Arms Bill is `first step' to remove gun from politics


ENACTMENT of the Decommissioning Bill would be "the first step in a process which can and should lead to the removal of the gun for ever from the political equation in Ireland", the Minister for Justice said.

Mrs Owen was introducing the second stage of the Bill which, she said, had its origins in the introduction of a "twin-track" process for parallel decommissioning and all-party negotiations.

The work had involved consultation with the Northern Ireland Office, since both governments wanted to ensure a legislative framework which would permit a co-ordinated approach and 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."

The Government recognised that disarmament alone could not guarantee peace and would not decisively prevent a return to violence. "The broader guarantee that the peace process is irreversible must come from the political process, underpinned by a negotiated settlement."

The international body, including former Senator George Mitchell, recognised that decommissioning was closely related 19 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.

The Bill would introduce an amnesty linked to decommissioning. It would prohibit legal proceedings regarding arms, if the person concerned was engaged in decommissioning during a period set out in the Bill's regulations.

The forensic examination of arms would be prohibited, except where it was necessary to ensure safe handling.

The international body recommended guiding principles which determined the Bill's adopted approach. It should suggest neither victory nor defeat, take place to the satisfaction of an independent commission and result in complete destruction of armaments in a way that contributed to public safety, be fully verifiable, not expose individuals to prosecution, and should be mutual.

The Fianna Fail leader, Mr Bertie Ahern, said his reservations on the two governments' approach to the legislation related to its handling in a wider political context. He wanted to dispel any illusion that the issue could be put off or 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."

While he would not oppose the Bill, Fianna Fail would reserve its final position "according to whether we believe its passage will assist and facilitate the peace process or merely serve to further obstruct it".

"I would have liked to hear the Taoiseach say publicly in the US not only that he wanted a new unequivocal ceasefire, but also that he wanted the British government in that event to guarantee Sinn Fein's access to talks at an early date.

"The American public should be clearly told that it is not just the republican movement but the British government as well that is an obstacle to peace, a point well understood by the Irish public."

Mr Des O'Malley, Progressive Democrats spokesman on Northern Ireland, said the Bill was a minor legislative enabling measure which might never be enacted. The Mitchell report dealt with decommissioning at a time when there was a formal cessation of violence. "The report was undermined a few weeks later by the resumption of violence."

The debate was adjourned.