Northern Ireland: Abstentions as Ulster Bill clears House

Click to follow
THE NORTHERN Ireland Bill cleared in the Commons last night amid deep divisions exposed over the "failsafe" mechanisms aimed at ensuring decommissioning of terrorist weapons.

In eight hours of impassioned debate legislation was rushed through all its stages. It was given a third reading by 343 votes to 24, Government majority 319. David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader and his deputy John Taylor abstained in the final vote but 16 Tories, including Michael Howard, the former Home Secretary, voted against the legislation.

The Bill now goes to the Lords for two days of debate in an attempt to meet the Prime Minister's goal of achieving a transfer of power to a devolved, power-sharing Northern Ireland executive by Sunday.

Mo Mowlam, the Northern Ireland Secretary, had earlier urged opponents of the Bill to "take a risk" and trust that de-commissioning will happen. She told a hushed chamber that the Bill, which tightens the legal "failsafe" intended to guarantee disarmament by the IRA, was the "best chance for peace we have ever had".

But Ms Mowlam, who was flanked by Tony Blair, faced fierce criticism from David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, and by the Tories who argued that under the proposals democratic parties would be punished for any failure to de-commission by paramilitary groups.

The Bill was rushed through all its Commons stages in just one sitting last night despite claims from Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, that this was insufficient for such an important measure.

Under the legislation, the institutions will be suspended if either side breaches commitments on decommissioning or on devolving the institutions set up by the Good Friday Agreement. Northern Ireland would be returned to direct rule with the executive brought to an end.

The precise timetable for the decommissioning of paramilitary arms has been left to an independent decommissioning body headed by General John de Chastelain. Ms Mowlam said the Canadian general had made it clear "there will be a process of decommissioning within days of the devolution and there will be, within weeks, the first act of decommissioning".

To Tory shouts of "How long?" Ms Mowlam said: "Any suggestion in the past has been a token gesture. Why this, I believe, is the best option we have ever had to make real peace in Northern Ireland is it will be a timetable for complete decommissioning by May 2000.

"We will know who is serious. We will know which side isn't going to fulfil their agreements within weeks," she said.

But Roy Beggs, the Ulster Unionist MP for Antrim East, intervened to argue that the impression given was that she and others "had been prepared to turn a complete blind eye to murder, to beatings and mutilations and to the number of families that have been intimidated and driven out of the country".

Andrew Mackay, the Conservative Northern Ireland spokesman, complained that there was no specific timetable for decommissioning in the legislation. "To ask... my Unionist friends to sit in a devolved executive with ministers who represent paramilitaries that haven't begun to decommission is a very tall order," he said. He demanded that Sinn Fein should be automatically excluded from the executive if the IRA failed to decommission.

"I have never known a situation before where everybody is punished equally. Those who have done no wrong and have fulfilled their obligations are being punished in exactly the same way as those who fail to fulfil their obligations by not decommissioning. That cannot be fair and equitable," he said.

The opposition also wanted a halt to prisoner releases if any paramilitary group failed to decommission - to give an assurance to republicans that there would be loyalist decommissioning as well. "These are true failsafes that avoid a fudge," said Mr Mackay. The only way to get round the lack of trust on both sides was to provide "copper-bottomed guarantees in law".

Mr Trimble said the Prime Minister knew that Unionists were "reluctant" to take part in an executive with Sinn Fein in advance of decommissioning. "Our reluctance will be portrayed by some as an unwillingness to share in an administration with Catholics or nationalists. This is untrue."

He said his party did not even have an "absolute objection" to sitting down with past terrorists. "Our problem isn't with former terrorists. It's about taking an existing and active terrorist organisation into government. For that is what the Government now proposes."

He condemned the so-called failsafes as "flawed and unfair". It was unfair because if Sinn Fein broke its obligations then everyone in the executive was ejected from office. "The innocent are punished along with the guilty and the democrats are treated as if they were indistinguishable from the terrorists," said Mr Trimble.

"The fair response is that the offending party should be removed. If that was in the Bill it would go a long way to making it acceptable. But it is not."

Mr Trimble accused republicans of failing to move on the issue of decommissioning because they still had hopes of "bringing the entire republican movement into the heart of the Government. That would carry with it the danger of creating a mafia state and it would also retain, if only for a future generation, the option of using violence to finish the job."

To take a gamble on the present agreement would place an "enormous strain on society" but on Unionism in particular, he said.

John Hume, leader of the SDLP, denied that people of Northern Ireland expected different things when they voted for the Good Friday Agreement. "I do not think that there are two meanings to the word peace," he said.

John Major, the former prime minister, said: "We must not turn logic on its head. Democratic parties are part of the solution and not part of the problem." He described it as "perverse" that the Ulster Unionists were being asked to take one more risk for peace on the good faith of the IRA.

Mr Major, who initiated the peace process when he was in office, told the Commons that making peace could be a "messy business". Governments had been forced to deal with "unsavoury characters" in the past.