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Northern Ireland

Volume 486: debated on Wednesday 21 January 2009

The Secretary of State was asked—

Saville Inquiry

1. When he expects the Saville inquiry to make its final report; and what consideration he has given to bringing the inquiry to a conclusion. (248299)

Lord Saville informed me last November that he expects to submit his inquiry report this autumn. As I have made clear to Lord Saville, to the families involved and to the House, we are deeply disappointed by the continued delay in publication. However, I remind the House that it is in the interests of everyone that the independent inquiry works first and foremost to establish the truth of the events of that tragic day.

Given that the inquiry has now spent nearly £200 million and that a number of QCs have become millionaires on the back of it, what does the Secretary of State think will be achieved between now and the autumn that has not yet been achieved?

Because its contents remain a matter for the independent inquiry, I have no idea what will be achieved in relation to those contents. However, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that I am concerned about the costs. As a result, working with the inquiry, I have now arranged for the office in Northern Ireland to be closed, the size and costs of the accommodation in London to be significantly reduced and the IT contracts to be renegotiated. We will therefore make savings of about 20 per cent. of what would have been spent in the remaining months.

May I ask my right hon. Friend about any lessons that could be learned from the tragedy that the Saville inquiry is investigating? Is there any read-across to the inquiry by Sir Peter Gibson into the Omagh bombing, a statement on which was made this morning? That statement seems to have exonerated GCHQ from any of the allegations made by the BBC, among others. It seems that if there was any malpractice or any problems, they were more on the Royal Ulster Constabulary special branch front, and those issues were largely addressed by the 2001 reorganisation. Does my right hon. Friend agree about that?

I thank my right hon. Friend for providing me with the opportunity to make that read-across from Lord Saville’s work to the Omagh report, and I commend Sir Peter Gibson for the thorough and exhaustive way in which he has approached the task of considering lessons to be learned from the sharing of intercept material on the day, and around the time, of the Omagh bombing.

I ask the House to note that I have placed in the Library today not only my written statement but Sir Peter’s summary report and a response to it by the Chief Constable. I thank Sir Peter for his comprehensive work. It is difficult to make a direct read-across to Lord Saville, except to say that for those involved, it is important to produce material as quickly as we can.

May I echo what the Secretary of State has just said and add my thanks to Sir Peter for reporting so expeditiously? Does that not point to a lesson for the future? Does he agree that, as the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs recently stated, no further major inquiries should be launched unless there is a unanimous desire for them among the parties in Northern Ireland?

May I take this opportunity to congratulate the Select Committee on its recent report, which rightly raised a number of these issues? It may be helpful if I inform right hon. and hon. Members that next week we expect Lord Eames and Denis Bradley’s Consultative Group on the Past to publish its report on the way forward. The Government look forward to that and will be studying its proposals carefully.

Does the Secretary of State agree that if members of the Conservative party are presenting themselves as being worthy of government, they should show better grace and reflection on the issue of the Saville inquiry, rather than constantly go on about the cost? They should show some consideration for the families and their quest for truth and for the vindication of the innocence of their loved ones, as well for as the wider fundamental issues that will hopefully be addressed in the report. Does he accept that many of us would have wanted an oral statement on the Gibson review, so that we could have shown our concern and consideration for the needs and rights of the Omagh families?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks and share his view of the importance of the work that is being done on the Saville inquiry. I remind the House that when the former Prime Minister established that independent inquiry, he said that it would have to be conducted

“without any preconditions as to what the outcome may be, so that the truth can be established and told.”—[Official Report, 29 January 1998; Vol. 305, c. 505.]

I should perhaps also tell the hon. Gentleman that my office is making arrangements to meet representatives concerned with those terrible events in Londonderry that day, so that we can talk through with them the arrangements for publication in the autumn.

The Secretary of State has referred twice to getting at the truth. Given the exceptional difficulty, if not impossibility, of doing that in all the inquiries, and given that the inquiry industry in Northern Ireland is blossoming to the extent of costing £60 million a year, does he accept that it is time to call a halt to investigating the past and instead to look to the future?

I am sure that many hon. Members share the hon. Gentleman’s concern about the amount of money involved. However, I caution against the use of the pejorative description of an “inquiry industry” simply because, although some may regard it as an industry, for the families affected, the victims and those whose lives have been destroyed by the troubles, it is essential to find ways to get at the truth. There may be better ways of doing that in future. If we can find ways that provide better value for the taxpayer, we have a duty to do that. However, first and foremost, we have a duty to do all that we can to provide justice for families, and for victims who needlessly lost their lives during the troubles.

