legislation as Deputy Lowry has been at providing explanations. Today the Minister does no more than say that at an unspecified date in the future she will do by regulation what she has conspicuously failed to do in this Bill. She is capable of promising but not delivering. This is the least well prepared legislation ever to be introduced in this House. It is a shameful end to what has been for the Government a shameful year.

The Deputy is missing the whole point.

The Minister may take some comfort from the fact that she has the full support of her colleagues. There can be no doubt now that in every corner of the country Labour and Democratic Left TDs are preparing posters with the slogan "A vote for Roisin Shortall is a vote for Nora Owen" and "Vote for Eric Byrne to put Nora Owen back in office".

I hope they get me some extra votes.

They will look well on the lamp-posts beside the posters stating "Vote Fine Gael to put Michael Lowry back in office".

I watched with fascination the attempts by Labour backbenchers to disassociate themselves from the actions of their own Government. These are the Deputies whom I have previously described as people who talk tough and vote soft. They are the compliant critics of the rainbow — always criticising and always supporting. Their voices travel in different directions from their feet. In reality they are in Government, in spirit they are in Opposition and in future they will be in the Visitors Gallery. They are the vital supporters of an Administration which has become so consumed by the trappings of power that it no longer offers even the pretence of exercising power. They have moved from writing IOUs in the economic sphere to writing them in the legislative sphere. This Bill is, even to the eyes of the most illiterate legal observer, no more than an IOU from the Minister. She tells the House, "IOU regulations which will deal with decommissioning and IOU regulations which will deal with the commission".

If the Minister for Transport, Energy and Communications, for example, introduced a Bill which provided that regulations may provide for a television station, he would be justly criticised. The same applies to decommissioning and the commission. The purpose of legislation is to put the detail before the House for democratic debate. It is not intended as some form of notice board on which the Minister can hang her future intention to do work long since required by the Cabinet.

It is an intrinsic part of the talks process. That is why it is like that.

This Bill is apparently acceptable not alone to Fine Gael but also to Labour and Democratic Left. It is legislation after the fashion of the King's new clothes.

Those who sit and coo on the Government benches at the magnificence of the Minister's new Bill would do well to rub their eyes and observe reality as they await the arrival of Deputy Rabbitte, the trouble shooter of the rainbow, who has become a sad sight since he forgot, in the course of phase one of the Lowry affair, to think before he speaks. Will Deputy Rabbitte——

The Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte.

Will the Minister of State Deputy Rabbitte come into the Chamber next Thursday to do battle for his former Cabinet colleague?

The decommissioning Bill as presented is no more than the heads of a Bill. Its introduction at this stage reveals the dearth of ability in Government. Is this really the best that could be done? Could the combined intellect of the Cabinet not progress matters beyond this? We must look no further than section 3 which purports to deal with provisions in relation to the Commission. It provides that the commission shall be an independent legal body and the Minister may make a variety of orders. That is it. That is what the Government has achieved since 1 January. If one looks at it in detail it amounts to five orders and a declaration. Section 3 (1) provides that subsequent subsections shall come into operation subsequently; section 3 (2) provides that the commission shall be independent; section 3 (3) provides that the commission shall be a legal body; section 3 (4) provides that the Minister may make an order — it also deals with what the Minister is to do in the order when she gets around to dealing with it; section 3 (5) provides that the Minister may make another type of order; section 3 (6) provides that the Minister may make a further order; and section 3 (7) provides that orders, whenever made, shall be laid before the Oireachtas.

I favour democratic debate such as anybody else. I am in favour also of openness and transparency in Government, but this Bill is ridiculous.

It is enabling legislation. I did not say it was anything else.

It is an advertising leaflet for future legislation, pretending to be a Bill.

Yes, when the decommissioning issue has been solved at the talks process. The Deputy is missing the whole point.

I am not missing the point. The Minister should not come into the House and pretend that legislation is legislation when it is an advertisement for legislation. This is what the programme for Government of the rainbow coalition now amounts to — a few pages of pious intention which cannot be enforced without further ministerial action. It is an embarrassment and affront to proper parliamentary standards for this Bill to be introduced in this fashion. It has the full support of the Labour Party which wishes to be fully associated with this shoddy effort; so be it, nobody will be surprised——

On behalf of those who prepared this Bill and the Attorney General, who are not able to speak in this House, I wish to say that the use of the word "shoddy" is an insult to them and implies this is not real legislation.

This debate is in the very early stages——

I realise that but I should not allow the word "shoddy" to stand on the record of the House.

