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Northern Ireland

Volume 405: debated on Wednesday 21 May 2003

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The Secretary of State was asked

Peace Process

1.

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the peace process. [113801]

6.

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the peace process. [113806]

We shall continue to work for the restoration of trust necessary for the effective functioning of the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland, on the basis of the Good Friday agreement and the proposals published by the two Governments earlier this month, with the aim of holding elections to the Assembly in the autumn. Progress depends on absolute clarity on both the future of paramilitarism, and the stability of the institutions.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, on the one hand, we need absolute clarity about the end of paramilitary operations and, on the other hand, we need to make it clear that if the IRA co-operates in that way, we will not allow further hurdles to be put in place to stop it playing its full part in the democratic process?

I agree that trust is absolutely necessary for the process to succeed. There is no question but that the breakdown of trust was the reason for the Assembly's suspension last October, which was a direct consequence of paramilitary activity. My hon. Friend knows that during the past few weeks various efforts have been made to try to ensure that we get greater clarity from the IRA. We have made some progress, but not enough.

It is interesting that this week's Belfast News Letter contained the results of an opinion poll. It clearly showed:
"If IRA made a statement that they would never again use weapons under any circumstances",
support in Northern Ireland for the restoration of the institutions would greatly increase. Indeed, the poll also showed:
"If IRA decommissioned all weapons and disbanded",
that support would increase even more.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the postponement of elections to the Assembly brings the danger of a period of drift for the peace process, which is certainly to be avoided? Will he consider, as a matter of urgency, convening a paragraph 8 comprehensive review of the agreement that would involve dialogue among all the parties in the Province? That will have to be done by December at the latest, in any case.

The hon. Gentleman is right: we cannot allow a vacuum to exist in the months ahead. As he will know, representatives of the Government met representatives of the Irish Government in London yesterday and had more than three and a half hours of discussions and negotiations about where we should go. Both Governments agreed that we should ensure that the momentum continues and that we maintain progress. To that end, I shall hold a series of meetings in Belfast over the next two or three weeks with parties in Northern Ireland to find out how we can best make progress. The hon. Gentleman is also right that the paragraph 8 review needs to be held before the year is out. I shall take soundings among the political parties to find out their opinions on the best time for the holding of the review.

The Secretary of State has often stated that clarity and trust must be established to process the re-establishment of the institutions of Northern Ireland. He says that he will negotiate with the parties. Will he state clearly that all parties will negotiate together so that the atmosphere of secret deals being done may be permanently eradicated? In the aftermath of the Stakeknife revelations, will he accept that trust in the Government as an impartial participant has been seriously eroded and that action needs to be taken? Will he state that an appropriate and urgent inquiry on Government participation in the Stakeknife process will be undertaken?

I cannot comment on intelligence issues. I do not agree with my hon. Friend that trust in the Government has broken down due to recent newspaper reports. I think that he would agree that after three decades of conflict and division in Northern Ireland, it is almost inevitable that issues such as those to which he refers will come out over time. It is important for everyone to realise that the process is sufficiently robust to withstand such circumstances.

On the round-table talks, I shall listen to what the parties say during the coming weeks. I rule out no specific format or process. We are all concerned with whatever is best for movement forward so that we can restore the institutions and hold elections.

I am sure that the Secretary of State will agree that, if and when we have a successful peace process, one of the great benefits for Northern Ireland will be the opening up of the Province's tremendous tourist potential. Does he realise that other countries throughout the world put a lot of money behind their constitutional celebrations, such as the United States, which promotes Independence day on 4 July, and France, which promotes Bastille day on 14 July? When will the Northern Ireland Office give some support to our great constitutional celebrations, which are coming up on 12 July and 12 August, to promote the colour, the pageantry and the music, and to bring tourists into Northern Ireland to celebrate the great constitutional events in our history?

