Peace Process

Oral Answers to Questions — Northern Ireland – in the House of Commons at 11:30 am on 23rd February 2005.

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Photo of Siôn Simon Siôn Simon Labour, Birmingham, Erdington

When he last met Irish Government Ministers to discuss the Northern Ireland peace process.

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

The Government's ultimate goal remains the restoration of an inclusive power-sharing Executive in Northern Ireland. However, both we and the Irish Government are clear that the main obstacle to achieving this is the Provisional IRA's continued involvement in criminal activity.

I keep in close contact with the Irish Government to discuss ways of moving the process forward and will be meeting them again next week at the British-Irish intergovernmental conference to review the position.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Shadow Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

May I suggest to the Secretary of State that the identification by the Irish Justice Minister of Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams as members of the IRA council alters the political landscape in Northern Ireland, that our priority in that altered landscape should be the promotion of democracy and accountability, and that we should therefore be willing to consider new options, including the recall of the Assembly, without Sinn Fein in the Executive if it cannot meet the required standards?

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

As I said earlier, the Government's ultimate aim must be that which the people of Northern Ireland expressed when they voted for the Good Friday agreement and an inclusive Executive. However, the hon. Gentleman makes a valid point that the trust and confidence simply does not exist at the moment in Northern Ireland to establish that inclusive Executive. We have examined alternative ways of allowing people in Northern Ireland to increase the accountability of Ministers and ensure that the democratic deficit is tackled. However, any solution requires cross-community support from nationalists and Unionists. That is not always easy to obtain.

Photo of Siôn Simon Siôn Simon Labour, Birmingham, Erdington

My right hon. Friend knows that communities such as Erdington and Kingstanding in my constituency, which has one of the highest concentrations of people of Irish origin anywhere in Britain, in a city that marked before Christmas the 30th anniversary of one of the worst and most despicable terrorist outrages in Britain, feel profoundly powerless and frustrated at such times. What promises can he offer such diaspora communities of two steps forward when all they seem to hear about from London, Dublin and Belfast is one big step back?

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

There is no point in trying to underestimate the difficulties that we currently face in the process through the Northern bank robbery and continued criminality on the part of the IRA. However, it is also important to look at the bigger picture, examine what has happened in the past decade and realise that Northern Ireland is a better place in which to live and work. For example, the latest employment figures in Northern Ireland are the best ever. More people are in work there than ever before. People enjoy a standard of living and quality of life that they never previously experienced. We cannot underestimate the problems with the political process but we must appreciate the enormous progress that has been made in Northern Ireland in the past decade.

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

Does the Secretary of State realise that the position that he has adopted is tantamount to saying that the IRA will have a veto over the creation or resumption of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the implementation of the agreement? If he continues to adopt that position, there is no prospect of progress. Indeed, he will have to move from it before we have any chance of progress. Does he not also ignore the fact that the people who supported the agreement in the referendum voted for parties to adopt peaceful and democratic means, which Sinn Fein and its linked organisations refuse to do? The agreement provided for consequences in such circumstances, but the Secretary of State is obstructing them. Is it not time that he thought the matter through clearly?

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

I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman is accurate when he says that I have adopted a position in the rigid fashion that he suggests. He knows that I said yesterday that we have ruled nothing out or in and that we are considering all the different options. I appreciate that the right hon. Gentleman knows much more than me about the difficulties of making something work after the restoration of an Assembly. I do not say for one second that an Assembly should not be restored in Northern Ireland if we believed that we could get such a body to work and to produce an Executive that would be representative of the entire community in Northern Ireland, with nationalists as well as Unionists on it. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we have not ruled out the different suggestions that he and other political parties in Northern Ireland have made in recent weeks. However, none of us must forget that the central obstacle is the problem of criminal activity by the IRA. We have to deal with that. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be reassured that we have not ruled out his suggestion or others that might be presented in the House and during the political talks in Northern Ireland.

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

Does the Secretary of State agree that the single greatest obstacle preventing criminality from being dealt with is the inability to protect people who want to give evidence but cannot because of the paramilitary might that surrounds them? Does he agree that while other things are not possible at present, one thing is possible and should be required of every political party that will be involved in any future negotiations? Should not all those parties now join the Policing Board, so that the Police Service can protect the only people who can end criminality—the people on the ground?

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

My hon. Friend is entirely right to point out that intimidation of witnesses is a major problem in Northern Ireland. He was referring to a specific case in Belfast, and I could not agree more with all that he has said about it. I also agree that it would be right for every political party in Northern Ireland to accept the policing arrangements recommended by Patten and the Good Friday agreement, and that that is ultimately the best answer in policing terms.

I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend's party, for accepting the new policing arrangements. That took great courage, and has shown over the past few years how important it is for Catholics to join the police force and become members of the Policing Board.

Photo of Jeffrey M. Donaldson Jeffrey M. Donaldson Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

The Secretary of State will know of the plight of innocent victims of terrorist violence, many of whom sense that during the peace process they have not been given enough recognition and support. He will also recall that both during and since the negotiations, the Democratic Unionist party has argued for the establishment of a victims commission to champion the cause and the rights of victims of terrorist violence. Does he now recognise the merits of that idea?

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

Yes, I do. I know that the hon. Gentleman and his party, along with other parties and organisations, individuals and groups in Northern Ireland, have investigated the possibility of such a commission, and I see great merit in it. I hope to be able to make a statement to the House shortly. I also agree with the hon. Gentleman that the work done by victims groups throughout Northern Ireland is enormously important in bringing about reconciliation. I visited the Wave trauma centre not long ago, and was deeply impressed by what I saw.

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

Does the Secretary of State agree that if the republican movement wants democrats of any persuasion or background to start taking it seriously, it might begin by dropping its incredible claim to be able to decide whether or not a particular action is a crime, and then advise republicans—in undiluted language rather than weasel words—that if they have evidence connected with criminal activity, and in particular with the brutal murder that took place in Belfast the other week, they should go to the police and give the Police Service of Northern Ireland whatever evidence they can provide so that the killers and their accomplices can be detected, arrested and brought to trial?

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

Yes, I agree with all that. The hon. Gentleman echoed points made by my hon. Friend Mr. Mallon about the importance of ensuring that people go to the PSNI and give them all the information that they have, so that the murderers involved in that particularly horrendous case in Belfast can be apprehended.

It is important for the words used to be much clearer, and for people in the community we are discussing to go to the police. I am sure the House will agree, however, that it is also important to recognise that there may well be a shift in the traditional support for republicans in Northern Ireland, because people are fed up with intimidation, thuggery and savagery on the streets of Belfast and other cities and towns in Northern Ireland.