The latest report of the Independent Monitoring Commission confirmed that the security situation in Northern Ireland has been steadily improving since the Belfast agreement, with the Provisional IRA delivering on its promise to end not only its paramilitary activities but criminality as well. Regrettably, though, this is not yet the case for dissident IRA groups or for loyalists.
Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating the personnel from MI5, the French intelligence service and the Garda Siochana on their successful operation that foiled the smuggling of a large arms cache to Northern Ireland? Does he share my dismay that many of the weapons involved were lethal systems, such as surface-to-air missiles and rocket-propelled grenades—exactly the sort of weaponry and armoury being used day-in, day-out to kill and maim our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Should we not be very careful before further lowering our guard in Northern Ireland?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman in respect of dissident IRA groups. The activity that he mentioned was a major achievement by the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the security services, co-operating, as he said, with the Irish authorities. It probably involved Real IRA dissident members. It was a major threat, involving a serious quantity of weapons. That is why we will continue to bear down on and attack the root of the organisation of the Real IRA, the Continuity IRA and any other paramilitary groups.
Does the Secretary of State accept that this is not just a case of dissident republican groups and so-called loyalist groups, both of which we would condemn? The Independent Monitoring Commission has also made it plain that elements from the IRA are still involved in criminality and that Sinn Fein is still a long way from signing up to the Policing Board. Until there is an absolute denunciation of criminality and a signing up to the Policing Board, we will not have the true security that the Secretary of State and I both wish for. Does he agree?
I agree that it is important for Sinn Fein to co-operate in policing, and to do so soon. I think that it will join the Policing Board in due course. It is also important to acknowledge, as the hon. Gentleman has, that there has been a sea change since the IRA made its statement last July to end paramilitary activity and any criminality. The leadership has taken repeated steps to drive out criminality, but the hon. Gentleman is right to say that there are still some localised examples, which must end. None the less, I am satisfied—as are the security services and the Police Service of Northern Ireland—that the leadership of both Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA are trying to root out and stop criminality.
Given the present security situation in Northern Ireland, will the Secretary of State kindly agree to meet Mr. Raymond McCord, whose son was brutally murdered by the Ulster Volunteer Force eight years ago and who is still awaiting truth, justice and closure in respect of his son’s murder? Is the right hon. Gentleman prepared to meet him?
Does the Secretary of State agree that the Northern Ireland parties are now faced with a choice? Is the security situation so bad that they hold out against restarting the Assembly, or is it sufficiently good to justify their participation in a functioning Assembly on a cross-party basis? Does he accept that the difficult but necessary choice is whether to hold out on principle against restarting the Assembly, thereby losing out on everything from the changes in education policy that we have just debated right through to the redrawing of local government boundaries and billing for utilities? Does he further accept that that choice is entirely in the hands of Northern Ireland politicians?
I could not have said it better myself. In my view, the conditions are clear. There is no reason for the parties collectively not to negotiate on the restoration of devolved Government and to achieve it before the deadline of 24 November, which is set in concrete and in statute. If that is not achieved, the salaries and allowances will end, as well as the financial assistance to political parties, which totals some £600,000. I do not want to do that. I want self-government to be restored in Northern Ireland, with elected local politicians making decisions, as the hon. Gentleman said.
Following the 2003 security breach at the Northern Ireland Police Fund, charges against Mr. Thomas Hale were later dropped. The reason given was that a member of staff had withdrawn a statement. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the member of staff did not withdraw the statement, and will he call immediately for a public inquiry?
Does the Secretary of State agree that in the light of the improved security situation in Northern Ireland, the vast sums of money spent on close protection units for individuals should perhaps be reconsidered and reviewed for scaling back?
I do agree. That is precisely why we are considering the close protection scheme, which is expensive but necessary for many individuals who may be vulnerable. We are examining whether, in the changed security climate, it is necessary to pursue it to the same extent as it operates now.
The Secretary of State will recall that, at previous Northern Ireland questions, I condemned from the Dispatch Box loyalist paramilitaries for retaining weapons and for their activity. We are now hearing reports about dissident IRA members. In The Sunday Times, Liam Clarke wrote:
“The armoury demonstrates an apparent intention by the dissidents to begin a widespread campaign on the scale of that carried out by the Provisional IRA.”
Given that, and the fact that Sinn Fein-IRA have not signed up to policing in any way, shape or form—the last time I was in south Armagh, the police told me that the Member of Parliament for that area will not even talk to them—is it not time to put pressure on those people rather than on constitutional politicians to get the Assembly up and running?
We are indeed putting pressure on Sinn Fein to co-operate with policing, locally and in every other respect. Once the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, which deals with the devolution of policing and justice, is given Royal Assent at the end of next month—as I hope it will be—it will be incumbent on Sinn Fein to deliver progress on policing, to which they have committed themselves. The hon. Gentleman is right: dissident IRA groups still pose a threat. A 250 lb bomb in Lurgan was stopped from being exploded by expert intelligence activity. We must keep at it and bear down on dissident activity, but the dissidents are operating on nothing like the scale that the IRA did. I hope that the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) will support the Government’s policy on devolved Government, as we supported the efforts of John Major and Margaret Thatcher to get the peace process on the road.