The hon. Gentleman is right: tourism has increased tremendously over the past number of years. One of the great advantages of the Good Friday agreement is the fact that tourism has been able to increase. I know that the hon. Gentleman would agree with that. People now come to the island of Ireland in numbers that they never did before, as a consequence of the great progress that has been made, economically and socially, over the past five years.

I shall have to consult on the other matter that the hon. Gentleman raised. I know that the different traditions in Northern Ireland enrich Northern Ireland, and as a consequence people want to go there.

May I give the Secretary of State the opportunity to complete the answer that the Under-Secretary attempted to give in a recent debate that was cut off because of a shortage of time? Will he tell the House, in clear and precise language and without using terms that can be conveniently interpreted at a later time, what the IRA—an illegal terrorist organisation—must say and do before ordinary, decent people in Northern Ireland can exercise their democratic right to vote?

It is encapsulated in paragraph 13 of the joint declaration, on which the two Governments agreed. That is as clear as crystal. There should be a full, immediate and permanent end to paramilitary activity, by which we mean targeting, training, the procurement of weapons and surveillance. There must also be an end to paramilitary beatings and so-called punishment beatings, to the incitement of rioting and to exiling.

Will the Secretary of State tell the House, frankly and clearly, which aspects of the joint declaration he proposes to go ahead with and implement in any event, and specific ally which are contingent on acts of completion by paramilitaries?

The issues that are contingent on acts of completion include the legislation and details of on-the-runs. They include what has been termed the so-called Sinn Fein clauses in the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2003, which have to return to this place for agreement by both Houses after restoration, and the full normalisation package, which is in the annexe to the joint declaration. The issues that will be implemented are those that should be implemented because they are part of the Good Friday agreement. They include human rights, equality, the Irish language, Ulster-Scots, criminal justice and other matters.

I appreciate that clear answer. Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House what he has got in return for agreeing to dismantle the two observation towers in South Armagh?

I hope that we have got progress in the process. The dismantling of the two towers was part of the normal process of returning to a normal society in Northern Ireland. The hon. Gentleman knows that the normalisation package—the annexe to the joint declaration—referred to normalisation at a much greater pace and at a much greater intensity. That does not mean that we will not go further with what is necessary to ensure that Northern Ireland returns to being a normal place.

Stevens Inquiry

2.

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the Stevens inquiry. [113802]

Sir John Stevens's report is to the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

Sir John has indicated that specific criminal investigations continue and that files will continue to be sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland. It is important that the criminal justice process takes its course.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. What will the Government do to get to the bottom of allegations of collusion and murder by members of the security forces? What assurances can my hon. Friend give the House that the Government are pressing for total co-operation in the supply of information by members of the security forces? Will she confirm that it will never be this Government's policy that murder can be justified, even to protect valuable intelligence sources?

The Government take allegations of collusion very seriously. We will study the recommendations that Sir John Stevens makes in his report. The recommendations are a matter for the Chief Constable to take forward, but it is precisely because we take allegations of collusion so seriously that the British and Irish Governments appointed the Canadian judge, Peter Cory, in May 2002 to examine allegations in relation to six high profile cases, with a view to advising what further action, if any, is needed.

We have always required public authorities to act within established guidelines when using covert human intelligence sources. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 has improved structures for the management of informants and ensured greater accountability.

I am sure that the Minister will join me in admiring the work of the policemen, policewomen, soldiers and women soldiers who have worked in the various intelligence agencies in Northern Ireland. Will she confirm that the allegations about the identity of the so-called agent Stakeknife will not imperil continuing intelligence operations in the Province?

In their fight against terrorism, the security forces use a variety of techniques, including covert human intelligence sources. It is difficult and dangerous work, and we owe a great debt to those who engage in it. However, it is important that wrongdoers be brought to justice. As I said in my earlier answer, the Government are open to scrutiny. It is important that we take seriously allegations such as those investigated by Sir John Stevens.

Have the Government yet identified where, and at what level, the obstructions encountered by Sir John Stevens during his inquiries originate?

