Northern Ireland

– in the House of Lords at 4:50 pm on 24th July 2002.

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Photo of Lord Williams of Mostyn Lord Williams of Mostyn President of the Council, Privy Council Office, Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Lords 4:50 pm, 24th July 2002

My Lords, before I repeat the Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, I have been given quite recently some information that your Lordships will wish to know. There has been an attack with explosives on the property of our colleague, the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough. At this stage—I am giving the details, obviously, as soon as I am able—the Army advises me that the Continuity IRA has telephoned a local newspaper claiming responsibility. A recognised codeword was used. I mention this because your Lordships obviously would wish to know and, more fundamentally, we would wish to send a message of unswerving solidarity to a parliamentary colleague.

Noble Lords:

Hear, hear!

Photo of Lord Williams of Mostyn Lord Williams of Mostyn President of the Council, Privy Council Office, Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, I turn now to the Statement, which is as follows:

"With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a Statement about Northern Ireland.

"After the meeting which he and the Taoiseach had with the parties at Hillsborough on 4th July, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister said that we would reflect on what had been said about continuing levels of violence in Northern Ireland and consider what could be done to restore confidence in the political process.

"As my right honourable friend said, there can be no acceptable or tolerable level of violence. The principles of democracy and non-violence, which were laid down by the international body under Senator Mitchell in 1996 and formed the basis on which the political negotiations took place, are as relevant now as they were then. As a signal of shared purpose in eradicating violence, I have today written to all the parties asking them to reaffirm their total and absolute commitment to these principles.

"In recent weeks, and in particular over last weekend, we have seen serious disturbances which have brought violence to the streets of Belfast and elsewhere, culminating in the appalling murder of Gerard Lawlor by so-called loyalists early on Monday morning. A young man barely in his teens when the peace talks started, and not out of them when his life was so cruelly taken. This was not an isolated incident. Over the previous 72 hours there had been five attempted murders, one shooting, two sectarian arson attacks and four serious public order incidents. These disgraceful events benefit no one and have been a source of anguish to victims and all those who live in the areas concerned.

"I said recently that we would oppose by all means those wedded to violence. The security forces are bearing down on the paramilitaries to deny them the freedom to operate; to prevent murders, shootings, pipe and petrol bomb attacks. More than 250 additional police officers and soldiers have been brought in to dominate the interfaces in north Belfast. They are stopping and checking the movement of individuals and vehicles in order to prevent armed gangs entering and leaving the area. Known paramilitaries are being kept under close surveillance.

"This means that more police and Army resources are now deployed in north Belfast than at any point since the beginning of the cease-fires, while routine patrolling elsewhere by the Army has been dramatically reduced. The PSNI is pursuing a variety of proactive and reactive methods to disrupt paramilitary movement in the area.

"Since violence flared in Belfast at the beginning of May, the police have made a number of arrests for terrorist and public order offences, ranging from riotous behaviour to possession of petrol bombs. Since 4th May, in north and east Belfast, 21 loyalists have been arrested, with 15 charged. Over the same period, 12 republicans have been arrested and all were charged.

"The police are determined that the perpetrators of the violence should be brought to book and will pursue them by every means available to them. I share that aim. I have therefore asked my noble and learned friend the Attorney-General to lead an examination of police powers, bail arrangements and the scope for additional criminal offences. He will also examine whether there are any changes in the criminal law that could be made to facilitate successful prosecutions for acts of terrorism, violence and organised crime.

"All of this would complement the Proceeds of Crime Bill which we hope will receive Royal Assent today and which will give us a powerful weapon to hit paramilitary finances and the greed of individuals.

"But security measures alone will not solve this problem. That is why I also said recently that we would work in partnership with those who wanted to engage in local dialogue. Following the meeting at Hillsborough, I met several of the political parties and encouraged closer and more systematic dialogue at local level.

"In the light of recent events, at my request, my honourable friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun, the Parliamentary Secretary, has now initiated further urgent discussions with local representatives, including those with links to paramilitary organisations, in an effort to develop the kind of partnership structures at local level which will help prevent such disturbances in future. We are willing to spend as long as it takes with those who want to work in partnership with us and with each other. Those who do not want to do so should face the full force of the law.

