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Northern Ireland (Independent Monitoring Commission)

– in the House of Commons at 1:28 pm on 20th April 2004.

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Photo of Paul Murphy Paul Murphy The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland 1:28 pm, 20th April 2004

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about a report that I have received from the Independent Monitoring Commission concerning paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland.

Before I move to the substance of my statement, I should like to take this opportunity to condemn in the strongest terms yesterday's sending of suspect packages to two elected representatives in Northern Ireland, Mr. Robinson and Mr. Alex Attwood. I am sure that the whole House will join me in those sentiments. Police investigations into those incidents are continuing.

As the House will recall, the Independent Monitoring Commission was set up by an international agreement, supported by legislation that we passed in this place last year. It is composed of four distinguished members: John Grieve, former assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan police and Lord Alderdice, formerly presiding officer of the Northern Ireland Assembly, who were both nominated by the British Government; Mr. Joseph Brosnan, formerly secretary of the Irish Department of Justice, who was nominated by the Irish Government; and Mr. Dick Kerr, formerly deputy director of central intelligence in the United States, who was nominated by the US Administration.

Last Wednesday, the British and Irish Governments received the commission's first report. I am today laying it before the House as I am required to do by law. Copies will be available in the Vote Office at the conclusion of my statement.

The report is concerned with the continuing activities of paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland. The commission had originally expected to produce it in the early summer, but at the request of the Governments, it has brought forward its production. At the request of the Governments, in the context of its wider analysis, the report also specifically addresses the incident at Kelly's Cellars, Belfast, on 20 February 2004. That event, as the House will recall, caused profound controversy in Northern Ireland, which has in turn disrupted the conduct of the review of the operation of the Good Friday agreement that began earlier this year.

We are most grateful to the commission for advancing its report, which has clearly involved a great deal of work by all concerned. Notwithstanding the pressures of time, I believe that it has produced a very thorough and far-reaching report. Both Governments accept the commission's conclusions and recommendations.

The commission states that the situation is now much better than it was in past years, but it finds that paramilitary activity is at a disturbingly high level on the part of both republican and loyalist groups. I quote from the report:

"On the basis of reported figures—which, especially for assaults, may not reflect the full picture—the scale of paramilitary violence since 1 January 2003 has been worryingly high: approaching one murder a month; some three victims a week both from shootings and from assaults."

It goes on to state that two parties represented in the Assembly, Sinn Fein and the Progressive Unionist party, have links with paramilitary groups. It is clear from the report that senior politicians are in a position to exercise significant influence over their activities.

The commission also expresses its belief that the incident in Belfast on 20 February was the responsibility of the Provisional IRA. It urges elected politicians in Northern Ireland to commit themselves to supporting the rule of law and the criminal justice institutions and says that, in the absence of a sitting Northern Ireland Assembly, it is not possible for it to make recommendations on measures that the Assembly itself might consider taking in response to its report. However, it makes it clear that

"had the Assembly now been functioning, we would have recommended in respect of Sinn Fein and the Progressive Unionist Party measures up to and possibly including exclusion from office."

In the absence of a sitting Assembly, however, it recommends that I

"should consider taking action in respect of the salary of Assembly members and/or the funding of Assembly parties, so as to impose an appropriate financial measure in respect of Sinn Fein and the Progressive Unionist Party."

When we debated the legislation relating to the commission last year in this House, I made it clear that the Government believed it very important that its recommendations should be given effect, and said that, in circumstances where it had made recommendations but action had not been taken, I would be able to use the powers of last resort granted to me by that legislation to take action myself in line with such recommendations.

In the light of that, and having considered the report, I am persuaded that it would be right to remove for a period the entitlement to the block financial assistance paid to Assembly parties in respect of both Sinn Fein and the Progressive Unionist party, and I propose to do so next Wednesday, 28 April. I have therefore today made an order under the urgency procedure, amending the Northern Ireland Act 1998 as amended by the legislation that we passed last year, to allow me to take this step in the absence of a sitting Assembly. It will also permit me to act to reduce Members' salaries should I see fit to do so in the light of a future IMC report. I will, however, in line with the legal requirement on me to act fairly, take account of any representations that I receive by next Tuesday from the two parties concerned before reaching a final decision.