The Secretary of State has referred to the families, but not to the former soldiers, some of whom are my constituents. For 11 years, they have had the threat hanging over their heads. I spoke to some of them this morning. They did their duty by their country but they feel that the Government have not done their duty by them. Will the Secretary of State please at least send a message to them that he understands their concerns and those of their families and do something to reassure them that the matter will be brought to a speedy conclusion? They are now in their 70s and some have already died. 1 Para has a reunion next month—please give its members a positive message.

The hon. Gentleman has been unstinting in his advocacy for the work of the security forces. I again put on record my admiration for the way in which our security forces have responded over many years to terrorism in Northern Ireland. Undoubtedly, there are lessons for us all to learn from mistakes that may have been made, but the support of the Government and the House for our armed forces has been and remains unshakeable.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the concern that some of those to whom he spoke expressed. It is a matter of parity that, just as I am prepared to meet families from Derry to discuss arrangements for publication, if he would like to bring a delegation to meet me to discuss that, I would be more than happy to meet with it.

Parading Review

2. What recent steps his Department has taken regarding the strategic review of parading carried out by Lord Ashdown; and if he will make a statement. (248300)

I met Lord Ashdown last week and he updated me on the ongoing work of the review. I welcome the progress made, and look forward to receiving the final report when the review group has concluded its work.

I thank the Minister for that reply. He knows that I sent him some proposals about the ongoing Garvaghy road parade in Portadown. Will he agree to meet me and a small delegation to discuss them further?

I know that the hon. Gentleman is keen for a resolution on the Drumcree parade, and I pay tribute to him for his efforts in discussions with me and others, including members of the Portadown District Orange Lodge, who have also made considerable efforts. Of course, I am happy to meet him and consider his views. In the end, determination of parades is a matter for the Parades Commission and, again, I take the opportunity to join him in encouraging all individuals and organisations to get into dialogue about the issue as soon as possible.

Does the Minister agree that the Parades Commission has done an extremely good job in difficult circumstances and that any tinkering with its work may well have a downside rather than an upside?

I readily join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the Parades Commission, and especially to its chairman, Roger Poole, for its unstinting efforts to ensure that we have peaceful parading in Northern Ireland. It is worth reflecting on the fact that the Whiterock parade, which went so dreadfully wrong, happened only a little over three years ago. Everybody has worked hard in those three years to ensure peaceful parading in Northern Ireland, but we have made it clear that, if there is a consensus about an alternative system for regulating parading and having oversight of it, we are prepared to consider it. Lord Ashdown has been given that task, and I hope to receive his report in due course.

One of the proposals in the interim report by Lord Ashdown is to transfer responsibility for decisions on parading to the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. If that happens, would they have to be in agreement when deciding on parades and the details of parades, as they have to be on many other issues? Given the time-limited nature of the process for making decisions on parades, seeing as there are so many of them, what would happen if the First Minister and Deputy First Minister could not reach such agreement?

It is important to understand what was actually in the interim report from the parading review group. It proposed that the administration of applications for parades should be overseen by local councils and that the system for the resolution of disputes should be overseen by the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. That does not mean political interference or adjudication; rather, it is a question of administration. We know that the review group has consulted on that proposition. We await its final report to see whether its views have changed or whether its recommendations have been refined. However, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will join me in urging everybody in Northern Ireland to try to reach a consensus, so that we can make further progress.

My hon. Friend has been very careful in what he has said about the Parades Commission and in how he has structured his answers, but some people say that the Parades Commission should be abolished, so perhaps he could tell me this: what is the Government’s position on the Parades Commission?

I normally try to take some care with the words that I use, particularly in the Chamber. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South (Dr. McDonnell) earlier, the Government fully support the Parades Commission and believe that it has done an extremely good job in difficult circumstances. However, we know that there are people and organisations in Northern Ireland that do not share that view. If it is possible for all the parties and all sections of the community to arrive at a consensus on an alternative system, we will obviously be prepared to consider it, because in the longer term we need a sustainable approach to parading. We cannot lurch from parade to parade and season to season, unsure about the future. We have to have a sustainable approach to parading, so that peaceful parading can be guaranteed.

