Northern Ireland

Part of the debate – 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, 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.