The commission's other recommendations, all of which the British Government endorse, include that paramilitary groups must cease all forms of criminal activity; and that all politicians and others in prominent roles must exert every possible influence to bring about a cessation of paramilitary activity. I hope that this report, and the firm but carefully measured action that the Government are taking in response to it, will underline that it is essential that all paramilitary activity, from whatever quarter, should cease fully and completely. The commission's next report on paramilitary activity will be able to test whether that has happened, and if not, whether further action is needed. In the meantime, the Government remain firmly committed to the idea that political progress can be achieved only through dialogue. I shall continue to meet all the parties in Northern Ireland to explore how we can achieve the basis for a restoration of the devolved institutions.

In the context of the review, a number of interesting proposals have already been made. There is still much to discuss, but the report underlines starkly what steps need to be taken if we are genuinely to move forward to stable and inclusive devolved government. I must reiterate what the Prime Minister, the Taoiseach and others have said on many occasions: all paramilitary activity must come to an end if there is to be a stable future for devolved government in Northern Ireland. That is what the Prime Minister spelled out when he talked of acts of completion. It is what both Governments made clear in paragraph 13 of the joint declaration. The commission recognises in its report that violence and the threat of violence can have no part in democratic politics.

The Independent Monitoring Commission has a vital role to play in securing that development and underpinning it once devolved government is re-established. It has, through the report, demonstrated its impartiality, its competence and its willingness to speak the truth, even when it is uncomfortable to do so. I believe that the whole House will be grateful to it.

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

First, I associate myself with the Secretary of State's condemnation of the attacks yesterday on Mr. Robinson and Mr. Alex Attwood. Those events were a sobering reminder to us all of the risks borne and the courage shown daily by democratic politicians in Northern Ireland—both Unionist and nationalist. I also thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of the statement, and pay tribute to the work of the Independent Monitoring Commission and the quality of its report, which has been produced within a very short period.

The report provides a stark and truthful analysis of what is happening in Northern Ireland. There are no euphemisms in it. All the main organisations—the IRA, the Ulster Volunteer Force, the Ulster Defence Association—remain armed, active and capable of full-scale terrorist activity if they so choose. As the Secretary of State said, there is some good news—the number of murders, bombings and attacks on security forces has decreased—but, as the commission says on page 25,

"the level of other paramilitary violence has been and continues to be considerably higher than before the Belfast Agreement."

It goes on to conclude that

"the leadership of the paramilitary groups is directing, rather than seeking to prevent" that violence.

Perhaps most startling of all to those of us who live and work in England and other parts of Great Britain is the commission's conclusion that if the level of violence experienced in Northern Ireland were extrapolated to the United Kingdom as a whole, since the beginning of January 2003 there would have been 375 murders, 6,300 victims of shooting and 5,700 assault victims.

I have a number of questions for the Secretary of State. Before I deal with the sanctions, I ask him to confirm that the Government intend that paramilitary violence and the organised crime that supports and funds it be met with the full force of law. On 24 July 2002, the Secretary of State's predecessor announced that the Attorney-General was to examine on the Government's behalf whether changes in police powers and the criminal law were needed

"to facilitate successful prosecution for acts of terrorism, violence and organised crime."—[Hansard, 24 July 2002; Vol. 389, c. 984.]

What has happened to that work over the past year and a half? Will the Secretary of State also confirm that there can be no question of security normalisation while paramilitary violence continues as described by the IMC?

On sanctions, we shall support the action that the Secretary of State proposes to take—I hope that he will say for how long he intends to cut off funds from both Sinn Fein and the Progressive Unionist party—but can he really be satisfied that today's announcement is sufficient? Frankly, if Sinn Fein is to sacrifice its Northern Ireland Assembly funding because of its links with paramilitary violence, it is surely outrageous for Sinn Fein Members to continue to enjoy both access to and allowances for the House of Commons. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] Will any financial penalty make much of a difference to paramilitary organisations that, according to the IMC and the Minister for Justice in the Irish Republic, are reaping millions of pounds from drug trafficking and other forms of gangsterism?

