Northern Ireland: Recent Violence

– in the House of Commons at 1:22 pm on 18th July 2018.

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Photo of Tony Lloyd Tony Lloyd Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland 1:22 pm, 18th July 2018

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to make a statement regarding the recent violence in Northern Ireland and to outline what the Government are doing to assist the Police Service of Northern Ireland and local community organisations to ensure that violence does not return to the streets of Northern Ireland.

Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I start by paying tribute to the brave men and women of the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the emergency services. They have been working relentlessly over recent weeks to keep people safe and secure, and in some cases they have come under attack while doing so. I am sure the whole House will agree that we owe them a huge debt of gratitude. I, like the hon. Gentleman, was in Northern Ireland on 12 July to be briefed on the ground by the Chief Constable and the chair of the Northern Ireland Policing Board, when I stressed once again our admiration and support for the work that they do. This morning, I had further conversations with the Chief Constable and the head of the Northern Ireland civil service for an update on the latest situation.

Let me now set out the factual position. Last week, on 11 July, in Belfast and some surrounding areas of County Down, there were episodes of serious disorder following a court order to remove a bonfire that was considered to be unsafe. The public disorder took place throughout the evening and into the night, resulting in a number of hoax security alerts, pipe bombs, and a number of vehicle hijackings. A number of sporadic, isolated acts of violence have taken place in the days since 11 July, causing some damage to property—but thankfully there have been no injuries. I know from discussions with the Chief Constable that every effort is being made to bring to justice those responsible for this reprehensible activity. In addition, we witnessed unrelated but serious disorder in Londonderry last week. This included violent acts of provocation against the police and, in some cases, petrol bombs being thrown at residential properties. There was also a serious shooting attack against police officers that could easily have injured anyone in the area.

I have been absolutely clear in my condemnation of this activity, which is a matter of deep concern for everyone who wants to see a peaceful and prosperous Northern Ireland. I am also clear that this violence is not representative of the wider community in Derry/Londonderry. As the Chief Constable informed me this morning, there have so far been 15 arrests in connection with the violence in Londonderry, and 10 people have been charged. I know that the PSNI will continue to do all it can to bring those responsible before the courts. In many cases, it would appear that young people are being exploited and goaded into criminal activity by adults who have nothing to offer their communities.

For our part, the Government have invested significantly in the PSNI, with some £230 million of additional security funding in the 2010 Parliament and £160 million over the current spending review period. In addition, as a result of the 2015 Fresh Start agreement, we are providing £25 million to help tackle the scourge of paramilitary violence. Let me be very clear: paramilitary activity was never justified in Northern Ireland in the past, and it cannot be justified today. It must stop, and I know that the Chief Constable is committed to using the full force of the law to that end. All of us need to work together, across the whole community, to see that the malign influence of paramilitary activity is ended for good.

Photo of Tony Lloyd Tony Lloyd Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I thank the Secretary of State for her comments so far. I join her in recognising the work of the PSNI, but also the work of community groups, particularly in Derry/Londonderry, who came together last Friday and whose actions almost certainly had an impact on the ongoing levels of violence that had taken place in the city. I also want to mention the forbearance of the communities that felt themselves under attack during that period.

I would say to the House, and probably to people in Great Britain, that the situation that took place last week, with different causes and different motivations, was unacceptable. None of us should over-dramatise what took place, but none of us should be foolish enough to think that it does not matter. We saw burnt-out buses across east Belfast. We saw one bus, at least, in Newtownards, hijacked at gunpoint. We saw a return to political violence in Derry/Londonderry. We also saw, as the Secretary of State said, the use of live rounds, possibly with the intent to take life—the life of a PSNI officer. That means that we are talking about very serious levels of civil disorder. I pay tribute to those who are bringing to bear efforts to control this. Nevertheless, we have to take it seriously.

There is now an obligation of leadership on Arlene Foster and on Michelle O’Neill, the respective leaders of the Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Féin, but there is also a demand for leadership from the Secretary of State and from the United Kingdom Government. In particular, we must now ensure that the Good Friday institutions are made once again to work. They were put in place precisely because they brought an end to the troubles. Some of them have fallen seriously into disrepute, others almost casually into disrepute.

In that context, I welcome the Secretary of State’s call to re-establish the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. That is right and proper. However, we need to know what the agenda of its first meeting will be. Will it look, for example, at the recent political violence and at the need to get the Stormont Assembly back into operation? It is not just a question of east-west; the BIIGC also has a role to play in the situation in Northern Ireland. The meeting also cannot be allowed to be a one-off. The BIIGC now has to be brought on to the basis of being a standing conference, so that the Government in Dublin can work with the Government here to bring legitimate pressure. We must also see the restoration of the Stormont Assembly, which is perhaps the most important institution. There the Secretary of State must take action, bringing all parties together until there is a resolution. That really does matter.

