Foreign Affairs and Defence

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:34 pm on 18th May 2005.

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Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 3:34 pm, 18th May 2005

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me at this stage. To use the term employed by Mr. Mullin, you have released me from "extraordinary rendition", which many other Members who are waiting to make their maiden speeches have been experiencing.

Yesterday, Mr. Speaker gave some good, sound advice to those of us who are new Members to the House and told us that we should seek out older Members to find out what is required from us. In my case, it would be more accurate to say that some of the older members of my party—I think that they were more nervous about this speech than I was—sought me out to offer me some advice. My party leader, my hon. Friend Rev. Ian Paisley, told me that I must remember to do three things, the first of which was to say nice things about my constituency. That is not difficult, although I must say, having listened to some Members who have given their maiden speeches here today, that I may have some difficulty in emulating their inventiveness and descriptions. I did not realise that so many estate agents had been elected in the new intake.

The second thing that my hon. Friend told me to do was to say nice things about my predecessor. Having spent the past four and a half years trying to get rid of him, I thought that that might present some difficulty, but I will seek to do it. The third, and perhaps most surprising, thing that he told me was: "Don't be controversial." Some may find that surprising coming from him. Anybody who says that things in Northern Ireland have not changed should take note.

The one thing that is clear to me is that this speech is a balancing act. I suppose that it is like one's first night out with a girl: one wants to do enough to impress but does not want to do too much and then get in trouble with her father—in this case, the Deputy Speaker or the leader of the party.

I wish my predecessor, Roy Beggs, well for the future. I have known Roy for many years; of course, he was originally a member of our party. He had an interest in education, and when I was a student I worked on some education issues with him. Then he left the Democratic Unionist party and joined the Ulster Unionist party. At that stage, the Ulster Unionist party had 10 Members of Parliament and my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim was the sole DUP Member. The parliamentary fortunes of the two parties are now reversed, although I am not saying that there is any link between that and Mr. Beggs going to the Ulster Unionist party. At the last election, my party increased its representation in this House by 50 per cent. and there is now one solitary Member of the Ulster Unionist party sitting in this House—Lady Hermon. I suppose that one could almost call her "Unionist Sinn Fein"—herself alone. I believe that that is a result of a sea change in the politics in Northern Ireland and people's reaction to those who were prepared to trust terrorists, to place them in Government and give them the benefit of the doubt, and then find, of course, that they did not live up to their promises.

Roy lives across the valley from me, so he is my neighbour. In fact, he is only a stone's throw away—I pick them out of the garden every morning. He is also a member of Larne council. I look forward to working with him over the next few years and wish him well in his retirement.

I am proud to represent East Antrim, a constituency that stretches for 60 miles from Newtonabbey on the edge of north Belfast right to the middle of the glens of Antrim and Carnlough. It has within its boundaries the historic town of Carrickfergus, with its magnificently restored castle, a modern marina that sits beside the castle and the old town centre contained within the original town walls.

The other major town in the constituency is Larne, which is the major land gateway to Northern Ireland and sits at the entrance to the renowned Antrim coast and glens. The town has been through a difficult period but has turned the corner and is attracting substantial new retail investment. It contains many sites with great investment potential because of their proximity to the port and the lough shore. One of the major difficulties for the town's development is the slowness of the planning process in Northern Ireland. As a public representative, I will be happy to get involved in addressing the problem, because it has held up much economic development that could have created jobs and improved the towns and the environment of Northern Ireland.

The coast road beyond Larne hugs the bottom of the steep cliffs of the Antrim plateau. Around each headland is a bay, which usually has a picturesque village and a glen running upwards to the Antrim plateau. Tourists can enjoy walking holidays there and the hospitality in small rural pubs and high-class restaurants and hotels. It is an unspoilt area of Northern Ireland. The two picturesque villages of Glenarm and Carnlough have great development potential. The secret and the challenge for everyone who is involved in developing that part of the coast is maintaining the quality of the built and the natural heritage while releasing the tourist potential of the area.

The constituency has a connection with this House, because on 14 June 1690, King William III landed his troops at Carrickfergus. The aim was to defeat King James, who was attempting to use Ireland as a base from which to regain the throne of England and undo the gains and achievements of the Glorious Revolution, which had eroded the tyranny of the king and strengthened the powers of this House. The defeat of King James followed at the battle of the Boyne 17 days later. That event is still celebrated in Northern Ireland on 12 July and is one of the most colourful and largest pageants in Europe. It brings in vast amounts of revenue in tourist income to Northern Ireland. Despite attempts by republicans who wish culturally to cleanse many things from Northern Ireland, the 12 July celebrations are still a major event.

Our relationship with Europe is one of the huge foreign policy issues about which we have heard today and that will face Parliament and our country in this Session. I welcome the commitment to a referendum on the EU constitution. Those who fought to free the House from the tyranny of the monarch in the past would be bewildered by the enthusiasm that some Members have displayed in their desire to hand over a wide range of powers from this House to the tyranny of a commission in Europe or European bureaucrats. The party to which I belong will oppose ratifying the intrusion of Europe into the House. We shall seek to ensure that the terms of the referendum are designed to provide a fair test of public opinion both through the wording of the question and the arrangements for its conduct. I firmly believe that the people of this country will not permit their country to become a sub-part of a European superstate or allow this mother of Parliaments to be reduced to a county council with a consultative role.