So, will the Secretary of State consider additional action? In view of the report's evidence of violence by the paramilitaries, will the Government consider—as we have asked them to do before—specifying the Provisional IRA under the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998? In his statement, the Secretary of State rightly spoke of the responsibilities of those Northern Ireland politicians with influence over paramilitary groups. Does he share my profound concern on learning that Mr. McGuinness, when speaking in County Tyrone on Easter Sunday, paid tribute to the role that IRA volunteers had played

"and continue to play in the struggle for Irish freedom"?

The Secretary of State knows that the Taoiseach of the Irish Republic has consistently and trenchantly stated that so long as Sinn Fein remains linked to paramilitary violence, it cannot be a fit partner in a coalition Government in the Irish Republic. In the light of the conclusions of today's IMC report, surely the Government must now accept that the principle that is right for a Government in Dublin must be right for the formation of an Executive in Belfast.

Photo of Paul Murphy Paul Murphy The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's welcome for the statement and for the IMC's report, and I certainly agree that the figures in it are startling. On the force of law bearing down on people who commit such crimes, he may rest assured that the Chief Constable is doing a very good job in that respect. Our Organised Crime Task Force is working extremely well, and I hope that the Assets Recovery Agency will deal with the assets of paramilitaries as soon as possible. Between April 2003 and February this year, 139 loyalists and 80 republicans were charged with serious terrorist and public order offences. In the past year, six individuals have received long sentences for extortion. Other convictions have been secured for armed robbery and drug offences, and fuel-laundering plants have been dismantled and illegal fuel seized. The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that normalisation as it appears in the joint declaration document cannot happen unless there are acts of completion.

On sanctions, the hon. Gentleman will of course recall that when the relevant legislation was going through this House, it was the statement and belief of this Government that, whatever the Independent Monitoring Commission recommended, it would be very difficult to envisage a situation in which we would not accept it. On this occasion, we certainly do accept the IMC's recommendations and conclusions—as, indeed, do the Irish Government.

The important point to emphasise is that if the Assembly had been operating, the IMC would have recommended something up to, and possibly including, exclusion from office. We do not know exactly what the IMC would have recommended because, as it is aware, the Assembly is not up and running; but it certainly would have considered such action.

So far as the term of the penalty—the sanction—is concerned, there is no particular end. We can renew the order after a year, so there is no limit. I intend to look at the situation after six months, because that is when the IMC will next report. So, for six months, no allowances will be paid in that respect. Obviously, this is a matter for the Commons to consider, but whatever the sanctions, it is very important that they represent and reflect society's disapproval of, and public displeasure at, what has happened.

Although these revelations are startling and sometimes very dramatic, I still hope that the devolved institutions can be restored as soon as possible, and that that will include all parties. I hope, too, that Sinn Fein and the Progressive Unionist party will be involved in discussions on how we achieve that—but we must of course see an end to paramilitary activity.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

The Liberal Democrats also welcome the Independent Monitoring Commission's report and its detailed analysis of what has been going on. I was interested to hear the Secretary of State say, "Both Governments accept the commission's conclusions and recommendations." I am pleased to hear it; indeed, they had little alternative. On the financial penalties that might be incurred by political organisations associated with paramilitaries, it seems appropriate, as my colleague Lord Smith of Clifton has said many times, that a financial penalty be imposed for not participating more overtly in the peace process.

I want to ask some questions concerning the Government's commitment to responding to the IMC's recommendations and conclusions with action. The IMC's report details a wide range of illegal activities committed by a number of organisations. Given that those activities undermine the democratic process and the rule of law, will the report alter the Government's definition of a ceasefire? In the light of the IMC's comments, do the Government intend to change their approach to peace process discussions with parties linked to named paramilitary organisations, or do they intend to carry on as if nothing has happened? Was the postponement of the Lancaster House talks related to the contents of the IMC's report? In the light of that postponement, will the Secretary of State clarify the status of the review?

