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1996 - John Major’s Commons Statement on the Mitchell Report

Below is the text of Mr Major’s Commons Statement on the Northern Ireland Peace Process and the publication of the Mitchell Report. The statement was made in the House of Commons on 24th January 1996.


PRIME MINISTER:

The Prime Minister (Mr. John Major): With permission, Madam Speaker, I shall make a statement on the report of the international body on the decommissioning of illegal arms, which was published earlier today.

The key to progress in Northern Ireland is confidence--confidence to enable the parties to sit down together without threat of force. The retention of arms by the paramilitaries on both sides is the biggest single factor in holding back that confidence. It has so far prevented the holding of all-party talks. That is one of the reasons why we and the Irish Government established the international body, to provide an independent assessment of the decommissioning issue as one track of the twin-tracks initiative that John Bruton and I launched last November.

The body's remit was to identify and advise on acceptable methods of verifiable decommissioning, and then to report on the commitment of the paramilitaries to work constructively to achieve that. We set the body the challenging target of reporting by mid-January. I am extremely grateful to Senator Mitchell and his colleagues, the former Prime Minister of Finland, Harri Holkeri, and General John de Chartelain, for the energy and determination with which they have completed this difficult task.

The body's main conclusions are: first, that the total and verifiable disarmament of all paramilitary organisations has nearly universal support and must continue to be a principal objective; secondly, that to reach an agreed political settlement and take the gun out of politics, all parties should commit themselves to, and honour, six principles embodying the path of democracy and non-violence. These principles include the total and verifiable disarmament of all paramilitary organisations; the renunciation of force and the threat of force; agreement to abide peacefully by whatever agreement is finally reached; and an end to so-called punishment killings and beatings.

Thirdly, the body concludes that there is a clear commitment on the part of those in possession of illegal arms to work constructively to achieve full and verifiable decommissioning as part of the process of all- party negotiations. The body makes a series of recommendations on the modalities of decommissioning of illegal arms. It emphatically declares that there is no equivalence between such arms and those held by the security forces. It rightly emphasises the need for independent verification.

Fourthly, the body concludes that other confidence- building measures are needed, such as an end to targeting of potential victims by the paramilitaries, information on missing persons and the return of those previously intimidated out of their homes.

The body also records its conclusion, on the basis of its discussions, that the paramilitaries will not decommission any arms prior to all-party negotiations. The House will note that the body did not conclude that they cannot decommission; the body concluded that they will not, and the House will draw its own conclusions. Although the body makes no formal recommendation on this point, it suggests an approach under which some decommissioning would take place during the process of all-party negotiations.

The Government welcome the body's endorsement of the seriousness of the decommissioning issue. We welcome and fully endorse the six principles that it sets out. We call on each and every one of the parties to do the same, speedily and unequivocally.

If all concerned were to accept those principles, and honour them, as the international body also rightly emphasised, that would be a significant step forward. Even more significant would be if, in addition, all parties, particularly Sinn Fein, also joined the two Governments in supporting the wide principles of consent set out in the Downing street declaration.

The Government also welcome the body's broad recommendations on the modalities of the decommissioning process. We are ready to implement them. It is now for those in possession of illegal arms to say whether they will accept and act upon them. We look forward to an early and definitive response from the paramilitaries on both sides.

We welcome, too, the emphasis on other confidence-building measures. If the paramilitaries give up their present practice of keeping themselves ready for a return to action, that will be a most welcome sign of real commitment to peaceful methods. Otherwise, gun law continues to hang over the heads of the people in Northern Ireland.

There is therefore much in the report that we can welcome and endorse. But the practical problem remains--how to bring all the parties together. Self-evidently, the best way to generate the necessary confidence is for the paramilitaries to make a start on the decommissioning process. We see no reason why they should not do so.

There can be no justification for the maintenance of private armies by those who claim to be committed to exclusively peaceful means. Opinion polls in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have shown overwhelming public support in both communities for decommissioning before talks. We shall therefore keep up the pressure for an immediate start to the process.

However, I am not prepared to accept that any one group should, through its intransigence, stand in the way of peace and a comprehensive settlement for the people of Northern Ireland. We will not be deflected from our aim. It is now apparent that there may well be another way forward, consistent with the basic principles to which we have always adhered.

One of the confidence-building measures taken up by the international body is the idea of an election. The body made it clear that a broadly acceptable elective process, with an appropriate mandate and within the three-strand structure, could contribute to the building of confidence.

The Government believe that such an elective process offers a viable alternative direct route to the confidence necessary to bring about all-party negotiations. In that context, it is possible to imagine decommissioning and such negotiations being taken forward in parallel.

The election proposal originated in Northern Ireland and, as recent opinion polls have shown, has widespread cross-community support there. A number of parties, including those led by the hon. Members for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) and for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley), as well as the Alliance party, have put forward proposals for some form of elected body as a means of getting all parties talking together, even if the paramilitaries persist in their refusal to decommission prior to negotiation.

It is true that other parties have registered their concerns; they will certainly need to be addressed. We will discuss urgently with all the parties how to overcome them. But, in a democratic system such as ours, I cannot see how elections could be regarded by any of the parties either as a side issue or as a block to progress.

As the Mitchell report says:

      "Elections held in accordance with democratic principles express and reflect the popular will".

So let me make it quite clear to the House that we are ready to introduce legislation, and to seek both Houses' urgent approval for it, in order to allow such an elective process to go ahead as soon as may be practicable. I hope that this will attract support right across the House.

To sum up, we believe that, in the light of the Mitchell report, there are two ways in which all-party negotiations can now be taken forward. Both are fully consistent with the six principles set out in the report. The first is for the paramilitaries to make a start to decommissioning before all-party negotiations. They can--if they will. If not, the second is to secure a democratic mandate for all-party negotiations through elections specially for that purpose.

Those are two routes to all-party negotiations and to decommissioning. The choice between them is ultimately for the parties themselves. I believe that the people of Northern Ireland have every right to expect that one or other of those routes will be taken, and taken soon. For our part, we, together with the Irish Government, will intensify our discussions with the parties. I intend to meet the Taoiseach again in the middle of February to review progress.

The people of Northern Ireland are enjoying today's peace. They wish it to be permanent. They also want and deserve political progress. It is time to put the old enmities to one side, and to allow the people of Northern Ireland and their representatives once again to have a normal say in their future and their affairs.

The proposals that I have put forward today require all concerned to take risks for peace. We have done so before, and we will do so again. Consistent with our principles, we will pursue this process. That is what is needed if we are to build on the achievements of the past two years.

Let us never forget that we are dealing here with the lives of innocent men, women and children. We are dealing with their future, and with the future of Northern Ireland. In the end, our obligations as politicians--as the House of Commons--are to the people whom we govern.

I pledge that I will leave no stone unturned to deliver to the people of Northern Ireland, on a permanent basis, the precious privilege of peace that they have enjoyed for the past 17 months.