We will study the findings of Sir John's report carefully. His recommendations, particularly those to which the hon. Gentleman refers, are for the Chief Constable, and there are issues for us to study closely and take forward. It is important that Sir John Stevens receives the fullest co-operation that it is possible to give, and that is our aim.

Given that the credibility of the Stevens inquiry continues to be seriously undermined by the non-co-operation of the family of the late Pat Finucane, what steps have been taken to encourage the family to co-operate with the ongoing Stevens inquiry?

That is a police investigation, and the investigations continue. It is important that the criminal justice process is upheld. It is, however, a matter for the Finucane family. In the normal course of events, I would encourage the fullest possible co-operation with the police.

Does the Minister agree that it would be repugnant to prosecute members of the police and armed forces when more than 440 convicted terrorists have been released early from prison?

No. There is no moral equivalence with terrorists. Wrongdoers in any of the security forces—the armed forces or the police—ought to be brought to justice. That is the Government's objective.

International Year For People With Disabilities

3.

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what provision he is making in Northern Ireland to mark the international year for people with disabilities. [113803]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland
(Mr. Desmond Browne)

The Government are committed to supporting the European year for people with disabilities in Northern Ireland, and committed to bringing forward a programme of initiatives, events and activities, in line with the commitments given by the previous Northern Ireland Executive. I have launched a Northern Ireland grants scheme to augment the UK-wide scheme. Thirty-four disability organisations in Northern Ireland have received more than £300,000 in grants for specific projects.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important that children are involved in all events marking the international year for people with disabilities? What steps are likely to be taken to involve children in this year's world Special Olympics?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for her work on behalf of children, especially those with special needs. She recently had cause to be even more interested in children—I understand that she became a grandmother for the first time last week. I congratulate her on that.

I am pleased to advise hon. Members that there is a strong focus on children in the arrangements for the international year. For example, some of the successful Northern Ireland grant applications were from groups with projects that are specifically geared towards children with disabilities. The world Special Olympic games are being held in the island of Ireland for the first time in their 25-year history. The events are targeted mainly, but not exclusively, at children.

Does the Under-Secretary accept that Mencap's campaign for more respite care, especially for those in the older age group, must be considered and enforced? Does he also agree that it would greatly benefit Northern Ireland and the people of Iraq if the Iraqi Special Olympic team could come to Lame? Will he facilitate that, unless there is adequate reason to prevent it?

I agree that there needs to be a continuing focus on respite care. I am taking that forward in my current capacity as Minister for Health, Social Services and Public Safety.

I am pleased to tell the hon. Gentleman that my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland and for Culture, Media and Sport have been working together to try to resolve the problem of the Iraqi team for the Special Olympics, whose members were due to be hosted in Lame. I am also pleased to say that the necessary resources to secure the Iraqi Special Olympians' attendance have been identified through the games organising committee and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. We are trying to establish contact with the team to confirm that it still wishes to participate in the games.

I thank the Under-Secretary for what he has said so far, but in recognising the valuable contribution that people with disabilities can make to life and society in general, may I press him to outline the progress in implementing the recommendations of the Disability Rights Taskforce, which reported in 1999 in Northern Ireland?

The hon. Gentleman is right to identify the need to take forward the recommendations of the Disability Rights Taskforce and I pay tribute to him for his contribution to that. The relevant departments in the Northern Ireland Office intend to implement all the recommendations as quickly as possible.

In addition to the excellent initiatives that my hon. Friend outlined, does he agree that, in recognition of the tremendous work of the reverend and hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth), we should implement fully the Disabled Persons (Northern Ireland) Act 1989, which he pioneered, especially its advocacy and representation provisions?

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for his consistent advocacy of such issues. He has an enviable reputation. One cannot underestimate the importance of advocacy in relation to matters that people with disabilities have to tackle. My right hon. Friend is right to draw attention to that.

Commercial/Industrial Development (Banbridge)

4.