Paramilitary Decommissioning

3. What discussions he has had with the Police Service of Northern Ireland on extending the deadline for loyalist paramilitary decommissioning. (248301)

I hold regular discussions with the Chief Constable on a range of matters, including decommissioning. Having weighed all the advice that I have received, including that from the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning, I have made it clear that we will not seek renewal of the order on decommissioning beyond the next 12 months.

Since the Northern Ireland peace process began more than a decade ago, the people of Northern Ireland have been promised a deal, which is to say a compromise on political issues in return for the decommissioning of the vicious paramilitary groups whose activities have scarred Northern Ireland for far too long. The public have delivered their side of the deal, so why are the Government prevaricating on their side?

Let us be clear about what the purpose of this process is. We all want to see every gun and every weapon removed from the streets. The decommissioning order provides an additional route towards seeking that goal. The record of achieving decommissioning over the years has been successful. I have to weigh the advice of the Chief Constable, as well as that of the IICD and the other bodies that give me security advice, about whether they believe that it would be useful to continue for another year to provide that additional way of getting weapons off the streets. It does not prevent the police from doing their work and removing those weapons, which are of course illegal, but if it provides an additional route that may be successful in removing the guns, it would be foolish of me to ignore that advice.

Is the Secretary of State aware that there is no belief in the community in Northern Ireland, in the PSNI, in the Police Federation or in the loyalist communities that decommissioning will take place between now and 2010? Is he aware that 29 police officers are under threat at the moment and that five face death threats from loyalists? The police say that they know where the weapons are. What democratic Government would stand back and allow those weapons to be used, as they were in Belfast, where four blast bombs were used last month, and in the many other crimes involving weapons that have also occurred? The community in Northern Ireland is subjected to extortion and the presence of brothels and drugs by the paramilitaries. We will not tolerate the extension if we can do anything about it. The Secretary of State should revisit his intentions in that respect.

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s advice and I am sorry that I am going to take this opportunity to disagree with him. In relation to the work of the PSNI, let me simply say that everyone in the House admires the bravery of the men and women of the PSNI, which continues to be quite extraordinary on the streets of Northern Ireland. In relation to the specifics, however, the PSNI’s record in combating loyalist criminality and paramilitary activity has been a very good one. In the last year alone, 15 loyalists were arrested and firearms, ammunition and explosives were seized. It acts on the evidence and material that it is given. Let me say to him that it is also very important to recognise that the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning, which has been very successful in bringing about decommissioning, continues to give me advice that we should prevail with one more year. I have made it clear that this is the last year; at the end of this 12 months, that is it—the end of this process.

The Secretary of State will be aware of the very strong opposition of the Police Federation to the extension of the decommissioning legislation, which comes after attacks on police officers and the intimidation of police and prison staff by those connected to loyalist paramilitary groups. My party is not convinced about the extension of this legislation. Can the Secretary of State give us any evidence that the loyalist paramilitaries are now in a position to decommission their weapons?

I will meet the Police Federation on Monday next week to discuss the representations that it has made on this matter. May I counsel the hon. Gentleman, his party and other hon. Members—I am slightly hesitant to say this, but I use my words very precisely and carefully—that the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning has confirmed to me that it is currently making meaningful progress, and I hope to report to the House in future on that progress?

The Secretary of State will be aware of the growing number of loyalist death threats to members of the PSNI. What message would he send out today from his office to those brave policemen? Will he ensure that members of the PSNI receive the same support and protection as the former Royal Ulster Constabulary did in the face of IRA death threats?

I am sure that all hon. Members would wish to express their gratitude to the men and women of the PSNI. It remains a matter of fact that the greatest threat to those officers, as expressed in the last year, has come from those paramilitary criminal organisations such as the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA. They are the organisations that have despicably, and in a cowardly way, attacked police officers at traffic lights when they were dropping off their children at school. They have fired shots into the chest of one police officer who is very lucky still to be alive. In another case, an explosive device was placed under an officer’s car and his partner was nearly murdered by it. PSNI members do very brave things for the people of Northern Ireland and this country every day, and we will do everything we can to protect the lives of those brave men and women.

I am sure that the Secretary of State will agree that loyalist or republican paramilitary activity is unacceptable. Will he look again at extending this decommissioning period, because not a single political party in Northern Ireland wants it, and many of the police from whom I have had communications certainly do not want it? Is it not a very delicate matter to permit a further extension when we know that decommissioning is necessary and not to decommission is unacceptable?