Are the Government expecting to have any meaningful discussions this side of the European elections? Given that the IMC has been able to recommend only rather weak sanctions, in the form of financial penalties, what plans do the Government have to review the powers of the body, specifically in the context of a suspension?

We all know that Northern Ireland politics is characterised by long periods of negotiation and, it has to be said, a degree of pragmatism. However, does the Secretary of State accept that, unless the Government show themselves willing to act on the recommendations of the IMC, opportunism and a lack of respect for political institutions will continue to be additional ingredients in the mix?

Photo of Paul Murphy Paul Murphy The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

Obviously, the report is disturbing. Equally, it is important to carry on with the process of trying to achieve a stable and proper democracy in Northern Ireland—based on the operation of devolved institutions, together with the peace process. We must do so with all the political parties in Northern Ireland. We always knew that, after the signing of the Good Friday agreement, it would be a difficult road, as has proved to be the case.

Today we are dealing specifically with a report on paramilitary activity, and the hon. Gentleman asked two questions. One was about the ceasefire; it is interesting to note what the IMC says about it. It underlines

"the importance of moving the debate on from one about ceasefires and breaches of ceasefires to one about the totality of illegal paramilitary activities. Though many fewer are murdered, many more are being shot or assaulted."

The legal definition of a ceasefire remains the same, and we do not judge that there has been a breach, but that should not in any way suggest that what we are dealing with today is any less significant, because the reality of the impact on people's lives in Northern Ireland is, as the information in the report shows, far greater. The conclusions on the effect of so-called punishment paramilitary shootings on the individuals assaulted and their families are devastating.

As to the talks, we came to the conclusion that we had not really made sufficient preparation to conduct them in the next week or two; if we did conduct them, they would not be meaningful talks. The talks likely to occur over the next couple of weeks will not be as intensive or high-powered as we originally envisaged, but we should certainly continue to examine areas considered in the review. We have examined strand 1, but not strands 2 or 3 of the agreement. The Northern Ireland political parties, in common with those in Great Britain, are moving towards a period of election activity, which will inevitably have an impact on what happens over the next couple of weeks. However, we will return to intensive talks as we move forward into the summer. In the meantime, I will talk to all the parties. There is a formal meeting tomorrow of the British and Irish Governments, who will be able to consider in greater detail the points that the hon. Gentleman raised.

Photo of Mr Seamus Mallon Mr Seamus Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party, Newry and Armagh

It is right that the report reminds us that it is now 10 years since the first IRA ceasefire and six years since the Good Friday agreement was signed. It provides confirmation, if we needed it, that we are still in the stranglehold of paramilitary violence and organised crime. It comes as no surprise to many of us, particularly those who live in Northern Ireland, that the report is as stark as it is.

I would like the Secretary of State to clarify one matter. The commission was charged with assessing whether the political leadership of those connected with paramilitary organisations were complicit in, condoning, supporting or allowing violence and organised crime. If the report specifically fulfils the mandate from Parliament to make that assessment—like many others, I look forward to reading it—and finds that that is so, the type of petty-cash penalties specified are risible and will be an embarrassment not just to the Government but to the political process.

My poor mathematical mind has worked out that the type of organised heist of cigarettes that took place in my constituency at Christmas would pay those penalties for 22 years. I ask the Secretary of State and the Irish Government to consider the matter sincerely in that light. If the Independent Monitoring Commission makes such an assessment, we should not waste time on tokenism. To the richest party in western Europe, those penalties mean nothing. They are like levying fines on a rich footballer—nothing more, nothing less. I view this as tokenism—well meaning and for the right reasons, which will perhaps have a peripheral effect. The reality is that until the two Governments, Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist party are able to come to terms about the continuation of violence, we will be working at the edges, not getting to the heart of the problem.