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on commercial and industrial development in the Banbridge area. [113804]

There is a significant amount of positive economic activity in the Banbridge area, including a major new development at Gilford Mill and one proposed at Bridgewater Park, which together could create around 3,600 jobs. At 1.6 per cent., the claimant unemployment rate is the joint lowest of all the 26 district council areas.

May I refer the Under-Secretary to the problems that are being experienced not only in Banbridge but in Northern Ireland generally as a result of slowness in decision making in the planning service? He rightly referred to two major developments in the area. I am especially worried about the business park at Cascum road, Banbridge. It is in competition to attract major developments with sites in the Republic of Ireland, which has a much more effective and quick decision-making process. Will the Under-Secretary consider that and ensure that the recent application for the extension of the business park is decided quickly so that a development that could be significant not only for Banbridge but a wider area goes ahead?

I acknowledge the work that the right hon. Gentleman has done in successfully promoting the development of the site at Cascum road, Bridgewater Park in his constituency. The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Angela Smith), who has responsibility for planning, will have heard what he said about the urgency of processing the planning application. She is committed to modernising the planning system, and we want to ensure that there is no undue delay in this case.

The Minister will be aware that in recent months several thousand job losses have been announced in the manufacturing sector across rural towns in Northern Ireland. What plans does he have to meet representatives of Invest Northern Ireland to address that ongoing crisis in the manufacturing sector?

The hon. Gentleman is probably aware that I have regular meetings with staff at Invest Northern Ireland, which is totally committed to supporting manufacturing in the region. A range of programmes are available to support manufacturing companies, and they will continue to be made available over the coming years. As a Government, we are committed to ensuring that we have a growing manufacturing sector and a growing service sector in Northern Ireland. As the process of Northern Ireland's returning to be a normal region continues apace, I am sure that the manufacturing sector will continue to survive and thrive. It has already grown by 15 per cent. over the past five years. [Interruption.]

Security Forces

5.

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the political controls over undercover operations mounted by the security forces in the Province. [113805]

Operational control rests with the responsible agency, but all operations are properly authorised within a statutory regulatory framework. We have always required public authorities to act within established guidelines when using covert human intelligence sources.

Order. There is noise from both sides of the Chamber. It is discourteous to hon. Members who are asking questions that so much conversation is going on.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

My right hon. Friend said earlier that trust is a vital element in the rebuilding of the stalled peace process. I am sure that he agrees that the disclosures of the Stevens inquiry and the revelations of the activities of Stakeknife will do nothing to aid that process. Will he give a guarantee that, in the wake of the Stevens inquiry, any steps that he takes will be based on increasing the accountability and transparency of the security forces? Will he assure us that he will take all possible steps to stamp out subversive murderous activity by paramilitaries sponsored by security forces?

I said earlier that I do not believe that the peace process has been adversely affected in any way by what has occurred over the past few weeks. We have put procedures in place through the Stevens report and the Cory inquiry to deal with those matters. My hon. Friend will be aware that this Government enacted the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, which provides a legislative framework governing the use and authorisation of covert investigation techniques. In addition, we set up the Intelligence and Security Committee of both Houses.

Although building trust in Northern Ireland is important, saving lives is even more important. Will the Secretary of State join me in giving support to the intelligence services in Northern Ireland? Let us not forget that they were fighting what was called a war against one of the most sophisticated terrorist organisations in the world, which was extremely tight and difficult to infiltrate. As a result of that infiltration, hundreds of innocent people are alive today in Northern Ireland.

Yes, I agree with that. I also agree that there have been three decades of conflict and division in Northern Ireland and that, inevitably, awful things have happened during that time. I agree with the main thrust of the hon. Gentleman's point, and I know that he agrees with me, too, that the intelligence services have to operate within guidelines laid down by this House of Commons and by the Government.

Is the Secretary of State concerned that intelligence sources appear to have been prejudiced by leaks from official sources?

I deprecate leaks of any type that might endanger the process. I have said in earlier answers, however, that I believe that the process in Northern Ireland is sufficiently robust to withstand such allegations.