Members will have ample time to put their views pro and con on this measure. The Minister has a right to reply in which she will have ample time to reply to all matters raised during the course of the debate.

Although he was constantly interrupted I greatly enjoyed what I could hear of Deputy O'Donoghue's speech. He made some quite valid points.

The Bill consists of a very literal and precise transcription into general legislative form of paragraphs 38 to 50, inclusive, of the Mitchell report. There is very little substantive law, it is mainly regulation making powers. The only substantive law is in sections 5 and 6 which will only have effect if and when a commission is established. The rest of the Bill, as Deputy O'Donoghue said, could have been put together in a matter of days. I do not know why the Minister is at such pains to commend those who put it together because it is nothing more than headings giving her power to make regulations on a wide variety of topics, as recommended in paragraphs 38 to 50 of the Mitchell report.

There are, however, a couple of points about the Bill which, limited as it is in its objectives, should be considered before the end of Second Stage and certainly before Committee Stage, if that Stage is ever taken. Rather curiously, Second Stage will finish when I conclude my contribution and will not be put to the House.

It will continue in the next session.

It will be taken some time in 1997.

When the House comes back.

This Bill refers in its second definition to "the agreement". It states: "the agreement""means the agreement between the Government and the Government of the United Kingdom establishing the Commission,". I inquired earlier whether such an agreement exists because if it does is should be a Schedule to the Bill. I was told it does not exist. However, it is referred to in the Bill as if it were an existing agreement. I do not know why this House should, or how it can, legislate in relation to an agreement which does not exist.

The Long Title, which is very much part of the Bill, states: "TO MAKE PROVISION... IN RELATION TO A COMMISSION ESTABLISHED BY AGREEMENT BETWEEN THE GOVERNMENT AND THE GOVERNMENT OF THE UNITED KINGDOM AND TO PROVIDE FOR RELATED MATTERS". The word "ESTABLISHED" is in the past tense and suggests that this commission has been established. If the commission were to be established the proper phrase would be "a commission to be established by a proposed agreement between the Government and the Government of the United Kingdom".

It may be that because it is not intended to complete Second Stage today and because the Bill, if it is ever passed, may not be passed until some time well in the future, the Minister may have in mind that agreement would have been entered into before the Bill is passed and a commission might then be established. However, as matters stand today, 17 December 1996, it is meaningless to refer to something as having been established when it does not exist. Neither the commission nor the agreement which would purport to set up the commission have been established. I do not think it is possible to legislate in those circumstances for such a situation.

Section 5 is more important than the others because it is substantive law, as opposed to simply power to make regulations. Although it may not have been the intention, it seems that all four of the requirements set out in paragraphs (a) to (d) of subsection (1) would have to be complied with. The word "or" should appear between each of those paragraphs because any one of them should be sufficient to give immunity to somebody handing up arms in those circumstances.

There are several references in the Bill to "the Secretary of State". However, "Secretary of State" is defined as "a Secretary of State in the Government of the United Kingdom" and not necessarily the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I do not know why that is the case and why he is referred to as "a Secretary of State" in one place and "the Secretary of State" in another.

The powers to make regulations are very widely cast and follow paragraphs 38 to 50, inclusive, of the Mitchell report. On that basis, neither I nor anybody else can reasonably object to them if and when the opportunity to implement all this ever comes about. When one reads the Mitchell report again after an interval of nearly 11 months after its publication, it stands up in many respects because it is a splendidly drafted document. However, there is a certain air of innocence about it. It is worth reminding ourselves that the rug was pulled from under the Mitchell principles within two or three weeks of the publication of the report by the resumption of hostilities and violence.

The British Government did that the day it was published.

That is perhaps more arguable than the effect of the clear resort to violence on 9 February at Canary Wharf and various subsequent events. The innocence which perhaps underlay some of the report is contained in paragraphs such as paragraph 13 which states: "Nobody should underestimate the value of the consensus for peace, and the fact that no significant group is actively seeking to end it" which, unfortunately, turned out not be the case. Paragraph 25 states: "We have concluded that there is a clear commitment on the part of those in possession of such arms to work constructively to achieve a full and verifiable decommissioning as part of the process of all party negotiations; but that commitment does not include decommissioning prior to such negotiations".

The part of this report which was latched onto by the British Government was paragraph 56 where the most conditional references were made to an elective process. There were three conditions — first, "If it were broadly acceptable"; second, "with an appropriate mandate", and third, "within the three strand structure" an elective process "could contribute to the building of confidence". The British Government sought to portray that as a recommendation for an election. The election, which was held in May, was a disaster from any point of view and moved the position backward rather than forward.

