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Northern Ireland

Volume 505: debated on Wednesday 3 February 2010

The Secretary of State was asked—

Criminal Justice and Policing (Devolution)

1. What assessment he has made of the outcomes of the recent talks at Hillsborough between the Northern Ireland political parties; and if he will make a statement. 3. What recent progress has been made on the devolution of criminal justice and policing; and if he will make a statement. (314136)

The Hillsborough talks established by my right. hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach last week have now continued for eight days. The British and Irish Governments helped to establish a basis and a pathway on which we believed it would be possible for the parties to reach a reasonable agreement. Considerable progress has been made. With good political will, we believe that the parties should soon be able to reach a reasonable agreement.

I thank the Secretary of State for his response. May I place on record the thanks of the people of Northern Ireland to the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State, the Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs for the extraordinary patience and diligence that they have applied throughout these talks? Does the Secretary of State share the frustration and anger of the people of Northern Ireland about the lack of real progress in these talks? Could he explain to the House why the Government have abandoned the core agreement principle of inclusivity by excluding 44 per cent. of the electorate from meaningful inter-party dialogue at these talks, and explain the abandonment of proportionality in the allocation of Ministries?

I certainly share the sense of frustration; after eight days and 110 or 120 hours of talks, sleep deprivation might be having its effect, as well.

The Prime Minister and the Taoiseach wanted to ensure that it was possible for the political parties to reach a reasonable agreement. Let us remember that, ultimately, because of the St. Andrews arrangements, the completion of devolution will be decided by a cross-community vote. However, before that, the political parties have been engaging in the past week in talks in an inclusive way. I can only say that, from what I have seen so far of the product of these talks, many of the points that the political parties in Northern Ireland would have wanted to see in such a process are very much under consideration.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer and for clarifying the position for the House. I have been a little concerned in listening to at least one of the parties talking about whether any agreement that was reached among the parties to the talks would have in some way to be put out for public consultation or a vote—it is a bit unspecific. What is the Government’s position on that? Do they think that that would be a helpful process or that it would hinder a solution that would be durable and remain for the foreseeable future?

Clearly, whatever agreement is reached by the parties must be durable. It is very important for us all to understand that what is at stake are not simply arrangements for a date for the transfer of policing and justice powers, for which the Government strongly believe that the time is now right: this is the end of a political process that began with the peace process itself. If we succeed with this, we will secure all the achievements of the peace process; if we fail, we will put many of them at risk.

I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend, the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach, and all the other local and national politicians, on all the efforts that they have made in trying to progress this very important matter. I also congratulate my right hon. Friend on the new unit that he opened this week in Maghaberry prison. On that particular aspect, if the devolution of policing does not go ahead, what might be the implications for the future of the prison-building programme in Northern Ireland?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. In fact, my right hon. Friend the Minister, who is responsible for security and policing, had the pleasure of opening that unit. He was allowed out of our open prison to go to another one, but I am pleased to report that we brought him back pretty promptly.

We are committed to the provision of new places in prison. In the past two years, we have provided some 300 new prison places, with 120 more to come. The House may wish to note, however, that if no agreement is reached in the next few days, and if therefore we cannot complete devolution, the loss of the £800 million that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister would make available would almost certainly mean that extra prison places would not happen, that the new women’s prison would not happen, and that, indeed, the new Magilligan prison would be unlikely to proceed.

Does not the Secretary of State think that an essential ingredient of the current discussions must be a consensus that can command community confidence? Without that community confidence, no matter what pressure is placed upon me or my colleagues, the Democratic Unionist party will not be buying into any deal. Progress has been made, but more remains to be done, and we certainly agree with including all the other parties in these discussions.

Of course everyone must have confidence, but confidence does not belong to any one community. One of the principles is that an agreement must indeed command support from everyone in Northern Ireland, but we are speaking about something that was understood in the St. Andrews agreement and that people expected would be completed. All the political parties in the Assembly elections understood the importance of completing devolution. The Assembly has been up and running for nearly three years, and that business remains to be done. We believe that the confidence is there, and it is now time to summon leadership and courage and act.

Does the Secretary of State agree that it is very important that no party in Northern Ireland is seen to be blackmailing Her Majesty’s Government? The actions of Sinn Fein, in threatening to pull down the Assembly if the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach did not go almost straight over to Northern Ireland and spend hours without sleep, would not seem to any reasonable person a sensible way forward. Of course we want the agreement to happen, but that is not necessarily the best way to move forward.

I thank my hon. Friend for those remarks. Let us be clear that the Prime Minister works extremely hard whether he is here in Downing street or in Northern Ireland, which is why I am sure we are all very grateful to him for what he has done. He went to Northern Ireland with the Taoiseach because he has been following the matter very closely over the past few months and judged that the time was right last Monday to go and help facilitate the talks and to build a pathway on which it would be possible to construct a reasonable agreement. That was the critical role that he played in those two days. If we reach agreement, the people of Northern Ireland from every community should be grateful to him and to the Taoiseach.