Kenneth Clarke wondered whether we should have a referendum if the French turned down the European constitution in theirs. I did not understand his logic. He seemed to suggest that, if the French said no, we would not need a referendum, yet if the Dutch said no, we would need one. That sounded like double Dutch to me. He seemed to take an illogical view of the matter. I believe that the people of this country should have a say on whether we are absorbed into a European superstate. If the French put those who wish to enlarge the powers of Europe on to the canvas, it would be all the better to keep them down on the ground with another referendum. That is why, regardless of the outcome of the French referendum, there should also be one here.

I note that the Government have said that they will support the Iraqi Transitional Government. Having started the job in Iraq, it is important that we finish it. That means making a commitment in terms of troops, as Patrick Mercer said, and the continued involvement of our servicemen in that war zone. My party had reservations about the invasion of Iraq, but we supported the Government nevertheless. Hundreds of servicemen from Northern Ireland—from the Royal Irish Regiment and the Territorial Army—have served with distinction in Iraq, mainly in the Basra area. Although various Administrations in this House have treated us as though we were almost semi-detached from the rest of the United Kingdom, even to the point at which one Secretary of State publicly declared that the Government had no economic, strategic or political interest in Northern Ireland, the one thing that we can say about the citizens of Northern Ireland is that they have lived up to their obligations as citizens of the United Kingdom. They have given and served at times of national crisis.

Hundreds of members of the Royal Irish Regiment live in my constituency, and one of the blows that has hit them is that, while they were serving in Basra, the defence review recommended that the home battalion of the Royal Irish Regiment be disbanded, putting thousands of people on to the dole. There will always be a garrison in Northern Ireland—according to a previous Minister, it will contain about 5,500 men and women—and the cheapest option is to use locally based servicemen and women. The most efficient option is to use locally based members of the regiment who have a knowledge of the area. Given the way in which the services are stretched at the moment, it is nonsense to dispense with a locally based regiment and bring other regiments that are already overstretched into the Northern Ireland garrison. I hope that, when the defence review comes out in the autumn, there will be no mention of doing away with the home-based battalion of the Royal Irish Regiment, which has served honourably. Indeed, many of its members have been killed in the terrorist campaign.

Another important factor is that the Government not only look after the troops serving our country in foreign parts, but recognise their responsibility for those who suffer loss as a result of serving their country. A number of my constituents have suffered as a result of the cocktail of chemicals that they were given when they went out to fight in the Gulf war. Many of those people have been abandoned shamefully, and I hope that the Government will take on board the recommendations of the Lloyd inquiry and fulfil their obligations to the people who have suffered as a result of serving in previous conflicts in the middle east.

The defence of this country does not, of course, depend only on the actions of our armed forces. It also depends on the political decisions made by the Government. The Minister said this morning that one of the priorities would be tackling terrorism. It rings hollow with people in Northern Ireland when they hear that the Government intend to tackle international terrorism, while home-based terrorists are shown through the doors at Downing street to discuss the strategies that might be employed to get them into government in other parts of the United Kingdom. The Government need to take a consistent attitude towards terrorism. Home-based terrorism is as bad as international terrorism and those who have killed thousands in Northern Ireland should not be admitted to government in Northern Ireland.

I want devolution restored. Going from door to door in East Antrim, I have observed the frustration of people who feel that direct rule Ministers, however well intentioned they may be, do not reflect the views of people in Northern Ireland. There is, for instance, the question of our education system—an excellent education system based on merit and academic selection alone—which is now being attacked by a Government who, according to the Queen's Speech, will continue

"to improve quality and choice in the provision of schooling, and build on the progress already made to improve educational standards for all", but at the same time, against the wishes of the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland, are destroying the excellent schools that we have there and wish to introduce comprehensive education.

That policy was, of course, started by the Education Minister who had total, unaccountable powers in the old Northern Ireland Assembly: Martin McGuinness, the Minister who thought that the three Rs were reading, writing and Armalites, and who went on to try to destroy our education system. That policy has been followed through, although 62 per cent. of people in Northern Ireland expressed their opposition to it in the biggest consultation exercise to be carried out. Many other issues, such as the introduction of a double charge for both water and water rates, should be dealt with by a devolved Administration rather than by direct rule Ministers.

I hope that during this Parliament we shall see the restoration of devolution in Northern Ireland but, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim said yesterday, we will not accept it at any price. If the price of devolution for Northern Ireland is the inclusion of terrorists in government, that is not acceptable, and we will not move on. We cannot advance on that basis. If we did, the system would collapse with the first act of criminality or terrorism carried out by those who hang on to the coat-tails of Sinn Fein, to which they are inextricably linked.

I thank you for giving me an opportunity to speak, Madam Deputy Speaker. I trust that I shall have other opportunities to discuss issues of both local and national importance, and to reflect the views of the constituents who have overwhelmingly elected me to the House.