Finally, we congratulate the PSNI on its work. It is one of the real achievements of the Good Friday agreement, in generating trust across different communities. However, it is under-resourced, even on the basis of the Patten recommendations; the Chief Constable has requested 300 extra officers. The Secretary of State must now show real action. Northern Ireland has had 547 days without a Government, breaking the record held by Belgium for non-government. That is not a great record. She must give leadership and get people back round that table.

Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

The hon. Gentleman made a number of points. I start by joining him in paying tribute to the community groups in both Derry/Londonderry and Belfast. In east Belfast, community groups worked hard to ensure that the issues around bonfires were managed so as to minimise the effects. I am not complacent—I recognise that we saw violence that is unacceptable—but the community groups really helped by working together. I pay tribute to those groups and those communities, who, as he said, are the ones in the firing line—literally, in this case.

The hon. Gentleman is right that what we saw is unacceptable. Like him, last Thursday I saw those burnt-out cars, saw the level of disorder. To suggest that that level of disorder is acceptable on the streets of the United Kingdom—anywhere in the United Kingdom—would be absolutely inaccurate. We all join together in this House in condemning the activities and in paying tribute again to the PSNI and the work that it does.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the PSNI’s resources. He will know that it has put in a specific bid around further resources and we are ensuring that that is looked at in government. Again, I pay tribute to the PSNI. As he said, we do have a British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference next week, the agenda for which will be available. We obviously want to ensure that we have an appropriate agenda that reflects the conference’s strand 3 nature.

I now finally join the hon. Gentleman in agreeing that we need devolved government in Stormont. Devolved government and the institutions established under the Belfast agreement are key. The relative peace and security we see in Northern Ireland is as a result of that agreement. I, as Secretary of State, will not shy away from taking steps that need to be taken to ensure good governance in Northern Ireland, but I agree that the best, most appropriate and effective way for the people of Northern Ireland is to see those decisions taken in Stormont.

Photo of Mark Pritchard Mark Pritchard Conservative, The Wrekin

I do not think I have ever commended the comments of any Sinn Féin politician before in this House, but does the Secretary of State agree that the comments of Gerry Adams, the former Sinn Féin leader, were helpful rather than unhelpful, and correct in that it is dialogue, not violence, that Northern Ireland needs?

Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I agree with my hon. Friend on the comments made by Gerry Adams and those made by Mary Lou McDonald, the president of Sinn Féin. I also agree with comments made by political leaders across all parties in Northern Ireland condemning the violence. The fact that the people of Northern Ireland have heard their political leaders saying the same thing with the same voice is incredibly important. That message needs to be made to the very, very small number of people—it is a very small number now—who do not believe that the way to resolve the issues in Northern Ireland is through dialogue rather than violence.

Photo of Gavin Newlands Gavin Newlands Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Sport), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales)

We on the Scottish National party Benches of course condemn any acts of violence in Northern Ireland and any attempts by any party to destabilise the Good Friday agreement. I also pay tribute to the PSNI for its response to the unrest and for keeping local communities safe. The fact that all parties have condemned the violence demonstrates an appetite to work together constructively, thereby creating a window of opportunity for further talks on restoring power sharing.

Simon Coveney has visited Derry and met the PSNI and residents, but the Secretary of State has not yet visited any areas affected by the violence. Will she tell the House why that is? Why has it taken an urgent question for her to address the House on this very important issue?

Does the Secretary of State believe that the vacuum in leadership, and instability, has led to this increased tension and unrest? There have been months and months of political drift. Will she tell us in detail what she is doing to restore power sharing at Stormont?

Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments and for joining in the condemnation of the activity that we have seen. It is incredibly important to hear that united voice from this House, sending support and a message to those people in Northern Ireland who are standing up against violence.

I wish to correct the hon. Gentleman. He suggested that I had not visited any of the affected areas, but I was in east Belfast and Newtownards on Thursday, the site of some of the violence, and I intend to be in Derry/Londonderry in the near future. It is also worth saying that, as well as Simon Coveney, Arlene Foster visited the Fountain estate in Londonderry over the weekend, again to show her solidarity with the community. He is right that the answer is to have devolved government in Stormont and to have those politicians, who are speaking with one voice—I pay tribute to them for that—not just speaking with one voice but acting with one voice.

Photo of Maria Caulfield Maria Caulfield Conservative, Lewes

I join my right hon. Friend in expressing deep admiration for the PSNI. Given that there is no functioning Assembly in Northern Ireland, will she identify what resources and extra support are going in to help support the PSNI and community groups, so that they can deal with any escalation in violence?

Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

My hon. Friend is right to reflect on the fact that great credit needs to be paid to the PSNI. She asks about additional resources. In my comments I mentioned that the 2015 Fresh Start agreement provided £25 million of additional funding from the UK Government to help tackle the scourge of paramilitary violence, and we have also put in £230 million in the 2010 Parliament and £160 million over the current spending review period.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell Shadow DUP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I join the Secretary of State and the shadow Secretary of State in defending and exhorting the security services and community representatives in the light of the ongoing violence. The most sustained campaign of violence was in the Fountain/Bogside area of Londonderry. She is right: I invited my party leader there to tour the area—hopefully, the shadow Secretary of State will be able to do the same with his party leader—to speak to the people who have suffered as a result of violence. First, will she confirm that she has received a written invitation from me to come and visit the area very urgently? Secondly, will she review the security implications of the fencing there, so that the people who have lived under threat and under terror for many, many years can receive some comfort and assurance that action will be taken to help them?

Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

The hon. Gentleman is an assiduous constituency MP, who regularly raises many constituency issues with me. I join him in his tributes to the community and the PSNI for the work they have done. I can confirm that not only did I receive a written invitation from him but he personally hand-delivered that written invitation, so I have definitely received it.

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey Conservative, Wells

During my own service in Northern Ireland, I have seen at first hand the skill with which PSNI officers react proportionately but robustly to public disorder and paramilitary criminality in the Province. Will my right hon. Friend join me in expressing admiration for the bravery and restraint that the PSNI shows when policing these very challenging situations?

Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I join my hon. Friend in saying exactly that. I visited the gold command centre on Thursday morning to see the work that those very dedicated public servants do; that is something that I will take with me for a long time.

Photo of Owen Smith Owen Smith Labour, Pontypridd

I also commend the PSNI and the community for the work they have done and unreservedly condemn those people who have perpetrated violence in Northern Ireland. Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that the vacuum in our politics in Northern Ireland is, while not wholly responsible, at last partly responsible? I urge her to do more to fill that vacuum with political dialogue and restore the institutions.

Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I agree that we need political dialogue, but there is no excuse for the violence we have seen. There can be no excuse whatsoever. It is totally unacceptable behaviour.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I thank the Secretary of State for her response, and for coming to the House to make that clear. I put on record my condemnation of the violence that took place across the Province, but in particular in my constituency of Strangford. Compare that, Mr Speaker, with the next day, when the Secretary of State attended the 12 July celebrations: we had a smashing day. It was good to see here there, and she was obviously very welcome.

What we need, Secretary of State, is more police on the streets. The Patten recommendation talked of 7,500 officers, but we now have 6,715—a shortfall. What are we doing to address that? The PSNI wants to address the scourge of paramilitaries and their activities across the Province. It has a strategy for that, but it needs the officers and needs the resources.

Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I did very much enjoy my day in Newtownards. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have received a request from the PSNI, and we are considering that matter.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Tom Pursglove Tom Pursglove Conservative, Corby

Thank you, Mr Speaker, but my question has already been covered.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Finance Committee (Commons)

It is the second time this week.

Photo of Nigel Dodds Nigel Dodds Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Reform and Constitutional Issues), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Brexit), DUP Westminster Leader

I hope I will not repeat what was said earlier. I thank the Secretary of State for what she has said. May I gently say to her that of course the experiences in my constituency over recent years reflect the fact that we have made considerable progress? There was worse violence at the time when the Executive was actually in place, ironically. I just make the point that these things are not necessarily linked. There are particular circumstances in Londonderry and east Belfast. The need for extra police resources is key. That is what the Chief Constable is asking for, and that is what the Secretary of State has heard today.

Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

As the Chief Constable put it to me today, there has been slow but fragile progress. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, I have received the request from the Chief Constable, and I am considering it.

Photo of Gavin Robinson Gavin Robinson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Defence)

Thank you for calling me, Mr Speaker. I apologise for missing the start of the urgent question. I am grateful to you for your generosity. [Interruption.] I am very grateful, Mr Speaker—and we will move on from that.

The Secretary of State will be aware that, on the evening of 11 July, Assistant Chief Constable Todd made the quite extraordinary declaration that he expected widespread violence in the name of a paramilitary organisation, particularly in my constituency. As the Secretary of State knows, at least a dozen cars, caravans and so on were burnt out, which, to my mind, satisfies the conditions for a Chief Constable’s certificate and for compensation. Has the Secretary of State engaged with the PSNI, and will she confirm that steps are being taken to recognise the involvement of a proscribed organisation, and that compensation will be arranged quickly and efficiently?

Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I spoke to the hon. Gentleman, whose constituency was particularly affected, before the events of last week. I have spoken to the Chief Constable, but perhaps I can write to the hon. Gentleman with the specifics of our conversation.