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Provisional IRA Army Council

Volume 460: debated on Wednesday 23 May 2007

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.