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Northern Ireland

Volume 460: debated on Wednesday 23 May 2007

The Secretary of State was asked—

Provisional IRA Army Council

1. What progress has been made with the dismantling of the command structure of the IRA, with particular reference to the Provisional IRA army council. (137955)

If I may, I should like to congratulate the right hon. Members for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) and for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) on being nominated to be Privy Councillors; those nominations are well deserved.

Successive Independent Monitoring Commission reports have demonstrated that the Provisional IRA is committed to a political path. The IMC’s latest report reiterates that the organisation has eschewed violence and disbanded its paramilitary structures.

Having announced membership of the Provisional IRA army council in the past, can the Secretary of State tell the House who is in membership of that terrorist body now? Does he understand that the Unionist community will have no confidence in the words of Adams and McGuinness while the so-called army terrorist council of the IRA remains in existence as a threat to the stability of Northern Ireland? There can be no riding of two horses, and all terrorist structures must therefore be dismantled now.

I agree that there can be no riding of two horses. I am encouraged by the fact that successive reports by the IMC have confirmed that the engineering, intelligence gathering and other paramilitary apparatus of the IRA has been disbanded. That is not me speaking as Secretary of State; it is the IMC. That is the big picture, and the complete transformation that we have seen in Northern Ireland in recent weeks underpins the commitment that the IMC has reported.

Does the Secretary of State agree that none of the paramilitary organisations—republican dissident or loyalist—now has a mandate or authority in Northern Ireland? Will he ensure, however, that they cease activities such as exercising control over communities under the guise of community groups or restorative justice groups? Will he give direction and guidance to ensure that such activities do not go on, and that no Government funding is paid to groups that contain erstwhile paramilitaries?

I agree completely that there is no role for paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland, if there ever was. There is certainly no justification for any of the trappings of paramilitary activity, let alone the activity itself. We continue to work as a Government to ensure that loyalist groups, in particular, come out of their past of violence, paramilitary activity and criminality—which is even more of a problem and has been for many years—and move towards accepting the rule of law without any qualification.

The Secretary of State has alluded to the progress being made towards normality, and that is indeed welcome. A number of issues remain outstanding, however, the most glaring of which is the existence of the IRA army council. What pressure is he applying to the hon. Members for Belfast, West (Mr. Adams) and for Mid-Ulster (Mr. McGuinness) to dismantle and get rid of that anachronism in Northern Ireland in 2007?

I say to the hon. Gentleman, as I said to the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea), that the important thing is that the IRA has now turned its back irrevocably on its past. The apparatus that once existed for terror and paramilitary violence has all disappeared, not least due to the pressure that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues have maintained so steadfastly over these past few years. That is the important thing.

Obviously, I agree with the right hon. Gentleman’s last comment, but I should like to refer to the earlier comment by the hon. Member for south Armagh—[Interruption.] I am so sorry, I meant the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady). The Secretary of State will be aware that the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs produced a report on community restorative justice that drew attention to the very points that the hon. Gentleman raised. It is crucial that there should be no back door into these schemes for people who have not utterly and totally repudiated their paramilitary past.

As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Justice and Security (Northern Ireland) Bill, which has just gone through Parliament, has quite properly strengthened the oversight of community restorative justice schemes. His own Select Committee commented on that, and we have taken careful note of those comments and implemented the points that were made. It is now absolutely clear that anyone involved in community restorative justice has to obey the rule of law—there is no qualification on that—and has to work with the police; there is no qualification on that either.

Like the Secretary of State, I welcome the profound change that has taken place in the republican movement during recent years. Does he agree, however, that that very process of change means that the existence of something calling itself an army council—and that council’s continuing assertion of a claim to legitimate authority within the island of Ireland—is at odds with the transformation that the Sinn Fein leadership says that it has brought about, and with the pledge of office that Sinn Fein Ministers have taken? Surely the best way for Sinn Fein to demonstrate to the most sceptical Unionists that its commitment to democracy is really serious would be to get rid of that anachronistic institution.

I share the hon. Gentleman’s objective. Obviously we all look forward to a time when—as the situation continues to stabilise and the transformation deepens—there are no remnants of, and no legacy from, any of the paramilitary past that has bedevilled the people of Northern Ireland and, indeed, the whole island of Ireland, and that goes for every paramilitary organisation.

Members on both sides of the House hope to see conditions make the devolution of criminal justice and policing possible, in perhaps as little as 12 months from now. Does the Secretary of State believe that for such devolution to take place we need first to reach a stage at which the British and Irish Governments feel that the Provisional IRA is no longer a terrorist threat and that, as a consequence, proscription should cease?