I am always loth to give anyone advice, not least my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, but after 30-odd years of watching attempts to solve the problem, I say sincerely let us not waste time on scratching at the surface. We have wasted too much time already, and there is precious little to waste.

Photo of Paul Murphy Paul Murphy The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I understand my hon. Friend's frustration about the sanctions, but I repeat two points that I made in the statement. First, we are putting into effect the recommendation of the commission itself, and we made it clear that the Government would do whatever the IMC recommended. Secondly, I know that the House would agree with the important point that, if the Assembly were up and running, it would have been a different picture. Recommendations would have been made up to and possibly including exclusion from office, but that does not apply because the Assembly is not sitting.

My hon. Friend expresses a view that most people in Northern Ireland know: these activities are going on. However, it has now been formally acknowledged by an independent and international body that those activities are indeed going on and disrupting the peace process.

Part 7 of the report is entitled "Leadership of Paramilitary Groups" and I shall quote a few sentences from it because they relate to my hon. Friend's point. Paragraph 7.5 states:

"We recognise that there might not have been a PIRA ceasefire in the first place without influence from the leadership of Sinn Fein. By the same token Sinn Fein must bear its responsibility for the continuation by PIRA of illegal paramilitary activity and must recognise the implications of being in this position."

It goes on to say:

"While we are satisfied that the Progressive Unionist Party and others exerted a positive influence in achieving the loyalist ceasefires we believe it has not sufficiently discharged its responsibility to exert all possible influence to prevent illegal activities on the part of the UVF and the RHC."

Photo of Ian Paisley Ian Paisley Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party

This report is very important. I thank the Secretary of State for what he said about my colleague, my hon. Friend Mr. Robinson, and Mr. Alex Attwood. We all know in Northern Ireland that public and elected figures run the gauntlet and we know not what a day may bring forth. It is right that the House take note of that at all times.

What worries me—it evidently also worries Mr. Mallon, who takes a different view from me of the present troubles—is the problem of delaying, delaying and delaying. We should not have had to wait for this report. The police had done their work and discovered who was behind one of the incidents that took place. Instead of the police dealing with law and order in a proper way, the matter was shelved off to the commission. Will the Secretary of State explain why the Government wanted it shelved off even longer? Those people acted speedily on their own initiative because the Government set them a date a bit later in the year. Why did they do so? Do the Government not want to face up to those facts?

The good thing about the report is that it deals with loyalist violence—so-called—and with IRA violence. I suggest that Members look at page 22 to find out exactly where we are today with that paramilitarism and its awful aggression.

Something else worries me. Can sanctions be taken against terrorists by introducing a murder tax? That is exactly what the Government are trying to do—introduce a murder tax. The Secretary of State even said that the report's suggestions in that regard were appropriate. I do not think they are appropriate at all. If a man is murdered, do we tell the people who are weeping, "Oh aye, but we are taking back the money that we have already paid out"? What sort of nonsense is that? Are we to play soullessly with the blood of innocent people? This is not the time for doing sums and taking back money that the Government have already paid. Those people are losing nothing—in fact, we heard from the southern Irish Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform that they are bringing in millions from other sources. Surely, the time has come when we should face up to the fact that there can be no murder tax.

There is only one remedy: if people do not keep to the rules that govern the talks, they cannot be in the talks. If I did not keep the rules, the Secretary of State would have me out on my ear. I remember that, because I had not signed a paper at the beginning of the talks, it was moved that I be put out of the room immediately—but not so the IRA, not so Sinn Fein. We need proper sanctions. If we cannot have proper sanctions through the Assembly, the Secretary of State must legislate in the House to ensure that those who do not keep to the rules cannot take part in the negotiations. That is the final arbitration.

Until that is done—think of it!—those men can come into this House and strut around these Corridors, yet nothing will be said to them. Why was something not done about that? Does the House condone what those people are doing when it gives them the run of this place? Why was the House not even mentioned in any of the sanctions?

