Oral Answers to Questions — Northern Ireland – in the House of Commons at 11:30 am on 14th November 2007.
If he will make a statement on sectarian crime in Northern Ireland.
Before I answer Question 1, the whole House will want to join me in expressing sadness and sympathy for the family and friends of the seven family members, including five children, who perished in the fire in Omagh yesterday. I reassure all hon. Members that a full investigation will take place into the cause of that tragic event.
The total number of recorded sectarian crimes in Northern Ireland for 2006-07 was 1,217—some 17 per cent. lower than the figure for the previous year.
I am sure that the whole House joins the Minister in his expression of grief on behalf of the family of those who were killed.
I am deeply concerned that a young man in Northern Ireland was brutally beaten to death—every bone in his body broken—and that two policemen, one in Londonderry and one in Dungannon, have been shot and badly wounded. Does not that indicate that sectarian crime is rearing its ugly head again? Is not it important that the Administration in Stormont act fiercely against such crime? What are the Government doing to help the coalition Administration in Northern Ireland overcome sectarianism, which appears to be raising its head again?
Any crime motivated by hatred is to be condemned. The hon. Gentleman will have noticed that condemnation of the Quinn murder and of the attacks on police officers have come from all quarters in Northern Ireland. All political leaders have made clear their unequivocal condemnation of the events and implored the public to come forward with information that can be turned into evidence that will stand up in court and see these people where they belong—behind bars. The Quinn murder and the attacks on the police officers have shown a community in partnership with law enforcement to a level that has never been seen before in Northern Ireland. That is an encouraging sign for democracy and peace in Northern Ireland.
Further to the issue of the continuing sectarian attacks, will the Minister outline what the political consequences would be if condemnation of the shooting was forthcoming—as he said, it has been, albeit not from the Member of Parliament for the Dungannon area—but not sufficient information or evidence to prosecute those who carried out the attacks?
There is an ongoing police investigation into the issues that I have mentioned. Furthermore, the Independent Monitoring Commission reports regularly on such matters. A distinguishing feature of the last few weeks has been the way in which the political parties in Northern Ireland have been drawn together in their condemnation of the dreadful events and their determination to make democracy work.
May I associate myself and my party with the expressions of condolence with which the Minister opened his remarks?
Does the Minister accept that the conflict transformation initiative has an important role in tackling sectarian crime, and that the administration of funds from the initiative is a wholly devolved matter? What representations did his Department make to the Minister of Social Development before her recent decision to withdraw funding from a programme because of concerns about possible links between it and the Ulster Defence Association?
The conflict transformation initiative is a devolved matter, and it was for the Minister of Social Development to decide whether to continue to fund the organisations involved. I had discussions with the Minister of Social Development, because one of the criteria that she set in her decision on funding was in relation to decommissioning, which remains a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and me rather than being a devolved matter. We have always been clear, however, that the issue concerned was entirely for her to decide, and she has decided.
On behalf of Her Majesty's official Opposition, I fully endorse the Minister's comments on the terrible tragedy in Omagh, and we send our deepest sympathies to the relatives of those involved.
In the light of the hideous murder of Paul Quinn, the two attacks on policemen in recent days and the refusal of loyalist paramilitaries fully to decommission, the Minister of State will agree that the key to a stable peace is for local communities to work with the police at all levels. What additional steps does he propose to improve that engagement?
The strong message from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and me, from the Chief Constable, and from political leaders in Northern Ireland in the wake of the events that the hon. Gentleman outlines has been that the community should come forward, stand shoulder to shoulder with their police officers, and ensure that the small number of people who are responsible for those dreadful events are brought to justice and put behind bars.
I believe that in recent days it has become ever clearer that there is a determination in the community to provide such evidence and to come forward with statements. Only yesterday, during my visit to Dungannon, the police commented to me on the unprecedented co-operation from the community, along with an absolute determination among front-line police officers to ensure that those responsible are brought to justice. I think we should all be encouraged by that determination.
Does the Minister agree that the police must focus every existing resource on defeating criminal organisations? Given the enormous load imposed on the police by the continued retrospective inquiries, would he consider changing police priorities to allow the police to concentrate more resources on current dangers until the fuller co-operation of local communities is more evident?
Of course, every pound spent on investigating the past is a pound not spent on policing the present. I think we should emphasise the importance of dealing with the problems of the here and now. However, we have commitments in relation to inquiries, and they will continue to be honoured. We also have commitments in relation to the funding of policing in Northern Ireland, and we will continue to honour those as well.
Another important feature of recent times that has been evident to me, as police Minister, is the high level of co-operation between the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Garda Siochana, which is essential in bearing down on the remaining criminality in Northern Ireland.