Let us take one step at a time. The Assembly has a duty, under legislation that the hon. Gentleman supported, to report to the Secretary of State by 27 March next year on the prospects for devolution of policing and justice being completed by May next year, as the Government intend and as was set out on the Anglo-Irish agreement. We shall have to see what assessment is made and how matters progress, but as I said earlier, the IMC has stated repeatedly—I know the hon. Gentleman accepts this, and he is nodding—that the Provisional IRA poses no terrorist threat, and indeed is not capable of doing so.

Loyalist Paramilitary Organisations

2. What recent discussions he has had with the representatives of loyalist paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland on the decommissioning of their weapons. (137956)

Ministers continue their engagement with the Ulster Political Research Group and the Progressive Unionist party in support of their efforts to encourage loyalist paramilitaries to leave conflict behind and adhere to democratic principles.

While I welcome the news that the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Red Hand Commandos are saying that they will now decommission their arms, is it not still of great concern that the Ulster Defence Association has not done the same? All three organisations are involved in criminality, drug dealing, extortion and loan sharking. Will the Minister give an undertaking that action will continue to be taken against them when they have committed crimes?

The UVF’s announcement was a welcome step forward. Of course we want to see full and verifiable decommissioning, and last week’s discussions with General de Chastelain and representatives of the UVF were another welcome step. However, the right hon. Gentleman is right to say that we cannot tolerate either paramilitary activity or criminality by either of those organisations, and I assure him, and the House, that law enforcement in Northern Ireland will continue to bear down on them.

I join the Minister in welcoming the UVF’s statement of the first steps towards a complete winding down of its organisation. However, he and the House will recognise that it fell short in decommissioning terms by only putting weapons “beyond reach”—beyond whose reach is not clear. Can the Minister inject some urgency into the issue, and indeed into the issue of the disbanding of the army council of the IRA? It is essential that all paramilitary organisations go completely out of business, and are seen to be doing so.

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that there must be a sense of urgency in relation to any organisation or individual still involved in paramilitary activity. I hope that those on either the dissident republican or the loyalist side who are still engaged in paramilitary activity will recognise what a fruitless waste the violence and conflict of the past 40 years has been, will see the hope that democracy is bringing to Northern Ireland, and will desist from their activities and join the peace process in a meaningful way.

May I echo my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay), and say how important it is for all loyalist paramilitary organisations to decommission? Indeed, as was said by the right hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), the weapons must be destroyed and verification must take place. The Minister slightly pre-empted my question by referring to de Chastelain, but could he give a little more detail about the engagement that has taken place between the so-called loyalist paramilitary forces and the general?

The hon. Gentleman will understand that Ministers are not privy to the detailed discussions that take place with the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning, which is headed by General de Chastelain. The general has had that meeting, however, and I hope that it will lead to a new phase in which the UVF engages meaningfully with the IICD, decommissioning becomes verifiable, and we have not only the promise that weapons are beyond use but confirmation that they are.

Wildlife Protection

3. What recent discussions he has had at a European level on the protection of winter quarters of whooper swans potentially affected by road proposals. (137957)

Following the restoration of devolution on 8 May, I can now tell the hon. Gentleman that roads are now devolved, and whooper swans are devolved too. The hon. Gentleman asks about recent discussions at European level; as a Liverpool MP, the only discussions that I am really interested in having at European level today are about Liver birds rather than whooper swans—and specifically about how well the Reds will do in Athens tonight.

I am grateful to the Minister for her answer, and also for a written answer from one of her colleagues on 20 March revealing that in the Seamus Heaney area of special protection, where a large proportion of the 4,000 over-wintering whooper swans are to be found, by Lough Beg, there is a proposal for a dual carriageway from Toome to Castledawson.

Am I right in saying that both national and international laws require the Roads Service to make a far better assessment of the risk to whooper swans—and may I invite the Minister to come with me next winter to see them and to make sure that they are protected?

I can confirm that whooper swans are protected. They are listed in annexe 2 to the birds directive and schedule 1 to the Wildlife (Northern Ireland) Order 1985. However, such matters are the concern of the devolved Administration. The Minister in the Northern Ireland Administration with responsibility for them is Arlene Foster MLA. I am aware of the hon. Gentleman’s previous correspondence, and he might wish to write further to her on this matter.