"I cannot emphasise too strongly that it is essential that things should now calm down and that we should have a settled summer. It would be intolerable for the political progress on which the future well-being of Northern Ireland depends to be held to ransom by the murderous activities of paramilitaries on either side. It would be equally intolerable if the progress valued by the many were to become hostage to the few who are committed to violence.

"People want us to face up to this honestly. It would, I believe, help us and the public to have more transparent information about the involvement of paramilitary groups in such activities and the general pattern of paramilitary activity in the community.

"In a related area—the involvement of paramilitaries in racketeering and organised crime—I have already asked Professor Ron Goldstock to assist me in assessing the scale of the problem.

"I can see a case for doing something similar, to shine a light on levels of paramilitary violence in the community, both loyalist and republican, and to supplement the judgments I make about the cease-fires. I will consult widely about this idea and how it might best be done, and make my views known after the summer break.

"It is now four and a half years since the second IRA cease-fire. The cease-fires have made a huge contribution to reducing the appalling human cost of the conflict. This is the 30th anniversary of the worst year of the Troubles, when 470 people lost their lives. Even 10 years ago, the figure was nearly 100. Last year it was 17. So far this year, six people have lost their lives. We should never forget in the midst of all our problems just how far we have come. But six is still too many. Of course things are a lot better than they were. But that is not the only test. The real test is whether they are as good as people have a right to expect.

"They expect it of all paramilitaries and all parties. But there is a particular responsibility on any party participating in the government of Northern Ireland. It must appreciate that operating jointly in government, as the agreement requires, calls for a measure of responsibility and trust. Trust depends on confidence that the transition from violence to democracy continues apace, has not stalled and will be completed without delay.

"The recent statement by the IRA acknowledging the grief and pain of the relatives of those who died at the hands of the IRA and reaffirming its commitment to the peace process was a welcome step in the right direction.

"We also have to acknowledge, though, that more than four years after the agreement was concluded, welcome as it is, it is simply not enough for paramilitary organisations on cease-fires to have brought an end to their terrorist campaigns.

"Confidence in the process requires confidence that there will never again be a return to those dark days; in particular, that preparations are not going on under the surface for a resumption of a terrorist campaign; and that paramilitary organisations will be stood down altogether as soon as possible. Whatever their real intentions—and in the case of the IRA I share my right honourable friend's assessment that it has never been further from a return to its campaign—nothing could be more damaging than the sense that options were being kept open in that way.

"The judgments I make about the cease-fires have to be made in the round, taking into account all relevant factors, including those which the statute obliges me to take into account. That is what I will continue to do. But with the passage of time it is right that these judgments should become increasingly rigorous. In reviewing the cease-fires, I will give particular weight to any substantiated information that a paramilitary organisation is engaged in training, targeting, acquisition or development of arms or weapons, or any similar preparations for a terrorist campaign in Northern Ireland or elsewhere. I say to the House—lest there be any doubt on the matter—that I will not hesitate to use the powers Parliament has given me if the circumstances require it.

"There is also still a threat from organisations, both loyalist and republican, which are not on cease-fire. The Irish authorities have already had some notable successes against dissident republicans. Separately and together, we will counter those who cling to violence with all the resources at our disposal.

"I have made it absolutely clear that violence is unacceptable and pledged once again to do all in our power to achieve its elimination. I will not pretend to the House that it is within the Government's power to solve all these problems on our own or by security measures alone.

"That is why we must keep in mind the enormous benefits which the political agreement has brought and will continue to bring as we complete its implementation. These include government of Northern Ireland by the people of Northern Ireland, with locally elected representatives in a cross-community administration.

"The stability of those institutions is not a concession to paramilitaries. On the contrary, it provides a platform for putting their activities in the past, where they belong. The steps I have announced today are most definitely not intended to threaten the democratic institutions, but to buttress democracy against violence. We should never forget how much we have to lose. It is essential that the political representatives on all sides who have done so much to create and sustain the agreement should, by reaffirming and observing their commitment to exclusively peaceful and democratic means, ensure its continuation.