What about the sanctions relating to Stormont? The only appropriate action that the Secretary of State can take is to say, "You are not in the talks". The leader of the official Unionist party made three efforts to bring those people in—

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman should bring his comments to a conclusion.

Photo of Ian Paisley Ian Paisley Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party

All I wanted to say was that those people were brought in, but did it convert them? No. They are at their same old game—going on with their murders. The time has come to call a stop. I welcome what Mr. Mallon said today; it shows that there is agreement on both sides of the House that action, not words, is needed.

Photo of Paul Murphy Paul Murphy The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I think that the House is very much aware that, despite what we read in the report, Northern Ireland is an infinitely better place in which to live and work than it was 10 years ago, because of the agreement and the advances that we have made since. I have no doubt about that. We no longer have the terrible bomb outrages or the number of murders that we saw in the past, but today we have to deal with something that seriously undermines progress towards a political settlement and the peace and tranquillity of people in Northern Ireland. I do not for one second underestimate the significance of that.

We always indicated that we would act on the recommendations of an independent body. The commission is an independent body—not a Government, but an independent body with international representation—and therefore has different status, which is why we are putting its recommendations into effect. I repeat that were the Assembly up and running there would be different recommendations.

The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that the report highlights loyalist and republican violence equally, right across the board in Northern Ireland. In all honesty, there is no correlation between a death—a murder—and any form of sanction. This is not a murder tax, but one way in which we can express our disapproval of what has occurred.

What is much more significant is that, when people read this dispassionate report by independent experts who have no axe to grind, they will see that the situation set out in the report—drug trafficking, extortion, racketeering, smuggling of fuel and cigarettes and, worse, murder, assaults and shootings—no longer applies. That is what the report outlines. Although people in Northern Ireland already know that such things go on, the fact that they are set out in that official report gives its contents great weight.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. May I ask for shorter contributions from Members, so that more of them can question the Secretary of State?

Photo of Kate Hoey Kate Hoey Labour, Vauxhall

The Secretary of State must realise that, although fewer people are being killed these days, if that level of violence and that scale of murder were occurring across the United Kingdom it would be unthinkable for Members to talk about doing so little as taking away a small amount of money that people did not need. What is the Secretary of State's personal view about the fact that IRA-Sinn Fein Members are allowed to come into this House and use its facilities and receive its benefits? Surely, he could take a lead on that; he could say that the House should vote again and take those benefits away. Given the position of the whole IRA-Sinn Fein party and the fact that we have other democratic parties with large majorities, why cannot we go ahead with talks that involve everyone, including the Social Democratic and Labour party, the mainstream Unionists, the Democratic Unionist party and all the other parties that are signed up to peaceful means, and get the Assembly going again with the people who want to be in it—not those who are holding things up because they are into violence?

Photo of Paul Murphy Paul Murphy The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

The talks will go ahead; they have not stopped. The intensive talks that the two Prime Ministers were to lead will not now take place over the next couple of weeks, but further down the line. As I indicated in a previous answer, our view is that we are not yet prepared for that sort of negotiation and discussion. However, that does not mean for one second that we shall not continue to talk about the issues—for example, those we raised some weeks ago in Parliament Buildings about how to deal with the north-south arrangements, the operation of the Assembly and the number of Ministers and so on. All those issues can still be discussed and we shall continue so to do. It is important to understand, however, that unless we get to grips with the issues identified in the report we shall never reach a permanent, settled situation in Northern Ireland, whereby we can have a permanent devolved Administration.

I think that there is a great appetite among people in Northern Ireland for the return of devolution. I am absolutely convinced of that and no one is sadder than I am that it is not yet the case, but we have to keep trying to resolve the difficulties. Even if the parties that are not involved with paramilitary groups were talking to one another—as my hon. Friend Kate Hoey described—we should still have to resolve the problems outlined in the report. We have to see an end to paramilitary activity, and it is vital that that occurs alongside the discussions for a political settlement.

On my hon. Friend's point about the House of Commons, I repeat that the whole purpose in setting up an independent commission was it would have legitimacy, which I hope everyone can accept, so that its recommendations would be agreed. Obviously, we shall listen to the comments made by my hon. Friend and other Members and will come back to them at a future stage.

