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Direction given on 1 April 2005 by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland under the Northern Ireland Act 1998, regarding Reduction of Financial Assistance

– in the House of Lords at 6:49 pm on 14th June 2005.

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Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

My Lords, I beg to move that the direction made under Section 51B(2) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 made on 1 April by my right honourable friend the then Secretary of State, the right honourable Member for Torfaen, and laid before this House on 4 April, be approved. It gives me no pleasure to bring the direction before your Lordships' House tonight, but it is necessary.

The direction took effect on 29 April and removed Sinn Fein's entitlement to the financial assistance payable to Northern Ireland political parties for 12 months from that date. The approval of both Houses of Parliament is, of course, required. I understand that the House of Commons will deal with the issue later this week. The background to the direction will be familiar to your Lordships so I can be brief. However, it may be helpful if I summarise the key events before turning to the substance of the direction.

The direction follows the report of the Independent Monitoring Commission that was laid in Parliament and published on 10 February—I believe that it was the fourth report—on the Northern Bank robbery and other crimes that it attributed to the Provisional IRA. The Independent Monitoring Commission's report stated that Sinn Fein must bear its share of responsibility for the incidents to which it referred, and it recommended that the Secretary of State should consider exercising the powers he has in the absence of the Northern Ireland Assembly to impose financial measures on Sinn Fein; that is, a financial penalty.

The matters that lie behind the direction have been debated here on a number of occasions. My right honourable friend the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland made a Statement in the other place on 11 January in the immediate aftermath of the Northern Bank robbery. My noble friend the Leader of the House repeated that Statement in your Lordships' House on the same day. The Statement set out the impact of the robbery on the political process and the damaging effect that it had had on the Government's efforts to restore the devolved institutions.

The then Secretary of State made a further Statement in the other place on 22 February after the publication of the Independent Monitoring Commission's report on the Northern Bank robbery. He said that, having reflected on the commission's report, he had concluded that it would be appropriate to make a direction to remove Sinn Fein's entitlement to financial assistance. The direction would be for 12 months, the maximum permitted under the legislation. As required, he would take into account any representations made by Sinn Fein before reaching a final decision. The Statement was repeated in your Lordships' House the same day. Having provided Sinn Fein with an opportunity to make representations, the then Secretary of State decided that it would be appropriate to make a direction, and, as I said, he did so on 1 April.

Your Lordships will know that there was a further debate in the other place on 10 March on the Government's Motion to suspend Sinn Fein's entitlement to Westminster allowances for 12 months.

I turn to the substance of the direction. It removes Sinn Fein's entitlement to payments under the Financial Assistance for Political Parties Scheme for 12 months from 29 April 2005. Your Lordships will be aware that it is the second such direction against Sinn Fein. A similar financial penalty was imposed for the period from 29 April 2004 to 28 April 2005, following the Independent Monitoring Commission's first report in April 2004. That report attributed an attempted abduction to the Provisional IRA, and the Independent Monitoring Commission recommended that financial measures be imposed on Sinn Fein.

There was support in the various debates that I have mentioned for action to be taken. The need for the direction reflects the problems that have blighted the political process in Northern Ireland; that is, ongoing paramilitary activity, criminality and untold incidents of sheer gangsterism. The Prime Minister and the Secretary of State have made it absolutely clear that that has to stop and be seen to stop for there to be progress. As I said, it gives me no pleasure to have to bring the matter before the House. We very much hope that in the period ahead we shall see movement from the Provisional IRA that ensures that the final transition to exclusively peaceful and democratic means is achieved. That is our first priority, and it is our overwhelming desire.

On the assumption that that movement occurs, there will continue to be an important role for the Independent Monitoring Commission in attesting that the reality matches the commitments. Moreover, the Independent Monitoring Commission has a responsibility in relation to all paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland, from whatever source it comes. It has published a more recent report on which the Government will pronounce in due course.

I want, therefore, to take the opportunity to pay tribute to the members of the commission for their reports and for the contribution that they make to promoting peace and stability in Northern Ireland. I commend the direction to the House.

Moved, That the direction laid before the House on 4 April be approved—(Lord Rooker.)

Photo of Lord Glentoran Lord Glentoran Spokespersons In the Lords, Northern Ireland

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that statement, which is really what it was. I welcome many of the words that he used. I am delighted to hear the tough words from the Government. Like the Minister, I am sorry that he has had to bring the direction before the House and that the position regarding Sinn Fein/IRA and the situation in Northern Ireland are as they are. Indeed, I was sorry that some time back Sinn Fein was granted the privileges that we are discussing. I argued against it on the sidelines but, as your Lordships know, that is the privilege of the Speaker of the other place and was nothing to do with us in your Lordships' House.

We are where we are. I am sad that we are still where we are, but I welcome the action that Her Majesty's Government have taken in this respect. I also welcome the strength of the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, this evening. I support the Motion.

Photo of Lord Laird Lord Laird Crossbench

My Lords, I welcome the introduction of the direction tonight to make at least some point to Sinn Fein and its supporters that their activities and behaviour over the past couple of years have been beyond the democratic pale. Many of us hoped that Sinn Fein would move towards being a party supported, backed and operated in a purely democratic way. We were frustrated in that rather naive wish.

Recent events, including the Northern Bank robbery, have painted a nasty and unacceptable picture of Sinn Fein/IRA's methods of fundraising through theft and money laundering. In the past few weeks, I have outlined to your Lordships' House information about Sinn Fein/IRA's activities, which are now becoming known as "white-collar terrorism".

Money is of no object to Sinn Fein and its supporters. Four million US dollars were recently forthcoming from well meaning, if misguided, Irish Americans to what is widely believed to be Sinn Fein's intelligence-gathering operation in the Irish Republic, the Centre for Public Inquiry.

I note that the former High Court judge, Fergus Flood, is happy to allow his name to be associated with the organisation. Yet, he has refused to question the organisation's chief executive on why he travelled to Colombia on false passports with a well-known IRA member to collect £2 million—a part payment to the IRA by FARC terrorists for providing training and expertise on bomb making. Mr Flood's silence is deafening and will not go unnoticed. I support the direction.

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

My Lords, I am grateful to those who have spoken in support of the direction.

On Question, Motion agreed to.