Northern Ireland

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:01 pm on 24th July 2002.

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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.