In thanking the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister for the time and effort that they have spent over the past few days, may I urge the Secretary of State to use whatever extra patience is necessary to ensure that when an agreement is reached, as I hope and trust it will be, it will hold and be supported throughout all the communities in Northern Ireland?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for those remarks, and indeed for his help during those two days when his being in Northern Ireland with the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs coincided with the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach being there. He is absolutely right that patience is required, but equally we must be careful not to try people’s patience to distraction. Unfair failure to make progress would not be rewarded—not by any particular process now, but by the people of Northern Ireland. We have changed their lives through the peace process and secured peace in the political process. It is right to make progress, but we now sit on the edge.

For those of us who definitely do not want to go back to direct rule and who want devolution and the talks at Hillsborough to succeed, with the principles of tolerance and respect at their core, what more can we in this House do to encourage those in the negotiations to take them forward and make them successful, in the interests of everyone in Northern Ireland?

I thank the hon. Lady for her contribution. She always speaks well on these issues, and indeed she always speaks well on behalf of her constituents. She is absolutely right to talk about the importance of tolerance and respect. It is essential that we also learn to put trust into the process. Every step of the way in the peace process has at times required us to make acts of faith. We need acts of faith and trust now, and whether one is a negotiator or standing outside the process, we all have a responsibility for its success. We would all have a responsibility were it not to succeed, although I hope that that will not happen.

May I, too, endorse the efforts of the Secretary of State and the Minister of State in recent days in relation to the talks? I endorse also what the Secretary of State says about the importance of trust and faith. Does he believe that he would have been able to engender that trust and faith and perform the role that he has if he had been caught out trying to construct a pan-Unionist alliance?

The hon. Gentleman tempts me with the last part of his question. I will not make any attempt to secure any party advantage, because the politics of Northern Ireland are such that we must put the interests of the people above any party interest. However, I say this to the hon. Gentleman: we all have a responsibility. It is possible to grandstand what is happening in Northern Ireland, and in doing so, to say “It wasn’t my fault” if it fails. As I have said before, we are all responsible.

Everyone acknowledges the determination of the Secretary of State and his colleagues to see devolution completed, and we fully support his efforts and objectives. For devolution to be durable, it must command community confidence. Will he therefore ensure that both the Ulster Unionists and the Social Democratic and Labour party are fully involved in the negotiations as equal members of the four-party coalition?

I wish to put on record that I believe that that can be done only if there is an unequivocal commitment to succeed by all parties in the House. I am grateful for what I believe is the hon. Gentleman’s full support for what we are trying to negotiate, but let us be clear that the process at Hillsborough has been open to all parties. None the less, the agreement must be forged initially between the DUP and Sinn Fein. Let me pay tribute to the leadership offered by both parties. The process has been undertaken in a good spirit and in good faith, but it requires the support of those who may not be able to be involved in the intimate parts of every negotiation. I urge the hon. Gentleman to do all he can with his alliance partner in Northern Ireland to help that party understand that the talks must succeed.

The negotiations have been much more protracted than anyone anticipated. Like the Secretary of State, we want them to succeed, and I again assure him of our continued support. Can he confirm, however, that issues other than criminal justice, policing and parades that have been raised by the parties are being carefully considered as part of the final deal?

These talks are to facilitate an agreement—the agreement must be reached by the political parties. I can confirm that in plenary sessions those issues have been raised and that a reasonable agreement would include a process to address them. However, it is sometimes difficult to address such issues if some Northern Ireland parties are not available for meetings or if they are not as prepared as other parties to meet me or my right hon. Friend the Minister.

Security Situation

2. What his latest assessment is of the level of threat in Northern Ireland from dissident republican groups. (314137)

4. What his latest assessment is of the security situation in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement. (314140)

The most recent Independent Monitoring Commission report confirmed that the threat from dissident republicans is at its highest for six years. I pay tribute to the work of the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Security Service in combating and disrupting terrorism in all its forms.

The Minister will be aware of the latest attempt by dissidents to carry out an attack on the security forces, which happened last night. Thankfully, it was thwarted through co-operation between the PSNI and the police in the Irish Republic. It is that kind of co-operation that will help to defeat those terrorists.

Is the Minister aware of a realignment that is taking place within those dissident republican groups, as a result of which we have seen an increase in the number of attacks and the risks that they pose to the security forces? Will he reassure us that the Chief Constable will be given the resources he needs to combat that serious threat?

