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Criminal Justice and Policing

Volume 474: debated on Wednesday 26 March 2008

5. If he will make a statement on the progress of devolution of criminal justice and policing to Northern Ireland. (195501)

Since May last year, huge progress has been made in Northern Ireland, not least with the publication of the Assembly’s progress report, which I laid before Parliament yesterday. Perhaps there is no better indication of the progress made in Northern Ireland than the visit last week by Her Majesty the Queen, who was able for the first time to attend a maundy service there—and, even more significantly, a maundy service in Armagh.

The St. Andrews agreement is due to come into effect in May, and criminal justice and policing in particular go to the heart of that agreement. We have just heard that there may well be reasons why that deadline is not met. Will the Secretary of State meet that deadline, and if not, what does he expect will happen?

The St. Andrews agreement began in May last year with the first stage of devolution, and I am pleased to report just how successful in all the areas where devolution has taken place the power-sharing Government have been. There remains the second stage of devolution, which in the agreement was envisaged to take place this year, hopefully in May. However, the hon. Lady rightly asks whether we will be able to complete it. The Government will have completed their promises and their arrangements, so that when the Assembly and the Executive have cross-community support and ask for devolution to take place, the Government will be able to fulfil their promises and objectives.

The Secretary of State will be aware of the comments made by Mary McAleese, the President of the Republic of Ireland, when she said that Her Majesty the Queen could be invited to the Irish Republic only when policing and justice powers were devolved. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that that statement was scandalous and shameful?

I understand the emotions that are inevitably raised on the issue, and I understand the comments made by the hon. Gentleman, but the comments made by President McAleese last week must be seen in the context of a reply to a question from a journalist. They were heartfelt and they followed what had been said by the Taoiseach. Let us be clear. A visit by the Queen to the Republic will be agreed between the Palace and the Irish Government, and it will be a matter decided upon by the Queen at a time of her choosing.

The key to devolution of policing and justice is to build cross-community confidence. What discussions has the Minister had with senior members of the republican movement to ensure that the IRA army council is disbanded?

The hon. Gentleman is right to talk about cross-community support. As he knows, recent polls in Northern Ireland have consistently shown that a majority of people not only support the devolution of policing and justice powers, but that they support that sooner rather than later, and that a majority would like it to be in May this year. On the specific question about discussions with republicans about the future of paramilitary structures, let me be equally clear. All the paramilitary structures, the army council included, are vestiges of the past. It would be better if they were gone this afternoon, and the sooner any leaders in any party can bear down on getting rid of the vestiges of Northern Ireland’s paramilitary past, the better.

Actions speak louder than words. What steps is the Minister taking to encourage full republican co-operation, which is essential to solving the McCartney and Quinn murders and would go a long way to encouraging Unionists to support devolution?

The hon. Gentleman is right; actions do speak better than words, which is why we are seeing an unprecedented level of co-operation between the community and PSNI precisely in areas where, for example, the terrible Quinn murder happened, as the hon. Gentleman is aware from his own discussions with the Chief Constable. Further to that, let me say once again to the hon. Gentleman that none of those structures, the army council included, has any place in tomorrow’s or even today’s Northern Ireland, and I welcome his support in joining me to apply pressure wherever it can be applied to ensure that those paramilitary structures belong in the dustbin of history.

Surely the greatest leverage that the Government can apply on the republican movement is to insist that the army council is removed before there is devolution of policing and justice. That is the one lever that the Government have, and instead of putting it up to the political parties in Northern Ireland, is it not time that the Government used their position and influence to press for that and insist on it before there is any question of further devolution?

Let me put on record again my thanks to the right hon. Gentleman for the work that he has done with his Assembly and Executive Review Committee over the past six months to prepare the political parties of Northern Ireland for devolution. It is perfectly clear that he shares with all other hon. Members the view that there is no place in the future for any vestiges of paramilitary activity. He knows as well as I do that it is intention that matters. For that reason, I urge him to be careful about setting pre-conditions and to remain focused on intent and on building cross-community confidence. I remind him of what he said about policing and criminal justice only last week:

“I think that indicates that the political parties are almost at the point where they can take on this responsibility”.