Part of Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 8:47 pm on 2nd July 2007.

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Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs 8:47 pm, 2nd July 2007

I begin by welcoming the Minister of State to his new, exalted position, and by welcoming even more so the Secretary of State to his new role. However, and without meaning to seem disrespectful, I do find it curious that the job was not first offered to me. I have been in this position for 10 years now, but I bear the Minister no grudge. In the spirit of the tripartite consensus that has led us to this relatively happy time in Northern Ireland politics, I offer him the benefit of my experience in my own quiet way, as I have done to his five predecessors since 1997. He takes on the role at a tremendously exciting time. Northern Ireland politics is changing—from being the debate of sectarian divides to being a debate about economics, health and all the things that rightly occupy politicians in peacetime. I hope that he will enjoy his role and contribute proactively to the normalisation of attitudes in politics in the Province in the years ahead.

It is an indication of the level of progress that this measure, which appeared so controversial when we debated it in Standing Committee, Northern Ireland Grand Committee and on the Floor of the House, does not even prompt the presence of some of those who objected so fiercely to it. That is not a criticism of those absent today, but a compliment to the détente that appears to exist between former foes. The attitudinal shifts that have taken place, momentous as they are, make it possible for this measure to pass without controversy into law this evening.

The DPPs of course embody a democratic accountability that is vital if the police service is to win the trust of all elements of the Northern Ireland community. In essence, the measures that we are discussing today will ensure an engagement between the public, the politicians and those who seek to maintain law and order in a codified and structured way. I am optimistic that that will be the case.

My optimism is founded on two points. The first is the evident support from the DUP for these measures, and the second is the evidence of the practical commitment by Sinn Fein to rein in the volatile and criminal elements with which it has been formerly associated. I am sure that the promises made at the ard fheis will be kept. I have sometimes been in a minority when I have said that Sinn Fein's word is usually its bond, but that is why I am confident that the measures, once passed, will be embraced by the republican community as well as by the loyalist community in Northern Ireland, together with their political representatives.

It is appropriate for us also to give credit to the progressives who supported these measures at a time when to do so was not easy, but hard. I have already paid tribute to the SDLP in that regard, but we should also recognise the progressives in the Ulster Unionist party and in the finest party of them all, the Alliance party of Northern Ireland, which persevered unfailingly in an attempt to reach some kind of consensus at times when that seemed far away.

We have already heard from Mr. McGrady that it was not only political pressure, but criminal pressure—coercion—that was being used to try to thwart the very measures that we are passing now. Those who were responsible for that, and who have had a Damascene conversion to support for these measures, need to recognise that they would not exist if others, perhaps more courageous, had not taken the lonely decision to support the measures at a time when that was used against them politically.

As for the consequences of the order, the main question is whether the safeguards are adequate to prevent criminality and corruption from seeping into appointments to the district policing partnerships, a point that Mr. Lidington elucidated in some detail. I see it like this: in theory, it is a risk, but in practice, it is not a very big one. There will be an onus on those choosing whom they want as members of the DPPs to exercise a degree of common sense. I accept, as my late father used to say, that sense is not always common, but there are elements in the decision-making process for appointing members of the DPPs that cannot be guaranteed through further legislation. There would be a bigger danger in over-legislating, rather than allowing a degree of autonomy and accepting that with that comes a degree of risk.

By the same token, the sub-groups are likely to provide a political balance, because that is the mood music of the cross-party and cross-community consensus in Northern Ireland politics at the moment. I am prepared to give the benefit of the doubt because sometimes we see more problems than we need to try to solve. If that does not work out, it will need attention, but we do not need to worry about that just now.

We have discussed the specific content of the measures at some length in the past and other hon. Members have already considered specific elements of sections 15, 16, 19 and so on. The House will remember that the Liberal Democrats were supportive of the measures and the 2003 Act, when it passed through Parliament. We did not raise any major concerns in relation to schedule 9 to the St. Andrew's agreement Act of 2006. Indeed, we supported the provisions when they were introduced in 2003 and 2006 specifically because we believed that if those measures could be implemented in a way that we could be confident would be genuinely embraced by those who have to carry them out, we would be in a much better place in Northern Ireland than we were at the time that the legislation was formed. That is where we are today. The passing of this order is an important milestone in consolidating the political stability that has to underlie any accountability structures for the PSNI.

This is a big day and a big change, and it is a long time coming, yet it must also indicate that permanent changes are being made. I am delighted to see it, because the normalisation of the Police Service of Northern Ireland involves some kind of closure. The initiatives that have been put forward indicate that some of the intractables that we have faced as obstacles in the past have been addressed. The message is a good one—at last, it is time for all of us to move on.