"I have set out the measures in response to the violence in Northern Ireland. But the success of the peace process will require courage, patience and endurance from everyone involved. It will be a long haul. But that could not be otherwise in what is an historic attempt to end what is at heart an ancient conflict".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Photo of Lord Glentoran Lord Glentoran Conservative 5:01 pm, 24th July 2002

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal for repeating the Statement. Perhaps, with your Lordships' indulgence, I may be allowed to join with the noble and learned Lord in expressing sympathy to the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, as regards whatever happened this afternoon. The noble Viscount has been outstanding in his courage throughout the past 30 years. He deserves our best wishes.

For those of us who are familiar with the affairs of Northern Ireland, it is not difficult to see why the Government were forced to make this Statement. Over recent months there has been an alarming deterioration in confidence in the agreement on the part of the people of Northern Ireland. Many would say that the Government have completely lost their way and that in many areas the rule of law no longer applies.

While many of the institutions established under the agreement are working well—the Executive and the Assembly, for example—the agreement has failed to deliver in one key area. Despite the fact that all those who signed up to the Belfast agreement pledged to pursue their objective by exclusively peaceful and democratic means, paramilitary violence in Northern Ireland remains a daily fact of life for too many people. The violence is obviously on a lower scale than it was, say, 10 years ago, although in certain parts of Belfast it is very similar. Mothers are afraid to let their children into the streets. Families wonder whether the one who has gone shopping will come back; the fear is permanently present if someone is late. That is happening today in many parts of the Province.

Over the past four years we have seen a number of breaches of cease-fires to which the Government have simply turned a blind eye. In recent months the breaches have become even more blatant. There has been the violence in and around the Short Strand area of east Belfast, clearly orchestrated by republican and loyalist paramilitaries. There have the events at Castlereagh—almost certainly the work of the IRA. We have had evidence of the renewed targeting of politicians and military installations. There have been the revelations of IRA involvement with the narco-terrorist group, FARC, and, as is thought likely, with the testing of new weapons in Colombia. In parts of Belfast, beatings, shootings and mutilations take place on a daily basis. Racketeering, intimidation and smuggling are big business, raking in millions for paramilitary gang bosses. Surely all of this is a far cry from the prospect of the complete end to violence offered by the Belfast agreement.

Will the noble and learned Lord please define for the House what will in future constitute a breach of the cease-fire? Four years on, there is little sign that we are much closer to what the agreement describes as,

"the complete disarmament of all paramilitary organisations", or to what the Prime Minister said would be,

"the progressive disbandment of paramilitary structures".

Do the Government accept that PIRA is better armed today and a technically more sophisticated force than it has ever been? It is these failings that have created a deep crisis of confidence in the peace agreement, particularly among moderate unionists, many of whom, it should be remembered, were reluctantly persuaded to support the agreement, and such factors as the release of terrorist prisoners, on the basis that it offered an end to violence and after hearing the Prime Minister's pledges.

Unless confidence is restored, we shall face—indeed, I believe we are facing—a real crisis and the possible collapse of the political institutions before we even reach next May's elections. I do not believe that the Statement will do anything to help that situation.

I welcome some parts of the Statement, but I regret that it contains very little of substance. The noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal will forgive me for reminding him that we have been here before. When the Prime Minister defined the cease-fire during the referendum campaign on the agreement in May 1998, he said that a "complete and unequivocal cease-fire" meant,

"an end to bombings, killings and beatings, claimed or unclaimed; an end to targeting and procurement of weapons; progressive abandonment and dismantling of paramilitary structures actively directing and promoting violence".

I shall not say that he repeated it verbatim, but I heard him almost repeat that statement about an hour ago in another place.

The Prime Minister went on to say that the tests against which the cease-fires would be judged would become "more rigorous over time". Yet the very reverse appears to have happened. The tests have become less rigorous, indeed they are almost non-existent.

So will the noble and learned Lord give an assurance that, following today's Statement, there will be no more fudges and no more blind eyes? Furthermore, will he confirm that the Government will not tolerate any further breaches of the cease-fires; and that, unlike in the past four years, when many breaches have taken place, the Government will act?

The noble and learned Lord said that the Government would use the powers that Parliament had given them should the circumstances so require. Can he assure the House that, in the event of IRA breaches, the Government will not hesitate to use their powers under the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to table a Motion before the Assembly seeking the exclusion of Sinn Fein from the Executive? That is not a very strong threat, particularly if it is likely that the SDLP would not support such a Motion. It would be valueless in that situation.

