Devolved Government

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

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Photo of Mr Andrew Hunter Mr Andrew Hunter DUP, Basingstoke 11:30 am, 23rd March 2005

What measures he proposes to take to assist the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Shadow Minister (Treasury)

If he will make a statement on the prospects of the Northern Ireland Assembly reconvening.

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, recent events have undermined the trust and confidence necessary to achieve that objective. While criminal activity continues to hamper the progress made towards devolved government, we are continuing to explore ways of moving the process forward.

Photo of Mr Andrew Hunter Mr Andrew Hunter DUP, Basingstoke

Does the Secretary of State accept that inclusivity is no longer on the agenda, that the provisional republican movement remains the criminal and terrorist organisation that it always has been and that it should be marginalised? It is now time to move forward and restore devolved government in the Province with the minimum further delay, involving all parties, nationalist and Unionist, which are genuinely and exclusively committed to the principles and practice of democracy.

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

The hon. Gentleman is right that the prospect of an Executive as envisaged by the Good Friday agreement, which involves all parties including Sinn Fein, is unrealistic at the moment because the issue of criminal activity must be resolved. Until that issue is resolved, we will be unable to have such an Executive. In the meantime, however, if he is suggesting a voluntary coalition including nationalists and Unionists, he of course understands that the Executive must encompass both communities. He will therefore have to persuade my hon. Friends in the Social Democratic and Labour party to join such a coalition.

Parties have made other suggestions, including the SDLP's suggestion of a restored Assembly with civic administrators running the Departments. The Prime Minister and I have made it absolutely clear that we are willing to consider those suggestions as temporary measures, although, as I have said, we still need to resolve the issue of criminality on the part of the IRA. That is the obstruction to the process at the moment.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Shadow Minister (Treasury)

The Secretary of State says that that is the obstruction at the moment, but it has been the obstruction ever since this arrangement was made. The McCartney sisters' bravery has highlighted the problem, but the IRA has never stopped being active. It has murdered people and maimed people. Is it not time to recognise members of the IRA for what they are? They are not constitutional politicians; they are murderers.

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

The hon. Gentleman is right to mention the campaigning work of the McCartney family over the past few weeks, which I thought was particularly significant last week in the United States. He is right to say that activity has been ongoing since the signing of the Belfast agreement, and that we have now reached a point at which we can no longer tolerate the IRA's criminal activities and the presence of Sinn Fein on the Executive. A crucial decision must now be made by the IRA: I entirely agree with that.

Photo of Eddie McGrady Eddie McGrady Social Democratic and Labour Party, South Down

The Secretary of State has often spoken here about the need to restore trust as a prelude to political progress. Does he accept that there has been a gross betrayal of trust by the Government in their failure to implement the Cory report in respect of the Finucane case? The same Lord Cory in whom the Government must have had 100 per cent. confidence, or they would not have appointed him, says of the Inquiries Bill:

"It seems to me that the proposed new Act would make a meaningful inquiry impossible . . . I cannot contemplate any self-respecting . . . judge accepting an appointment to an inquiry constituted under the new proposed act."

Does that not constitute a betrayal of the pledge made at Weston Park and subsequently that the Cory report would be fully endorsed by the Government?

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

I do not think so. My hon. Friend should bear in mind what has happened over the past few weeks, and what will happen in the weeks to come. Three of the four inquiries promised at Weston Park, those relating to Nelson, Wright and Hamill, will soon be up and running. As for the Finucane inquiry, Lord Justice Cory himself said in his report that he could envisage circumstances in which some of that material could be dealt with only in private. As my hon. Friend knows, the Inquiries Bill will provide an opportunity for material of national-security significance to be considered in private by a genuinely independent inquiry, whose members will be able to call witnesses and call for evidence in a way that the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921 also allows.

I do not think for a second that we are not following the Cory recommendation. I hope that there will be an inquiry that will be independent, will have full powers, and will eventually get to the truth of the matter.

Photo of Nick Palmer Nick Palmer PPS (Team PPS), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I hope that the Secretary of State will not accept the proposal from Mr. Hunter that we should move away from inclusivity. We have been here before, and every attempt to address the Northern Ireland issue by excluding people with unpleasantly extreme views has not dealt with the problem. Does the Secretary of State agree with that?

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

What I cannot do, and what no Government can do, is make people form a Government together. At the end of the day, an Executive can only be up and running if the necessary trust and confidence exist. When the Executive was there, we had that necessary trust, but it has now broken down. There is no trust and confidence because of this issue.

I agree with my hon. Friend that our aim must be an inclusive Executive, because that is what people voted for in the Good Friday agreement and the referendum that followed. It is important to understand, however, that we are considering other ways of addressing the democratic deficit in Northern Ireland.

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

May I draw the attention of the Secretary of State to the comments of Dermot Ahern, the Irish Foreign Minister, who described Sinn Fein's proposals for a united Ireland as a red herring and the proposals of a snake oil salesman? May I also refer him to the comments of the Irish Justice Minister, Michael McDowell, that the provisional movement was a threat to the democratic institutions of the Republic of Ireland? Would not it be a good idea for the Government to adopt the same candour, to display the same leadership and, instead of adopting the purely passive role outlined by the Secretary of State now with regard to alternative ways forward, to bring forward proposals to, for example, amend the Northern Ireland Act 1998 by the removal of the d'Hondt formula so as to free up the opportunity for the parties in Northern Ireland to find a way forward?

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

I do not think that there is any difference between what the Irish Government are saying and what we are saying with regard to Northern Ireland. Both are saying clearly that we cannot have an Executive as envisaged by the agreement until we resolve the issue of criminal activity by the IRA. We are absolutely at one on that. The right hon. Gentleman says that we ought to have plans drawn up and that we might have to propose legislation to address the democratic deficit and arrive at an alternative system, and I am more than happy to do that. But, as he knows, we can have as many plans and laws as possible in this House, but unless parties agree to work with each other and to have an Executive that includes nationalists and Unionists, that is impossible. However, as I have said, I am more than happy to look at all the alternatives and am currently doing so.

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

I welcome the Secretary of State's comments last week that he was not going to take part in any future negotiations or political discussions with Sinn Fein unless criminal activity by the IRA was finally addressed. Was he speaking for the whole of the Government in making that statement or—as is widely believed in Northern Ireland—are there people from the Prime Minister's office who, even in the last few weeks, have been engaging in precisely such discussions and negotiations with representatives of the Republican movement?

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

I have said more than once that talks—whether classified as discussions or negotiations—are not stopping, but that there is only one item on the agenda; how to address criminality by the IRA. Until we do that, there can be no further discussion or negotiations on taking any matters further.

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

Since making the message clear on crime was supposed to be the purpose of the Prime Minister's Chequers meeting with Sinn Fein, I cannot say that the Secretary of State's remarks on further discussions are encouraging. Surely there is a responsibility not only on Republicans—he and I are agreed on that—but on the Government to accept that direct rule is with us for some time, that there is a profound democratic deficit in the operation of direct rule and that it is time for Ministers to come forward with options as to how that democratic deficit can be addressed and direct rule made more accountable to the people of Northern Ireland.

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

I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman and in my reply to Mr. Trimble, I indicated that we were looking at different options for addressing the democratic deficit. But different parties have different views as to what the options should be. The key is to ensure that we can get agreement with the parties to get something up and running. People in Northern Ireland still see the main objective as ensuring that we stop the sort of activities that resulted in the murder of Robert McCartney and the robbery of the Northern bank.