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Peace Process

Volume 407: debated on Wednesday 25 June 2003

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If he will make a statement on the peace process. [120567]

We are pursuing with the political parties how the devolved institutions might be restored and the remainder of the Belfast agreement fully implemented. It is essential to such advance, however, to have clarity on both the future of paramilitarism and the stability of the institutions.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that following recent developments in the Ulster Unionist party, a significant majority remains in favour of the peace process in the Ulster Unionist party and in the Unionist electorate, and an overwhelming majority is in favour of it in the electorate at large? Will he take the opportunity to work with those who favour the peace process and marginalise the fringe groups that do not?

I cannot agree with what my hon. Friend said in his last sentence about marginalising groups that do not agree with the Good Friday agreement. It is my job to talk to all political parties in Northern Ireland, irrespective of their political standpoint. However, I very much agree that the vote at the Ulster Unionist Council last week indicated that a majority of its members are still in favour of the Good Friday agreement. I agree with my hon. Friend that the majority of people in Northern Ireland believe that the best way forward is through the Good Friday agreement, and I also agree that the polls suggest that that includes the Unionist community. I believe that people in Northern Ireland want an end to paramilitary activity, and want the stability of the institutions that will be achieved through the Good Friday agreement.

Would the Secretary of State tell the House how an amnesty for on-the-run IRA terrorist suspects can contribute to the peace process? Does he understand the growing public anger at the continuing persecution of former members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and those who served in the security forces in tribunals such as the Bloody Sunday inquiry, where millions of pounds worth of taxpayers' hard-earned money is being squandered?

I would not agree that money is being squandered. However, I agree that it is important for us at some stage to draw a line under what has happened in the past 30 years in Northern Ireland. There will come a time when we want to achieve a normal society in Northern Ireland, and I believe that we are going in that direction. As for the on-the-runs, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that the proposals discussed at Hillsborough do not include an amnesty for on-the-runs, but they do make provision for a proper judicial process. He will also be aware that that process is linked in to acts of completion by the IRA, so it is entirely conditional on what happens in that area.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the peace process, which has now stalled, cannot be put back on track until there is firm, verifiable demilitarisation and destructuring by the paramilitaries, both republican and loyalist? Does he also agree that Government policy and attitudes to date have not created common ground among nationalists and Unionists who support the Good Friday agreement, so it is essential that the Government undertake a drive to ensure that paragraph 13 on decommissioning, destructuring and the cessation of violence against the community is immediately implemented in its entirety, particularly by the Provisional IRA, so that we can re-establish the devolved institutions of partnership.

My hon. Friend is entirely right that progress on restoring the institutions of the Good Friday agreement rests on the confidence and trust that need to be built up between political parties in Northern Ireland. That can be done only if the issues addressed in paragraph 13 about paramilitary activity are dealt with. My hon. Friend is entirely right about that, and his personal history in Northern Ireland is such that we listen to him with great respect. I believe that in the months ahead we will resolve these problems, which are extremely difficult at the moment. However, it is important that the House realises that unless we resolve the problems first, of paramilitary activity, and secondly, of the stability of the institutions we will not get a properly restored Executive in Northern Ireland.

Paragraph 8 of the validation, implementation and review section of the Good Friday agreement states that

"the two Governments and the parties in the Assembly will convene a conference 4 years after the agreement comes into effect, to review and report on its operation."
It is now more than five years since the agreement was signed and four and a half years since the Northern Ireland Act 1998 was passed, but that review has not even started yet. Why not?

The hon. Gentleman is aware that we have had reviews of the Good Friday agreement under paragraph 7. A review under paragraph 8, which makes provision for a more general, deeper and intense review, will take place before the year is over. It is important for political parties and the two Governments to get together to look at the issues that divide us and ensure that the Good Friday agreement is implemented in full. However, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that if that is to happen we must rebuild confidence between parties, and to do so we have to address the issues that I referred to earlier.

I went to Belfast last week on a cross-party visit and was struck by the positive changes since I first visited many years ago, with the development of the city centre and the work of those such as the East Belfast community partnership to promote regeneration, jobs and skills. I also found considerable good will towards implementing the Good Friday agreement and returning to a normal life. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the priority must be to rebuild trust and move back towards an effective power-sharing Executive and Assembly?

My hon. Friend is right. We must rebuild that trust in order to move forward in the process. She is also right to draw the House's attention to the improvements in the life of people in Northern Ireland since the signing of the Good Friday agreement in 1998. She is aware that there are now 34,000 unemployed people in Northern Ireland, which is the lowest figure since 1975; that the increase in economic activity in Northern Ireland is such that it is the fastest-growing region or nation in the whole of the United Kingdom; and that there has been a 25 per cent. increase in tourism in Northern Ireland since the Good Friday agreement. She is particularly aware that the security situation in Northern Ireland is much improved on what it was in 1998.

On behalf of the Opposition, I welcome the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Warley (Mr. Spellar), to the Northern Ireland Front Bench. He and I are old sparring partners, and we look forward to his contributions on this important subject.

As it is clear that the peace process has been paralysed since the Government decided to cancel the elections, and the parties have turned in on themselves, and as there continue to be murders by loyalist paramilitaries and attempted murders by republican dissidents, and the Garda Commissioner and the Chief Constable have both expressed their concern about the security position over the past few days, would it not be sensible to shelve all plans for any reductions in intelligence gathering or security capability in Northern Ireland, including the plans to dismantle the observation towers in south Armagh?

The hon. Gentleman knows that any actions that are taken with regard to security installations are dealt with on the basis of the level of threat. He also knows that the normalisation paper that was discussed at Hillsborough, and which appears in the joint declaration, is entirely related to acts of completion by the IRA. The hon. Gentleman is right that, towards the autumn, it is important for us to engage in intensive discussions and negotiations with political parties in Northern Ireland so that we can have an Assembly in Northern Ireland. In addition, we want the Executive governing Northern Ireland, so that people who are from Northern Ireland can govern the people in Northern Ireland.

Is not the whole point that there have been no acts of completion, so reductions in our capability are inappropriate? Even if the Chief Constable and the General Officer Commanding were prepared to countenance the dismantling of those towers, is it not rather foolish to give away that card for nothing, in advance of the comprehensive negotiations that we all hope can resume before too long?

I repeat to the hon. Gentleman that the decision to dismantle the towers is entirely in line with the wishes of the GOC and the Chief Constable. I repeat that acts of completion by the IRA, particularly with regard to paramilitary activity, are linked to the rest of the normalisation paper, which is in the joint declaration. All our efforts are bent on ensuring that in the autumn we resolve our difficulties, we have an Assembly and we have an Executive, so that the process can move forward.

Does the Secretary of State agree that for the first time in history, the vast majority of the people of Ireland north and south have voted together on how they wish to live together, by overwhelmingly voting for the agreement? For that reason, it is the duty of all true democrats to implement the will of the people. Certain Opposition parties that wish to overthrow that agreement are overthrowing the principle of consent, which was the fundamental principle of Unionism. If they do that, what damage are they doing to their own people?

My hon. Friend is entirely right. In 1998, people north and south voted overwhelmingly for the Good Friday agreement, and the institutions of that agreement are the only way forward. I know that my hon. Friend is also aware that for us to move forward and to ensure that those institutions are restored, we have to restore the confidence and trust between parties in Northern Ireland, and that is based on ensuring that there is an end to paramilitary activity and that the institutions in Northern Ireland are stable.