Regarding those paramilitaries without political representation in the Executive or the Assembly, republican dissidents and the loyalist groups, will the noble and learned Lord undertake to consult with the Dublin Government and those in the United States Administration to see what further effective penalties can be imposed so that specifying an organisation has some real rather than merely symbolic meaning?

Will the noble and learned Lord state clearly that any party in breach of the agreement or linked to a paramilitary group not maintaining a complete and unequivocal cease-fire will not be allowed to sit in the Executive following next May's elections?

I welcome what the noble and learned Lord said about the need to tackle the appalling street violence in Belfast and other parts of Northern Ireland. Only this week we saw another sickening murder—of a young Catholic, Gerard Lawlor, which I am sure we all deeply regret. However, it was one of many attacks on both Protestants and Catholics. Any initiatives to deal with this will have our support.

Does the noble and learned Lord not agree, however, that the most effective counter to violence is a well-motivated and full-strength police force? Does he therefore share my alarm at the current strength of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, which is already below the levels envisaged by Patten in infinitely more favourable security circumstances? Will he now give a categorical assurance that police numbers will not be allowed to fall any further, and that in the foreseeable future there can be no question of phasing out the full-time reserve who are literally indispensable?

The Conservative Party continues to support the Belfast agreement. We desperately want it to succeed. However, the situation is now critical. The Government have a short window of opportunity to rebuild confidence and restore momentum in the political process. I urge them to grasp it. I seriously fear the consequences if they do not do so.

Photo of Lord Smith of Clifton Lord Smith of Clifton Liberal Democrat 5:11 pm, 24th July 2002

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for repeating the Statement by his right honourable friend in another place. I should like first to say that we on these Benches unequivocally condemn the murder of Gerard Lawlor and extend our sympathies to his family. Similarly, we would associate ourselves with the sentiments expressed about the explosion on the property of the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough.

We absolutely agree that there are no acceptable levels of violence, and accordingly welcome the steps that have been announced today by the Government. We particularly underline the need to promote further local dialogue and partnerships. The most effective way of dealing with terrorism and general mayhem is for the local communities to come together to make clear that they will dissociate themselves from it and do all they can to stop it.

I have two questions for the Lord Privy Seal. First, how will the Secretary of State aim to progress his intention to supplement the judgments he makes about the cease-fires? Will he be introducing some facility for the objective independent assessment of paramilitary activity in relation to the cease-fires? We particularly welcomed that part of the Statement which said that he sought to supplement the judgments he made about the cease-fires, and that he was willing to consult widely on the idea of how it might best be done and make his views known after the Summer Recess.

We think that that is an important way forward. So often in Northern Ireland, it has been necessary to bring in both internal and external assessors to make objective statements about situations which were otherwise contentious. It helps to take some of the contention out of debate. We would welcome that if the Secretary of State were so minded.

Secondly, does the noble and learned Lord agree that political party leaderships should redouble their efforts to influence the paramilitaries on both sides of the community? Very often in this House—I have no reason to disagree with it—it is invariably assumed that Sinn Fein can exercise great influence over the IRA. Rarely, however, is it assumed that the various Unionist parties have the capacity effectively to constrain the dissident loyalist paramilitaries. Does the Minister agree, given the greater degree of violence exhibited by the loyalist groups recently, that much greater efforts should be made by the elected Unionist leaderships to lessen these recent outbreaks of violence which are becoming a regular feature in the Short Strand area among many others?

Photo of Lord Williams of Mostyn Lord Williams of Mostyn President of the Council, Privy Council Office, Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Lords 5:14 pm, 24th July 2002

My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords who have spoken.

I shall, if I may, respond immediately to the questions put by the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton. The step of asking Professor Goldstock was a very imaginative one; a subtle step where subtlety is required. Professor Goldstock is of course internationally known as an expert on organised crime. As my right honourable friend said, he sees a case for shining a light on levels of paramilitary violence, which is, I think, what was endorsed by the noble Lord, Lord Smith. My right honourable friend is certainly perfectly open-minded. He is happy to consult widely and wants to come to an informed conclusion in about the timescale that the noble Lord mentioned.

