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Gang Violence

Volume 475: debated on Wednesday 14 May 2008

Gang violence in Northern Ireland has traditionally manifested itself through paramilitary activity and organised crime. While the latest Independent Monitoring Commission report indicates a general downward trend in incidents of paramilitary violence, Monday’s cowardly attack on the young police officer, Ryan Crozier, reminds us of the continued threat posed by a small number of dissidents who today have no support whatsoever throughout the community.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that reply. Can he tell the House when paramilitary groups such as the Irish republican liberation army will no longer have the umbrella of decommissioning to hide under and instead be charged as criminals for holding weapons?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. In the long term, the kind of structures that we have introduced to ensure that we could get to the peaceful, prosperous Northern Ireland of today will be phased out. When that moment comes, I am more than prepared to work with all hon. Members and political parties. I hope that we are beginning to approach the moment when we can signal that we will do so, but I still regret that, unfortunately, a small number of people continue to operate in such a way. Although we are nearly in a normalised society, regrettably we are not quite there.

I also would like to be associated with the earlier speakers in their sympathy for Constable Crozier, who to me was an expression of the new dimension in Northern Ireland. That young man joined the police force only three years ago, and he is the expression of our hope for the future. I hope that the perpetrators will be brought to justice as soon as possible.

On the Government’s intention to address the root cause of gang violence, particularly the knife-wielding culture, does the Minister agree that there must be a combined approach between Government and community? If so, how does he reconcile that intention with the recent decision to withdraw extended schools funding in Northern Ireland, which was used by schools to put in place innovative and inclusive programmes for disadvantaged areas? A cross-cutting policy simply does not exist in that area.

Like all hon. Members, I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support for Police Officer Crozier. Although we no longer have specific responsibility for schools in Northern Ireland, it none the less falls on us to have responsibility for criminal justice and policing until hon. Members and political parties are ready to assume devolution of those matters. That is why in the new Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland) Order we will be introducing specific powers to deal with knife crime in relation to gang culture, raising the age at which knives can be purchased and, critically, dealing more severely with those who abuse that. Regardless of when the devolution of policing and criminal justice takes place, it will fall on the community itself, as well as those elected from the community, to deal with the issue. It is one that we should all feel responsibility for.

Is it not the case that in several locations major gangs that were formerly associated with paramilitary organisations are operating major criminal enterprises? Could the Secretary of State indicate what plans the Chief Constable has to ensure that those gangs are broken up and the perpetrators, who are well known not only in the local community, but to the police, are put behind bars?

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman, since I think that this is the first time I have had the chance to do so in this House, on having been made leader elect of his party. I am sure that we all look forward to working with him when he assumes that office at the end of the month, and we will again give our very best wishes to his predecessor—when that moment comes; he is, of course, still very much a presence.

I am conscious of what the right hon. Gentleman says. Of course the Chief Constable has operational independence on these matters, but we do consult him. I am confident that he is more than aware of the need to break up the gangs. He and his officers have achieved some spectacular results, but we have to remain ever vigilant and deal with the issue, which as the hon. Gentleman said is regrettably still a vestige of the paramilitary past of Northern Ireland.

We on the Conservative Benches also condemn the attack on Officer Crozier. I am afraid that the Independent Monitoring Commission report, which shows how far Northern Ireland has come with regard to violence, is still littered with examples of offences. We are told that the ONH—Óglaigh na hÉireann—is

“more seriously active in the six months under the review”

of the report, and carried out its first murder on 12 February. The breakaway south-east Antrim faction’s dispute with the Ulster Defence Association led to the shooting of a police officer. Those are very worrying trends, and I am sure that the Secretary of State shares our concerns about them. What extra measures can he take to stamp out that criminal and deadly violence?

The hon. Gentleman is right to draw the attention of the House to the 18th IMC report, which deals with matters relating to organised crime, too. I am sure that he will have noted that significant progress has been made on a number of fronts. However, it is perfectly clear that in one specific area—that is, in relation to Óglaigh na hÉireann—as well as others, we now need to take steps. That is why I am laying before the House today a new order that will take into account specified organisations. The order will result in the de-specification of the UVF Red Hand Commandos, but it will now specify Óglaigh na hÉireann.