Photo of Rt Hon David Trimble Rt Hon David Trimble Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party

Is it not a pity that we did not have the report two years ago when we first proposed such a body?

I welcome especially the reference in the report to the IMC's willingness to exclude from office. May I ask the Secretary of State to comment specifically on that? Will the Government now support such action?

As has been said, there is a weakness: the IMC cannot sanction organisations without political representation. That omission is particularly glaring with regard to the Ulster Defence Association, which is a major offender in terms of continuing violence. But does not the Secretary of State have the power to act under the prisoner release legislation? Would not such action be better than the proposed financial penalties?

Finally, I am sorry that next week's talks have been cancelled. Was the cancellation caused by the fact that, after the action that the Government have announced today, some parties were perhaps unwilling to attend?

Photo of Paul Murphy Paul Murphy The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

It is not a cancellation; it is a postponement. Intensive talks dealing with such matters will take place nearer the summer.

With regard to the point about exclusion, the right hon. Gentleman will know that we made it clear on the Floor of the House—I did so earlier today—that if the IMC recommended a course of action, it would be very difficult for me to envisage a situation where we would not accept that, irrespective of whether it included exclusion. We would obviously have to consider that recommendation if it were made. The IMC has not recommended that. It said that it might have done so if the Assembly had been up and running.

Again, on the prisoner release legislation, I return to the point that, yes, we could do all sorts of things, but the purpose of that body is to make specific recommendations to the Government to deal with the issue. The report does the great service of highlighting what the situation is in Northern Ireland today to people—not just those in Northern Ireland, but those in Great Britain, too, and in Ireland—who may not have studied these things as closely and carefully as hon. Members do.

Photo of Mr Iain Luke Mr Iain Luke Labour, Dundee East

My right hon. Friend is correct to suggest that there has been a movement away from the violence that we saw in previous years, but the statistics are still startling—one death a month and three beatings or shootings a week—and the number of deaths would have doubled in February but for the swift intervention at Kelly's Cellars. Will my right hon. Friend undertake to pass the report to the Leader of the House and the appropriate House authorities, so that proper sanctions can be considered with regard to the access and allowances granted to one of the parties, whose members have access to the House but do not take their seats? There could then be a true set of sanctions to enable a realisation that we can achieve a true dialogue in Northern Ireland only by a complete withdrawal from supporting groups with terrorist aims.

Photo of Paul Murphy Paul Murphy The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I have already indicated that I will certainly pass on my hon. Friend's views and those of other hon. Members who have expressed their views with regard to the House of Commons. Of course, the IMC's members will be able to read in Hansard what the House has discussed today.

With regard to my hon. Friend's emphasis on continued paramilitary violence, he is right to suggest that such violence causes us great worry. What has disturbed me over the past few months is that, each time that I go into the office, the number of so-called paramilitary shootings and so-called paramilitary punishment beatings has gone up and up on both sides, and there is no place for that in a modern democracy.

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan Conservative, Blaby

I welcome the statement by the Secretary of State, for whom I have great respect. This is a major change of direction in Government policy in Northern Ireland. By accepting the IMC's report and by taking such action, the Government are accepting the principle, beyond peradventure, that the leadership of Sinn Fein and other paramilitary organisations are directly responsible for the direction of paramilitary violence. I am delighted to hear him say that, because everyone has known that for a very long time.

Will the right hon. Gentleman pursue the logic of that position? Will he enforce all aspects of the Belfast agreement, which came into effect nearly six years ago? Will he ensure that, for instance, there is total decommissioning before we have further negotiations with Sinn Fein and others? Will he ensure that no Adams or McGuinness walks these Corridors and draws parliamentary allowances—public money—to further their evil causes? Will he now stand up, as I believe he would wish to, and force the paramilitaries either to accept the Belfast agreement or to be excluded from it altogether?