I think that the noble Lord is absolutely right on party political leadership. There has been very significant—allegedly loyalist—violence. It is not simply elected politicians who have a duty; of course, there are community leaders. I have to say that, on the information available to me, some community leaders from both sides have been trying to calm tempers. One needs to bear in mind also, I think, that some crime is deeply and desperately anti-social but is not necessarily politically based or motivated. Organised gangs may pretend to have a political motive and motivation, but what really drives them is the thought of vast amounts of cash. It is an extremely attractive proposition to them, if they can get away with it.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, asked about the Secretary of State's powers under the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Of course, the Secretary of State has certain statutory obligations in Section 30(7) of that Act. If he is minded to come to a conclusion that would require his serving a notice on the Presiding Officer requiring a motion to be moved for the removal from office of a Minister or junior Minister, he has particularly to take into account whether the Minister, junior Minister or relevant political party,

"is committed to the use now and in the future of only democratic and peaceful means to achieve his or its objectives . . . has ceased to be involved in any acts of violence or of preparation for violence . . . is directing or promoting acts of violence by other persons . . . is co-operating . . . with any Commission of the kind referred to in", the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997.

The Secretary of State is resolute. He intends to use those powers if they seem to be appropriate. He is bound, of course, by those statutory considerations. However, it is useful, as the noble Lord, Lord Smith, said, for his judgment to be supplemented by the sort of material that has been described.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, put the proposition that the Provisional IRA is better armed today and more sophisticated than ever before. I personally would not be in a position to comment on that. I know that various views are held, and they may be rightly held. My proposition, however, is that there has been the maintenance, by and large, of an effective cease-fire. The numbers that I spoke of in the Statement are not used for forensic or political advantage. However, the decline from 470 to six—six too many, this year—is something that has been worth an enormous struggle and great patience.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, quoted the Prime Minister's words, with which of course I entirely agree. He is quite right that the Prime Minister has spoken them on a number of occasions. I think that the noble Lord is right in saying that we can not have fudges or blind eyes. The law has to apply to all.

As for the question on Dublin and the United States administration, I can happily reconfirm that relations between the White House, Her Majesty's Government and the Government of the Republic of Ireland in Dublin have never been more co-operative. It is heartening indeed to see the successes that the republic's forces have achieved in their fight against terrorists. It may be necessary to remind ourselves that the powers that obtain in the Republic of Ireland in relation to the seizure of assets have historically been much more vigorous and draconian than anything that we have had, which is why the Secretary of State made reference to the Proceeds of Crime Bill, which is to receive Royal Assent today.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, asked me about the judgment that the Secretary of State might come to following the May elections for the Assembly in Belfast. I repeat that he will discharge his statutory duty on the grounds set out in Section 30(7).

As regards Patten and the police force, I agree entirely with the noble Lord that a fully equipped and supported police force is essential. It is a great cause of regret that although the Roman Catholic Church has encouraged its members to join the police force, Sinn Fein has not. I believe that on previous occasions the noble Lord asked why Sinn Fein has not done so. I have no answer to that save that I agree with him. I refer to the review by the oversight commissioner announced on 30th April. The commissioner can report on any aspect of the new policing arrangements.

I believe that I have answered the questions that were asked. I am particularly grateful that both noble Lords who spoke endorsed what all your Lordships feel about the cowardly attack on a good parliamentarian who serves on the police board and discharges his duty admirably.

Photo of Lord Maginnis of Drumglass Lord Maginnis of Drumglass UUP 5:21 pm, 24th July 2002

My Lords, I, too, endorse what has been said by noble Lords in respect of the cowardly attack on the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough. I condemn all killings and all violence whether that violence emanates from loyalist or from republicans in Northern Ireland. It is a scourge on our community. Does the noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal accept that we must be more specific in the analysis of the problem if we are to tackle it in an effective way? Does he agree that loyalist violence—although I condemn it totally—emanates largely from independent action by thugs who are set about with sectarianism and whose main objective is to kill a member of the Roman Catholic community? That particular violence could be dealt with much more effectively if Sinn Fein was willing to promote among its supporters support for the Police Service of Northern Ireland. That lack of support and the inability of the police service to operate without fear of attack on its members inhibit the war against loyalist terrorism which could be controlled. There is comparatively little support for that kind of terrorism.