Decommissioning is dealt with in detail and, in general, with great common sense. However, we have to remind ourselves of the context in which this report was published. That was the context of cessation of formal violence at least at that time. The report was undermined some weeks later by a resumption of that formal violence. It is worth reminding ourselves that Mitchell spoke about more than just formal violence. He said in paragraph 52:

Support for the use of violence is incompatible with participation in the democratic process. The early termination of paramilitary activities, including surveillance and targeting, would demonstrate a commitment to peaceful methods and so build trust among other parties and alleviate the fears and anxieties of the general population. So, too, would the provision of information on the status of missing persons, and the return of those who have been forced to leave their communities under threat.

He also, in his six principals, expresses his abhorrence for and the unacceptability of socalled punishment beatings. Within the past couple of weeks in this House I had to draw attention to the fact that punishment beatings in this present year had quadrupled as against the number that took place in 1994, which is very unsatisfactory indeed. It demonstrates that formal decommissioning is only one aspect of this whole matter. In his report Mitchell draws attention to the fact that it is not likely to happen, that it will not happen in advance of talks and suggests a compromise. Most people would be very happy to accept the compromise that Mitchell proposed, but the context in which he made it has changed. It has changed by the resumption of violence, and therefore the opportunity to implement that compromise is also removed.

This Bill takes the opportunity of implementing what he calls the modalities of how decommissioning, if it were to arise, might take place under independent supervision. I agree that his recommendations are appropriate and suitable if the opportunity arises. This is one Bill that, although I am sure it will not be opposed in this House, may never become law; there is no point in it becoming law unless all parties remove from themselves the disqualification which they at present impose on themselves from taking part in the talks. If we have talks, and the talks are ongoing, then this decommissioning procedure can take place in parallel with them, as Mitchell suggested. It is a matter of great regret that Sinn Féin choose to disqualify themselves from participation in the talks. The opportunity given to them is one that should not be lightly cast aside. I hate to think what might be the ultimate outcome if the opportunity that now exists is not grasped by them. There will probably be changes in Britain during 1997. Uncertainties will arise about what might be the situation in the future. The window of opportunity is there at the moment, and I join with the Taoiseach, the Minister for Justice and many others inside this House and outside it on both sides of the Border who have called for common sense to prevail and for violence in all its forms to come to an end. It is not too much to ask people after such an extraordinary long period of violence to desist now when they see the opportunity offered to them of political progress.

This Bill is not terribly important in itself for the simple reason that it may never be enacted — there would be no point in enacting it ultimately unless the conditions that Mitchell envisaged existed. Whether they will ever exist again, I do not know. Let us hope they will. At least this is a minor legislative matter to enable the modalities of Mitchell to be implemented. What is more important than the modalities of Mitchell on decommissioning is the spirit of Mitchell and, in particular, the six democratic principles which he says should underlie the approach of any and every party to the problem. That is more important, and we should seek to use the opportunity we have now to try to urge the acceptance of those principles which are set out in paragraph 20 of Mitchell's report and which seem to be perfectly reasonable.

It might be no harm at this stage to repeat them briefly, because they are significant and useful and have withstood the passage of time. They will withstand the passage of time whatever other circumstances may exist in the future. They are that parties to such negotiations should affirm their total and absolute commitment:

a. To democratic and exclusively peaceful means of resolving political issues;

b. To the total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations;

c. To agree that such disarmament must be verifiable to the satisfaction of an independent commission;

d. To renounce for themselves, and to oppose any effort by others, to use force, or threaten to use force, to influence the course or the outcome of all-party negotiations;

e. To agree to abide by the terms of any agreement reached in all-party negotiations and to resort to democratic and exclusively peaceful methods in trying to alter any aspect of that outcome with which they may disagree; and,

f. to urge that "punishment" killings and beatings stop and to take effective steps to prevent such actions.

There has been widespread but not universal acceptance of those principles. In particular, the principles have not been accepted by Sinn Féin or the IRA. This House is entitled to ask why they have not been accepted and to urge their acceptance. If those principles, which are very reasonable, were accepted, a major step would be taken on the way to overcoming problems that beset this island, particularly the Northern part of it.

The Bill assists in a small way in the achievement or clarification of the second and third of those principles. However, what is important is the anxiety of those to whom they are addressed to accept them. The Bill is of minor importance, but I welcome it to the extent that it helps.

Debate adjourned.