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Paramilitary Activities

Volume 498: debated on Wednesday 4 November 2009

2. What recent assessment he has made of the extent of activities of dissident paramilitaries in Northern Ireland. (296667)

7. What recent assessment he has made of the level of activity of dissident republicans in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement. (296673)

I have today placed in the Library a copy of the Independent Monitoring Commission’s 22nd report on the activities of paramilitary groups, in which the IMC states:

“Dissident republican activity since the early summer of 2008 had been consistently more serious than at any time since we had started to report in April 2004.”

Speaking as a former Grenadier Guard who served in Northern Ireland, may I ask the Secretary of State to express his condolences to the families of the three Guardsmen and two military policemen killed yesterday in Helmand province? Does the Secretary of State recognise the contribution to the peace process made by the Grenadiers in Northern Ireland, including building the peace line? Finally, will he tell the House whether the upsurge in violence is due to new terrorist activity, or to the Provisional IRA under another name?

I heard at least three questions there, but one answer from the Secretary of State will suffice.

In answering the hon. Gentleman’s third question, may I associate myself firmly with the remarks made in his two previous ones? In response to his third question, I urge him to read the IMC report, which makes it clear that such activity cannot be attributed to the organised activities of those who may have represented paramilitary activity in the past. The report is extremely clear in laying the blame where it appropriately lies, particularly with the so-called RIRA and CIRA—Real IRA and Continuity IRA. Those groups are extremely dangerous, and a political solution is pressed as a matter of urgency.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the tragic death of Constable Stephen Carroll, allegedly by a 17-year-old, means that we should look carefully again at community policing and at how it helps to stop young people getting involved with proscribed organisations?

The hon. Gentleman will understand why I may not wish to speak about the particular individuals who have been charged with the murder of Constable Carroll, but I will say that the IMC report—I urge all hon. Members to read it—is very clear about where some of the recruitment, particularly of young males, is coming from and why it is happening. Within the report, there is also a proposal for a political intervention, which the IMC believes would be potent in having an effect on these people.

Does the Secretary of State acknowledge that the logic of the IMC today is consistent with advice that the Social and Democratic Labour party has been giving for over two years about the importance of devolving justice and policing as a way of disarming the dissident groups? Does he also acknowledge that we are concerned that the dissidents could be assisted by some of the consequences of the Ashdown review? Given the seriousness of the situation, why has only the leader of the Alliance party been given confidential security briefings and why is the Secretary of State asking the Alliance leader to go quiet on the shared future in the countdown to the devolution of justice and policing?

You might me rebuke me, Mr. Speaker, if I chose to answer all of those questions. I will none the less try to find an envelope that might succeed in answering the purport of the question. The report is very clear about the problem that we are facing in Northern Ireland today as a result of criminals calling themselves dissidents. It is very clear that there is a political solution and the report advocates that early devolution of policing and justice powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly could provide a potent intervention. I urge that intervention on all those elected in Northern Ireland, regardless of party.

I welcome the views of the IMC and its conclusion that the time is right for the transfer of policing and justice powers to the devolved Assembly. I ask my right hon. Friend to reiterate in very strong terms the view of the IMC that the transference of those powers would, in its words,

“be a platform for co-operation against those trying to undermine the peace process.”

That is the best signal to send to the dissidents.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. It might be worth drawing the attention of the House to one of the remarks in the IMC’s report today, which is that the activities of these dissidents

“represent a challenging of the peace process by groups always violently opposed to it”,

but critically at the moment

“not an unravelling of that process.”

We have a duty to ensure that that peace process does not unravel.

Will the Secretary of State join me in condemning the attack by dissidents at the home of a police officer under a car that was driven off by his partner, although fortuitously no lives were lost as a result? Will he underline the need for police officers and their families to be particularly vigilant at this time, as even if they consider themselves to be living in safe areas, they need to remain alert? Will he indicate what steps he intends to take to meet the challenge set by the dissident republicans from their increase in activity over the past number of months?

I very much join the right hon. Gentleman in those remarks and I thank him for the role that he is playing in trying to drive forward progress on completion of devolution. I would none the less remind him that paragraph 5.1, to which my right hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr. Ingram) referred, is very clear in saying that

“the early devolution of policing and justice powers to the…Assembly…could provide a potent intervention… It would be because policing and justice would no longer be a point of contention across the political divide; rather, it would be a platform for co-operation against those trying to undermine the peace process.”

Will the Secretary of State pass on the congratulations of this House to the Police Service of Northern Ireland on the skill and vigilance that enabled it to defuse a massive bomb on the border? That occurred since the House last had Northern Ireland questions.

I am happy to pass on those remarks to the PSNI. I am sure that the House would warmly welcome the new Chief Constable, Matt Baggott, who has taken over control of the PSNI. The PSNI does an extremely brave job, as this report demonstrates, in extremely difficult and challenging circumstances.

May I associate myself with the remarks of the Secretary of State and the IMC report—that the devolution of criminal justice would indeed be “a potent intervention” that politicians could effect in dealing with dissident republican groups? Does he agree with me and those with whom I am associated in Northern Ireland that, in the long term, these groups will be countered only if we are able to pursue an agenda of shared futures?

The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the importance of the shared future. There has been a lot of discussion about community confidence being built before devolution can take place. The report puts clearly before the House and the public of Northern Ireland that the real challenge to community confidence is the threat posed by dissidents. We have a choice, and we can act: early devolution would be a potent intervention, and I hope we will complete it soon.

Further to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (David Tredinnick), with Remembrance day approaching we should remember all those who were killed or injured serving the security forces, protecting our democracy and safeguarding our public. The latest IMC report published this morning contains some encouraging news, but also other deeply worrying information. The report states:

“The overall level of dissident activity was markedly higher than we have seen since we first met in late 2003. The seriousness, range and tempo of their activities all changed for the worse in these six months.”

The Secretary of State has had time to analyse the report. What are his conclusions, and what does he intend to do?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and I would like to mark our thanks to the Opposition parties who have helped in supporting the financial package put forward by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to enable early devolution to take place. The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the part of the report relating to the security issue, which goes on to say that the challenges

“pose a major challenge to the law enforcement and other agencies on both sides of the border. Had it not been for the work of all these agencies North and South, more lives would have been lost.”

The report identifies a major challenge, and I hope that all parties in Northern Ireland rise to it.

On the conclusion that the report endorses the devolution of policing, the Opposition have always taken a responsible approach. We support the devolution of policing and justice, and we supported the Bill in March. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has confirmed our long-term commitment to the significant financial package proposed by the Government. We have always made clear that devolution should happen only when all parts of the community are supportive—

Order. I am increasingly unhappy about the length of the preamble before we reach the question. Can we please now have a question? I want to make progress.

Does the Secretary of State agree that it is down to all four parties in the coalition on the Executive to work together to finalise the details and the timing?

The hon. Gentleman is right: it is up to the four parties. But let us be clear: as the report highlights, this is perhaps a moment when whatever individual issues might still prevent parties from moving forward, they should now set aside their differences, find the points of common unity and purpose, and ensure that the dissidents do not become a major threat to people in Northern Ireland.