The failure of Sinn Fein members of the Executive to condemn the attempted murder of a young Roman Catholic police officer a few weeks ago is tantamount to support for that crime. It is by that attitude that Adams and McGuinness stand condemned. Do the Government recognise that through their inactivity in regard to implementing promises that were made four years ago they are hanging a millstone around the neck of David Trimble? He cannot be expected to carry alone the burden of the Belfast agreement. Will the Government stop ignoring the small infringements which mount up to the extent that we are now reaching a point where perhaps the whole edifice of democracy could crumble around our heads?

Photo of Lord Williams of Mostyn Lord Williams of Mostyn President of the Council, Privy Council Office, Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, not for the first time I am grateful for the robust way in which the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, has spoken. I absolutely agree that loyalists or republicans who are breaking the law need to be condemned in the robust way that the noble Lord did.

There is undoubtedly an overlap between alleged political activity on the streets, which is criminal, and simply destructive crime. The noble Lord is right to say that a good deal of that crime constitutes independent action by thugs—to use his word—motivated by sectarianism. I believe that most of us consider that poor Mr Lawlor was murdered simply because he was a Roman Catholic. That is how it appears.

The noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, is right to say that any attack on a serving police officer ought to be condemned by everyone in the community, whatever their political views, and by those with no political views. I repeat that it is a source of regret to Her Majesty's Government that Sinn Fein will not encourage those who support it at the ballot box to support the police directly by joining them or less directly through general support in the community.

Photo of Lord Tebbit Lord Tebbit Conservative

My Lords, I hope that I may direct the noble and learned Lord's mind to the words which appeared early in the Statement concerning the activity of the security forces along the interfaces between the communities. Is that not a token, in an oblique way, of the situation in Northern Ireland's great cities, Belfast and Londonderry, and of the existence of no-go areas which are as surely a fact now as they were 30 years ago when physical barriers existed? The security forces operate along the interfaces. Will the noble and learned Lord assure us that there are no parts of those two great cities which are not regularly policed by the Police Service of Northern Ireland? For, by all accounts, it is within those areas where gangs of terrorists and members of terrorist armies maintain their form of order and their laws to protect their criminal activities involving drugs, protection rackets and other such things which finance their armies. Does the noble and learned Lord agree that those forces have the power so to intimidate witnesses that although it is widely known who committed the atrocity at Omagh it has proved impossible to bring them to justice because Sinn Fein/IRA is protecting them?

Photo of Lord Williams of Mostyn Lord Williams of Mostyn President of the Council, Privy Council Office, Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, the noble Lord has made that final point on other occasions outside the Chamber as well as inside it. I do not know whether the noble Lord is correct. I suspect that there is undoubtedly intimidation of witnesses. However, I cannot attribute that to Sinn Fein on any material that I have.

The noble Lord mentioned the reference to "interfaces" in the Statement. However, that takes into account geography, social facts and history. There are distinct communities in the areas referred to. There is no question of no-go areas. The action that was taken was remarkably robust. Over 250 additional police officers and soldiers have been brought in "to dominate the interfaces". They are stopping and checking vehicles and individuals in an attempt to strike at exactly the vice the noble Lord described; namely, the operations of armed gangs. However, I reiterate my earlier comment: it is a mistake for us always to think that armed criminal gangs are motivated by any form of politics. They are motivated by greed and may use sectarianism as some sort of despicable cover for what is actually straightforward criminal activity.

Photo of Lord Dubs Lord Dubs Chair of Labour Peers

My Lords, my noble and learned friend referred to the situation at the interfaces. I seek more detail on the situation in north Belfast. He referred to an additional 250 members of the security forces who have been brought in. Is my noble and learned friend satisfied that the security forces have adequate personnel in that area to deal with the violence which seems to be occurring on a nightly basis?

Furthermore, is there any evidence of political links with the loyalists or republicans involved in the violence in north Belfast; is the Real IRA or some other republican group involved? It would be helpful if the Government knew.

Photo of Lord Williams of Mostyn Lord Williams of Mostyn President of the Council, Privy Council Office, Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Dubs. Ultimately, these decisions are rightly operational decisions for the Chief Constable, who is, and remains, the chief security adviser to the Secretary of State. His judgment has been that these officers and soldiers are required in that particular area. I repeat: it is not simply the stopping of vehicles; it is actually keeping surveillance on known paramilitaries.