Photo of Paul Murphy Paul Murphy The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I do not think that the Government have changed their view on what the report says about paramilitary activity. We have always indicated that we thought that such activity was the great stumbling block to progress. Of course, the hon. Gentleman is also right to point to decommissioning. That, too, is an important issue, which the Belfast agreement addressed, but which had not been addressed properly over the past few months. However, if political parties—whether Sinn Fein or the Progressive Unionist party—wish to progress their political ends in a peaceful and democratic manner, those are legitimate aims for which those parties rightly appeal to the electorate in Northern Ireland. Of course, Sinn Fein increased the number of its members of the Assembly, and the Progressive Unionist party still has a representative in the Assembly. By no means do I dismiss the importance of those political parties to the process—they are immensely important, and there must be an inclusive peace process, but that must be divorced from violence in all its forms.

Photo of David Burnside David Burnside UUP, South Antrim

If I was, God forbid, Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness or, more appropriately today, Slab Murphy, or a brigadier in the Ulster Volunteer Force or the Ulster Defence Association and I was going over the past 12 months' accounts of the criminal empire that I controlled, I would be laughing. I would have a smirk on my face, and I would say, "The British and the Irish Governments—my God, aren't they tough? Haven't they really taken us on?" We are talking about a few thousand pounds for a multi-million pound empire, whether in south Armagh, the UDA or the UVF.

The Government have a choice today: they can use the report and move in one direction; or they can take the report and be laughed and smirked at by the brigadiers and the members of the army council of the IRA. If only a few thousand quid of the Assembly salaries is involved, with no action in Westminster, they will continue to laugh. The Government must take strong measures. The punishment must fit the crime, and the crime and terrorism continue right across all the so-called loyalist bodies and the Provisional IRA. I hope that the Secretary of State will consider moving towards the total expulsion of Sinn Fein and the loyalist paramilitary front organisations from the political process, so that the democrats can move ahead. That is what will frighten the paramilitaries; they are not frightened today, Secretary of State.

Photo of Paul Murphy Paul Murphy The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I have indicated on more than one occasion, in many ways it is not a financial penalty or sanction which is the important issue. Although that is important, it is not so important as the fact that the independent body—made up of internationally recognised people—has now been able to tell the world what is going on in Northern Ireland in a very special way. All of us as politicians in one form or another over the past few years have said more or less the same thing, but that has now been done formally by an independent commission that was set up by two Parliaments and two Governments, so that the world now knows that these are serious issues that need to be addressed.

Photo of Nigel Dodds Nigel Dodds Opposition Whip (Commons)

Is not the report a savage indictment of those who as recently as last October were praising the words of Sinn Fein-IRA leaders and getting ready to admit IRA-Sinn Fein to government, not for the first time, not for the second time, not for the third time, but for the fourth time in Northern Ireland, following another so-called decommissioning event? Is not the fundamental lesson that, six years after the Belfast agreement, democracy in Northern Ireland cannot be held to ransom any longer?

The Secretary of State says that, if the Assembly were up and running, other measures would be taken, up to and including the exclusion of Sinn Fein-IRA. Is it not now the time to move ahead with the political process, including the talks, without Sinn Fein-IRA, applying the analogy as though the Assembly were up and running? Let us move forward without them. Let us go forward with those who are committed to exclusively peaceful and democratic means. Let us stop, in the words of Mr. Mallon, wasting time on laughable fines that will be dismissed out of hand by everyone in Northern Ireland. Let us get on with the democratic parties and find a way forward with those who want to make progress in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Paul Murphy Paul Murphy The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

One of the ways forward is to try to stop the activities that are outlined in the report. That has to happen, too. I have given some indication to the House about the way in which the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the Organised Crime Task Force and so on have successfully dealt with those issues. Of course, much still needs to be done and we must carry on along those lines, but there is an important job of work to be done to ensure that we see an end to such activity, so that we can have an inclusive process in Northern Ireland. Now, at the end of the day, if what the hon. Gentleman wants is to come about, it will still have to do so on the basis of an agreement between nationalism and Unionism for it to work.