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Paramilitary Organisations

Volume 472: debated on Wednesday 20 February 2008

1. What recent assessment he has made of the activities of paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland. (186568)

Independent Monitoring Commission reports provide assessments of paramilitary organisations. The most recent report indicated that dissident republicans continue to pose a real threat, while the Provisional IRA is not involved in terrorist activity. Loyalist organisations clearly need to underpin their encouraging statements with actions.

It is clear that there is still a serious paramilitary problem, as the Secretary of State acknowledges. Would he care to comment on the sad case last week of Andrew Burns, a 27-year-old, who was dragged from Strabane over the border and murdered? Does the Secretary of State have any information that he can give to the House?

I understand the sincerity with which the right hon. Gentleman makes his point in relation to the murder of Andrew Burns last week. He was a 27-year-old single man from Strabane who was shot twice in a church car park on 12 February. The murder was of course roundly condemned by all politicians, including the Deputy First Minister, who very clearly said that he gave his wholehearted support to the Garda and the Police Service of Northern Ireland in their investigation. To date, no arrests have been made, but a police investigation is under way. As soon as I can give the right hon. Gentleman details of the investigation, I will be happy to do so.

Does the Secretary of State agree that loyalist paramilitary activity is still a serious threat to our society and that the refusal of the people involved to call a ceasefire, to disarm and to disband requires immediate and full security and policing attention? What additional actions and pressures does he intend to employ, rather than the continuation of what appears to be the current laissez-faire attitude towards such organisations?

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s remarks about his concern in relation to the threat from dissident loyalists. The most recent IMC report spoke about the pace of change remaining far too slow. I believe none the less that there is a genuine desire to make progress among the communities involved. It is important that, while we are not for one moment complacent about the threat posed by some loyalist individuals, huge advances are none the less being made. It is essential to recognise that the communities that are being held in the grip of paramilitary activity need every encouragement and help that we can find to ensure that they roundly turn on those who refuse to give up the ways of the past.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the continued existence of the IRA’s so-called army council is unacceptable and that it poses a threat to the devolved institutions? Will he join me and my colleagues today in calling for its immediate disbandment?

The hon. Gentleman makes a point that is more than familiar to and shared by many people. I would go as far as to say that all hon. Members and all people want those paramilitary vestiges of the past to be expunged as soon as possible. The critical issue here, though, is cross-community confidence. It is worth reminding him, and indeed all hon. Members, of the IMC’s firm view that PIRA is committed to the political path and of the fact that the IMC has no evidence to believe that PIRA will be diverted from that path. Therefore, the critical issue that has to be addressed is one of confidence.

I believe that there is growing confidence in Northern Ireland that we are now able to move to the second stage of devolution and to devolve policing and criminal justice. The sooner that is done, the sooner we will expunge those vestiges of the past, in every form.

The Secretary of State’s predecessor introduced a scheme for conflict transformation in Northern Ireland to assist loyalist paramilitaries to move away from violence and into peaceful mode. Can he say, on the basis of any security analysis that is available to him, whether he believes that that initiative is working?

I believe that the initiatives, which include the conflict transformation initiative, have been helpful in enabling communities to get themselves out of the grip of paramilitary activity. It is important to distinguish between the individuals who are involved in paramilitary-style behaviour and the communities that are in the grip of that behaviour. The money that was found for the conflict transformation initiative was money to help the latter.

As far as we are able to assess, considerable progress is being made by communities to get out of that grip, but there remains a duty on us all to help in any way we can any community that wants to leave behind the past and those vestiges of the past in relation to paramilitary activity, enabling it to do so and to move into the shared future, and a prosperous, peaceful future too.

In view of the murder last week near Strabane, the attacks on police officers last year and the threats mentioned by the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady), will the Secretary of State confirm that it is his policy to approve all applications by the police to carry out intercepts?

The hon. Gentleman brings together a number of issues. There is an ongoing threat that we need to tackle, but we also need to understand that interception or any other sort of surveillance will always be done in compliance with the law and the oversight of the relevant commissioners.

In the light of that helpful reply, will the right hon. Gentleman guarantee that intercept evidence will be admissible in Northern Ireland courts, in accordance with the recommendations of the Chilcot review?

The hon. Gentleman is right to refer to Chilcot’s work on intercept evidence. In my view, we should try, as far as we can, to include Northern Ireland in the implementation of the Chilcot recommendations for England and Wales. I am ensuring that those involved in the Chilcot follow-up that now takes place will look at Northern Ireland and, wherever possible, include it in the proposals that are made.

The Secretary of State says that he now wants to move on to the next stage of devolution—the devolution of policing and criminal justice—and my party shares that aspiration, but does he not accept that the continuing failure of some who hold elected office in Northern Ireland to acknowledge and accept the paramilitary involvement in the murder of Paul Quinn and Robert McCartney, and the subsequent disgraceful treatment of their families, makes the realisation of that aspiration very difficult?

Making progress on the next stage of devolution will be difficult. The St. Andrews agreement lays out a way forward and includes a timetable, but, critically, it is a matter for local politicians in Northern Ireland to agree on moving forward to the next stage. There are those in Northern Ireland, however—I do not include any elected politicians—who do not want progress to be made. They are small in number; they have no support in the community; and they are, by and large, characterised by dissident republican activists and those who would be involved in criminal activity—the sort of activity that led to the brutal murder, condemned by everybody, of Paul Quinn. The choice for politicians in Northern Ireland is this: do we allow those who would be involved in crime or the sort of activity that led to the murder of Paul Quinn to determine the future of everyone in Northern Ireland? I do not think that we should. I think that we should move to the next stage and leave those who commit crime and murder to be dealt with by law and put away in prison, where they belong.