My noble friend asked about evidence. We know there was a published claim by a particular paramilitary organisation for the cruel murder of Gerald Lawlor. Evidence is hard to come by; intelligence is different. Unfortunately, the latter is not always available for use in court under our present system.

Photo of Baroness O'Cathain Baroness O'Cathain Conservative

My Lords, I would like to ask the noble and learned Lord whether there is a sense of urgency about what is happening; it certainly does not come through in the Statement. We are told that the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General will,

"lead an examination of police powers, bail arrangements and the scope for additional criminal offences".

He will also examine other things. We are told that the Secretary of State has already asked Professor Ron Goldstock to assist in assessing the scale of the problem. The Secretary of State says that he sees,

"a case for doing something similar, to shine a light on levels of paramilitary violence in the community", and to supplement judgments made about cease-fires,

"I will consult widely about... how it might best be done, and make my views known after the summer break".

That does not give one a great sense of confidence that the matter is being tackled with the sense of urgency that everyone in this House would want, particularly in light of the closeness to home of the attack on the property of the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough.

Photo of Lord Williams of Mostyn Lord Williams of Mostyn President of the Council, Privy Council Office, Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, I take the noble Baroness's point, which I will try to divide into two parts. There is suspicion in Northern Ireland—so far as I am aware—that the true facts about paramilitary activity may not always be fully disclosed. In some circumstances, as the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, pointed out, witnesses are intimidated and cases are not brought to court, so that the public feels—legitimately, I believe—that if there is no prosecution and court case no proper information is being disclosed. That is what my right honourable friend is talking about; he wants to shine a light on it.

It seems to me that he is wise to cast the net wide, as he did with Professor Goldstock on organised criminal activity, and he wants some assistance, as the noble Lord, Lord Smith, said, to supplement his judgment about what is actually going on, as opposed to successful convictions, for instance. Unfortunately, while a good deal of criminal activity does not go undetected as to its commission, it is not successfully prosecuted for various reasons.

So there is a sense of urgency; that is illustrated by the fact that the Secretary of State was adamant that he wished to make the Statement before the House of Commons rose for the Summer Recess. There is no doubt that the security forces, with the Chief Constable—our chief adviser—are extremely rigorous in what they are attempting to do.

That is not easy, because most successful police work depends on the freely given, undivided consent and support of the population. That is not universally to be found in these areas.

Photo of Lord Corbett of Castle Vale Lord Corbett of Castle Vale Labour

My Lords, will my noble and learned friend tell the House whether there is any intelligence to suggest that some of those engaged in the peace process from either or both traditions are using the paramilitaries who stand behind them to try to influence the outcome of next May's Assembly elections? Does he agree that none of us can allow the paramilitaries to thwart the will of the peoples of the island of Ireland, who expect their elected politicians to make the peace process work?

Photo of Lord Williams of Mostyn Lord Williams of Mostyn President of the Council, Privy Council Office, Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, I entirely accept what my noble friend said in his last proposition. One cannot use surrogates simply to pretend that one is a legitimate politician. I am not going to pretend to your Lordships that all is well—it would be foolish to try to do so. It plainly is not, as the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, described.

I will say—although I appreciate that it is scant comfort and I know perfectly well that I have not suffered at first hand—that the statement made by the IRA recently was extremely significant. Many will say that it was not sufficient. Many will say that they disagree with parts of it. But it is an extremely significant statement that bears re-reading and re-consideration. I say that with all humility, because I recognise that there are those in this House who have served as Secretaries of State and who have much more knowledge of Northern Ireland than I. But I would put forward that proposition.

It is not appropriate, wise, or indeed customary, for me to say anything about intelligence matters for the usual convention.

Photo of Baroness Blood Baroness Blood Labour

My Lords, I read the Statement this afternoon with a great deal of scepticism. It put me in mind of an old song, "Words are all I have to steal your heart away". The Statement talks about security forces bearing down on and denying freedom for paramilitaries to operate. Bearing in mind that this is my area, so I am aware of what is happening, perhaps I may ask whether there will be 250 extra police? I am asking that because coming up to 11th July we were informed by the PSNI that there had been stockpiling of weapons and that buses of groups of young men had been taken into the area for riots and were not stopped. So will these police be an extra benefit to that area? I would hope to see them on the streets.