Prisoners (Drugs Rehabilitation)

4. If he will make a statement on the drugs rehabilitation strategy for prisoners in Northern Ireland. (137958)

The Northern Ireland Prison Service recently concluded a wide-ranging consultation on its substance misuse policy. Voluntary organisations currently provide counselling and rehabilitation courses in each of its establishments. A full-time addiction services manager takes up post on 1 June.

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. However, will he kindly explain what is so exceptional about the drugs rehabilitation of prisoners that responsibility for it alone was not transferred properly and on time in April to the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Department?

Discussions continue between the Department and the Prison Service about the detail of the new arrangements. It is important that the health service in prisons is run by health experts; I am committed to that. The hon. Lady points to the fact that three voluntary organisations provide community addiction services in the three prisons in Northern Ireland. They do so effectively, and I know that she has a particular interest in the Northlands project, which provides an excellent service. I am looking at possible ways to expand such services, to the benefit of prisoners who as a result can come out of prison free of their addiction.

I thank the Secretary of State for his earlier words of congratulation. Many prisoners who enter prisons in Northern Ireland—some 10 per cent.—have amphetamine- based addictions, so rehabilitation work is clearly necessary, and we should enhance that. However, is it not the case that many drug prevention groups that work outside prisons trying to prevent young people from becoming addicted to drugs in the first place are operating on a shoestring budget? Ascert, in my constituency, is doing good work, but it cannot get funding. Do we not need to address the root cause of this problem by supporting groups that are trying to prevent it from happening in the first place?

I strongly agree with the right hon. Gentleman that prevention is always better than cure. A range of organisations throughout Northern Ireland are trying to prevent people from becoming addicted to drugs and alcohol in the first place. It is essential that when prisoners leave prison and go back into the community they receive the effective support that such groups offer.

Dissident Republican Organisations

5. What his assessment is of the terrorist threat posed by dissident Irish republican organisations. (137959)

While dissident republicans remain determined to cause harm and destruction, excellent policing continues to thwart them. Dissidents will not deter us, or the new Executive, from achieving a stable and prosperous future for Northern Ireland.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Although we are glad that power sharing has returned to Northern Ireland—and many of the terrorist organisations are now disarming—there are still dissident forces, such as Continuity IRA. What measures are the Government taking to prevent, dissuade and capture those vile and murderous criminals?

The Police Service of Northern Ireland takes the lead in detecting and preventing terrorist activities by organisations such as the one that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. So far this calendar year there have been 31 incidents involving dissident republican organisations. As recently as April, a serious incident was prevented in Lurgan by the PSNI, by a timely interception of what would have been a serious mortar attack. We should all compliment the PSNI on the work that it is doing and make it clear to those involved in dissident republican organisations, and loyalist paramilitary groups, that law enforcement will continue to hunt them and bear down on them.

The Secretary of State will be aware of a number of recent arrests in the Province—those of Brian Arthurs and two of his comrades, and of Roisin McAliskey, commonly known throughout the Province as members of the Provisional IRA. Can the Minister give us some background to the situation and assure us that if a request is made by the German authorities for the extradition of Roisin McAliskey, it will be accommodated?

The last question is entirely a matter for the German authorities under the European arrest warrant system. There will be arrests from time to time. The whole thrust of my argument is that the PSNI will continue to bear down on those involved in criminality or paramilitary activity. We should all be encouraged by the fact that Sinn Fein has made it clear that people should co-operate with the police whenever such arrests take place.

Security Situation

6. What recent assessment he has made of the security situation in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement. (137961)

The security situation continues to improve beyond recognition, as last month’s report from the Independent Monitoring Commission made clear. But the report also shows that more is still needed from loyalist paramilitary groups to demonstrate their commitment to peace, and that dissident republicans continue to present a security threat.

Further to the question asked by the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea), does the Minister agree that with the Provisional IRA army council in place, the IRA has a ready-made infrastructure to rebuild a terrorist capability rapidly at any time? Now that Sinn Fein is in government, surely the time has come for it finally to sever any links with its sister organisation the IRA? Otherwise, how can the Ulster public have real confidence in Sinn Fein Ministers?

With the normalisation of the security situation—and, we hope, the eventual delegation of full powers to the Welsh Assembly—is it not time to think about merging the Northern Ireland Office into an office for the nations and regions, providing a logical structure for administering the nations of the United Kingdom and the regions of England?

The House will note the hon. Gentleman’s representations, but there has been all sorts of speculation about that and I do not intend to pursue it.

Loyalist Paramilitary Organisations

7. What progress has been made on loyalist decommissioning in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement. (137962)

The recent meeting between the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning is a step in the right direction. It is vital that all loyalist paramilitary groups make a complete transition to peace and engage in full decommissioning.