The hon. Gentleman rightly draws attention to the very delicate balance on whether we will achieve more by renewing the order for a final 12 months—and it is a final 12 months—or by moving in the other direction. As I say, I have decided, on balance, that we should proceed in that way, but this is based on very specific advice from the commission. If that advice should result in an act of decommissioning, I say to the hon. Gentleman that if my not renewing the order were to result in those weapons not being destroyed and put for ever beyond use, I think we would be failing the people whom we are actually trying to protect.

Is my right hon. Friend not aware of the major concerns in nationalist communities among those who want to see the peace process move on—for example, by removing the peace walls—about the thought that there are loyalist paramilitaries with weapons preventing those developments? Will he reconsider his decision?

As I have said to the House, given the very specific advice I am being given by the commission that it is currently engaged in meaningful dialogue that will result in weapons being removed from the streets, if that is our goal, it would be very foolish of me to ignore that strong advice.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

May I join the Secretary of State in paying tribute to the bravery of the PSNI in the work it does? Does he not think, however, that that bravery deserves a bit more than a few nods and winks from these thugs and racketeers before he is prepared to extend for a further 12 months the 11 years that they have already had to decommission their weapons? He knows that we have rarely departed from our support for the Government in the peace process, but I put him on notice today that unless he comes up with something more substantial than he has done so far, he will put this measure through without any support from the Liberal Democrat Benches.

I hear the word of warning from the hon. Gentleman, and I take it seriously, but I would simply say this to him: we have succeeded in bringing about peace in Northern Ireland by all the political parties in this House working together. It is through that work that we have established the various bodies that have supervised and brought about the continuing peace process. If it is the view of the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning that we should prevail for 12 more months because it is currently engaged in meaningful discussions, I would urge him to think a second time as to whether now, rather than in the last 10 years, he chooses to ignore not my advice, but the advice of the commission.

Eleven years on from the agreement, it is unacceptable that there are armed gangs operating in any part of Northern Ireland. The Secretary of State has just mentioned new evidence that has convinced him that the amnesty should be extended. Will he give us some of that evidence now?

The purpose of sharing with the House the advice from the Decommissioning Commission is to encourage Members of this House to listen very carefully to that advice, as well as to me. I am not in a position to disclose the commission’s current negotiations, but I simply say to the hon. Gentleman that there are channels available to him through which I am prepared, and happy, to engage.

The Chief Constable has consistently said that anyone who has guns should give them up immediately. One officer has been shot in the back, and five have had to be rehoused. By extending the amnesty period, the Government are letting down local communities and the police who are trying to protect them. These are parasitical gangsters, drug dealers and protection racketeers. They do not deserve another extension. As we are strongly opposed to what is proposed, will the right hon. Gentleman consider withdrawing this statutory instrument?

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has a hearing difficulty, but as I have just explained to him, it is advice to us from the commission that has ensured that, on balance, we have made this decision. In my last answer, I made the offer to the hon. Gentleman to discuss further details with him, through the usual channels, but if he really thinks it would be helpful for me to make public now the content of discussions that might result in guns being removed from the streets, I have to question what his motives are. If his motive is to remove the guns, I suggest that he listens to the advice from the commission. On the other hand, if his intention is simply to proceed with a decision he made before that information emerged, I am afraid that even I am unable to help him.

Bombardier Project

For the purposes of clarification, I should say to the hon. Gentleman that Bombardier is not a project; it is actually a global aviation company that has been, and continues to be, very successful around the world, not least in Belfast, where its pioneering new project will create up to 1,200 new jobs, and up to almost 3,000 new jobs in the UK as a whole.

An article in The Guardian on 31 December had the headline, “DUP was rewarded by government for backing 42 days, claims first minister”. According to the article, he said that

“his party’s decision to support counter-terrorism bill helped deliver major economic investment for Northern Ireland”.

He also said that the Government

“came up with the goods in terms of the Bombardier deal ... they bent over backwards to help us.”

Whatever the merits of this investment, does not the Secretary of State agree that this smells of pork barrel politics at its worst and without principle?

It is perhaps encouraging to see that the hon. Gentleman now takes to reading his information about Northern Ireland in The Guardian. Clearly the one big difference between his party and the Labour party is that what we were prepared to do consistently since 2004 with Bombardier was to hold discussions to see how we could help bring jobs to Northern Ireland. Significantly, thanks to the assistance of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Government since 2004, which has allowed the company to secure the investment that has come to Northern Ireland, up to 1,000 new jobs will come to Northern Ireland. I am very sorry that where the Conservatives will do nothing, we will secure the jobs for the future.