My second question to the noble and learned Lord is about the research already referred to, the results of which will be available after the summer break. For many of us, that is probably too long. Will the research be acted on? We have seen so many pieces of research; I heard someone saying in the lunch hour that Northern Ireland is the most researched area here.

Photo of Lord Williams of Mostyn Lord Williams of Mostyn President of the Council, Privy Council Office, Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, the answer to the noble Baroness's first question is yes, these are 250 additional police officers and soldiers. I take her ironic—or perhaps not even ironic—comment about Northern Ireland being the most researched community in the world. The Secretary of State has not gone to the trouble of appointing an expert on organised crime or setting out his colours here simply to ignore the matter; he is treating it with great seriousness.

Photo of Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville Conservative

My Lords, I express my concern for my noble kinsman Lord Brookeborough, and I hope that for family reasons I may be allowed to include the Viscountess in those words. Those of us who put questions to Ministers after Statements sometimes ask for debates and are reasonably diverted to the business managers. Can the Minister give us any encouragement that when we return in October we might have a general stocktaking debate on Northern Ireland to concentrate during the intervening recess the minds of those of us who take these matters seriously?

Photo of Lord Williams of Mostyn Lord Williams of Mostyn President of the Council, Privy Council Office, Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, I will certainly give that suggestion every appropriate consideration and discuss it. I know that the noble Lord will smile with the business managers, but I do not control the business in this House. I will give it every proper consideration.

Photo of Lord Mayhew of Twysden Lord Mayhew of Twysden Conservative

My Lords, I endorse my noble friend Lord Brooke's suggestion. Of course one wants to think about the Statement. One point in it gives me particular anxiety; that relating to the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General having been asked to lead an examination of police powers, bail arrangements and scope for additional criminal offences and to see whether any changes can be made in the criminal law.

I understand that when any government comes under the pressure of events, there is a great urge—I would say, temptation—to do something of that character. I offer the thought that it nearly always comes back to haunt you. Things done in a hurry on that basis nearly always turn out to have more disadvantages than advantages. I suggest that what is needed here is not new laws or powers—they have been thought of carefully by successive governments over a long time—but to bring the police up to strength.

Photo of Lord Williams of Mostyn Lord Williams of Mostyn President of the Council, Privy Council Office, Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, I cannot disagree with any of those propositions. The Patten review will be reporting on the progress of the first year. There is the temptation to do things quickly just for the sake of doing things. The noble and learned Lord and I would both recognise the dangerous dogs syndrome. Perhaps I ought not to intrude into recent history. There are nevertheless some aspects that could be looked at quite promptly—for instance, how bail may be working, which it is perfectly helpful and useful to have a Law Officer do.

Photo of Baroness Park of Monmouth Baroness Park of Monmouth Conservative

My Lords, will the Secretary of State at any stage consider the question of what might be called a payment on account by Sinn Fein/IRA—that is, a commitment to allow the return of the exiled families? I welcome the fact that he is going to shine a light. It is time that it was shone and I am delighted. However, most of the suggestions will not mean anything to the ordinary man and woman on the street in Northern Ireland. They need to be told that something real is going to happen.

My other point is that we are not looking solely at a collection of criminals operating because they want to make money. That applies to either side, loyalist or republican. Certainly, in the case of Sinn Fein/IRA, we are looking at paramilitaries who wish to continue to exert total political power. It is a political issue. Therefore it seems to me vital that the Secretary of State should without delay set in motion some kind of negotiation with Sinn Fein/IRA to require them to turn off the tap, as they were able to do when Clinton came and as they could do again. If they want to show real regret and a real wish to improve matters, let them do that. Let us forget the past and ask them to act on the future.

Photo of Lord Williams of Mostyn Lord Williams of Mostyn President of the Council, Privy Council Office, Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, I cannot dispute what the noble Baroness says. We have discussed it frequently and that is as it should be. There is pressure put on about the return of those who have been driven from their homes. The noble Baroness and I have been in recent correspondence at some length about it. I was not suggesting that some groups are not carrying out criminal activity because they want to fund their political purposes. I am suggesting that there is sometimes a tendency to overlook the fact that some people commit crimes of violence and greed because they are violent, greedy people and have no connection with politics. One has only to look at the drug-related crimes in Dublin, for instance. I have never heard anyone pretend that they are related to any political activity.