Is the Minister aware that people want an end to all paramilitary activity—all the guns, intimidation, drug dealing, protection rackets and other threats to emerging normality—and is he also aware that while some elements within loyalism are making progress, people feel that he is only playing footsie with some hardliners who have no intention of ending their grip of fear on their local communities?

Of course my hon. Friend is right to say that we must continue to bear down on criminality and paramilitary activity. As I said in answer to an earlier question, my hope is that those involved in dissident republican groups and loyalist paramilitary organisations will see the wastefulness of the death and destruction of the last 40 years, and the positive hope that comes with democracy. Of course there will still be some hardliners, and they need to hear the message that we will not give up pursuing them and ensuring that if they do commit criminal acts, they are dealt with by the justice system.

Political Situation

We are all very encouraged by the positive start to devolution, and I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman, his party colleagues and the other parties for the strong leadership that everyone has shown.

I thank the Secretary of State for his comments. However, does he accept that to bed in political progress and stability in Northern Ireland, it is absolutely essential that the right economic and financial package, which was promised to the people of Northern Ireland, is put in place?

I welcome the presence of the Chancellor during these questions and his input into the work of progressing the economic package. I also welcome the fact that Sir David Varney is starting work on the corporation tax review this week. Can the Secretary of State assure us that progress will be made towards ensuring that a step change in the Northern Ireland economy can be made, moving forward, so that we can make real political and economic progress for Northern Ireland?

Order. The House needs to come to order. This noise is unfair to those who want to hear Northern Ireland questions.

The Chancellor has been equally concerned to make sure that the incoming Executive, of which the hon. Gentleman is a member, have the best possible start and the best possible financial platform to succeed. That will be the case; any final details will be settled, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be satisfied.

Historic Inquiries

10. How much has been allocated to the Police Service of Northern Ireland in 2007-08 for historical inquiries. (137965)

The historic inquiries team project has been allocated £34 million to re-examine all the unresolved deaths in Northern Ireland that were related to the security situation during the period from 1968 until the signing of the Belfast agreement.

Is the Minister aware that up to 40 per cent. of police resources available for investigating serious crime can be diverted into historic inquiries, many of which originate from the Office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, which many believe is engaged in a witch hunt against former members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary? Does the Minister agree with the Superintendents Association of Northern Ireland, which says that perhaps now is the time to draw a line under the past and concentrate police resources on current policing needs, rather than on those politically motivated inquiries?

It is very important that the historic inquiries team should be able to fulfil the purpose for which it was first established: to look back at records and see whether explanations for unresolved deaths can be offered to families. However, I strongly agree with the hon. Gentleman that we need to find other ways of drawing a line under the past—not to pretend that the past did not happen or that the hurt is not still there, but to focus our resources on the present and the future so that, going forward, Northern Ireland can enjoy peace and prosperity.

Organised Crime

11. What plans he has to improve the effectiveness of policies to deal with organised crime in Northern Ireland. (137966)

The multi-agency Organised Crime Task Force enables Government, law enforcement agencies and business to tackle organised crime in a co-ordinated, effective and strategic way. Next month, I shall publish the latest OCTF annual report and threat assessment.

I am grateful to the Minister for that considered and rational reply, but is there not a danger that acts of terrorism, which have dominated Northern Ireland in recent decades, could well be replaced by crimes committed by organisations? That would undermine the peace and stability that have recently come to Northern Ireland.

The hon. Gentleman is right; we know of the connection between organised criminality and those who in the past may have been involved in paramilitary activity. However, I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Organised Crime Task Force brings all those agencies together to defeat those involved in organised crime. Indeed, yesterday I chaired a meeting of the Organised Crime Task Force stakeholder group, which brings business and law enforcement groups together. We will deal with organised crime, in order to eradicate it from Northern Ireland.

Provisional IRA Army Council

12. What further progress is being made in the dismantling of paramilitary structures in Northern Ireland, with particular reference to the Provisional IRA army council. (137967)

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer I gave earlier to the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea)—and to him, too, I think.

I thank the Secretary of State for the improving security situation, to which he has now referred twice. Can he ensure not only that the improvement continues, but that we systematically try to purge Northern Ireland society of all aspects of paramilitary activity?

Yes, indeed. I can certainly give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. We are determined that all remnants of paramilitary activity, especially by dissident republicans and loyalists, must be put aside and that everybody must turn their back on that activity, so that Northern Ireland can move forward to a confident, peaceful and democratic future under a devolved Government.