There was an attack last night on the Old Park barracks, which indeed followed an attack a few days ago at Bessbrook police station. Of course, all such incidents are to be condemned. The IMC noted that there was some tactical co-operation between certain groupings, which of course the PSNI and the Security Service are aware of and are dealing with, but the key thing is that the completion of devolution of policing and justice provides a real opportunity to snuff out those who would oppose the political and peace processes and try to bring disruption. We have a real opportunity to move such people right away from the mainstream of society, who support law and order and want visible policing on their streets to deal with everyday kinds of crime, including antisocial behaviour.

Does the Minister share my concern about the sheer brutality and nerve of the recent drive-by shootings? Is he satisfied that the human intelligence-gathering capability of the PSNI is as good as it was in the RUC?

I have absolute confidence in the capacity of the PSNI and the Security Service to deal with the threat that is posed. It is a severe threat, and we recognise that, but the police and the Security Service have the capability to deal with it. I join the hon. Gentleman in condemning the people who carried out those attacks, and those who carried out the despicable attack on Constable Peadar Heffron a short time ago. I am pleased that because of Constable Heffron’s great strength and the support of his family, he has now regained consciousness and is in a stable condition. Their approach to life stands in stark contrast to the despicable behaviour of those who tried to take his life.

I join the Minister in condemning the attack on Constable Heffron and wish him a rapid and full recovery from his very serious injuries. His is one of a series of attacks, as we have heard this morning, mainly—although not exclusively—on police officers. On behalf of the Opposition, I condemn those attacks without reservation and I ask the Minister again whether he can do anything to help the police to protect their officers from these murderous and cowardly attacks.

I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that all police officers in Northern Ireland have received an appropriate briefing on their own security. This year the Government have made available an extra £28 million to deal with the terrorist threat, and more money will follow next year. It is a great tribute to the PSNI, when one looks back at some of the serious attacks in the past year, that two people have been remanded in custody and charged with murder in relation to the attacks at the Massereene barracks, two have been charged with the murder of Constable Stephen Carroll, and two have been charged with attempted murder in relation to an attack planned recently in Garrison against a young police officer. The police service is absolutely up for this and is determined to deal with the threat.


At the beginning of January, the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning confirmed a major act of decommissioning by the UDA. We applaud the leadership and courage behind that decision and those responsible.

Order. These are important and serious matters we are discussing, but on both sides of the Chamber there are far too many private conversations taking place. If people want to have private chats, the answer is simple: leave the Chamber.

The Secretary of State rightly says that there has been welcome decommissioning by the UDA, but he will also be aware of the worrying number of loyalist dissident assaults, which are up by almost 250 per cent. on the same time last year. What is his Department doing to ensure that the people who orchestrate and authorise such assaults face justice?

First, this is a matter for the Chief Constable. That being said, we are ensuring that the resources are available for him to deal with all those who are engaged in crime. If the agreement that we are trying to work through at Hillsborough succeeds, an additional £800 million will be available to policing and justice in Northern Ireland to help with these things. If the agreement is not reached, that money will not be available and the police will have to suffer the consequences of a failure to reach agreement.

Along with others, my right hon. Friend has played a major part in the decommissioning talks. They have certainly brought safety to Northern Ireland, but does he believe that there is more to come from decommissioning, and has he any news that he can share with the House today?

Let us reflect on the success of the decommissioning policy. We have seen full decommissioning from the Provisional IRA, the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster Defence Association, and limited decommissioning is reported from the Loyalist Volunteer Force. It has been an extremely successful programme, but I should share with my hon. Friend the fact that next week, on 9 February, it comes to an end—the process will be over—and that will be that on decommissioning.

PSNI (Recruitment)

6. What his most recent estimate is of the level of recruitment to the Police Service of Northern Ireland of (a) Catholics and (b) Protestants; and if he will make a statement. (314142)

Since the introduction of the temporary recruitment provisions in 2001, there have been 3,751 appointments to the PSNI—1,888 Catholic, 1,831 Protestant and 32 not determined. Catholic composition within the PSNI has increased from 8.3 per cent. to 27.68 per cent. We remain on track to reach the target of 30 per cent. Catholic composition by March 2011, and today I am laying before Parliament an order that will renew the temporary provisions for a further final year.

What further measures will the Minister take to ensure that the required level of membership will be met from both denominations?

It was necessary to introduce the temporary provisions to deal with the historical imbalance in the representation in the PSNI. As I said, in 2001, 8 per cent. were Catholic, but now that figure is 27.68 per cent. As we move forward, however, it is important to ensure that, with confidence in policing shared across all communities, we can expect applications and people of high calibre from all communities and that they will be recruited. Of course we also need strategies to ensure that women apply to join the PSNI, and people from ethnic minorities too.

The Minister will be aware that over the past 12 months a number of PSNI and prison officers and former security force members have had to leave their homes following dissident republican threats. Does he agree that, if that continues, it will be a hindrance to encouraging young people to join the PSNI?

It is important, of course, that the Northern Ireland Office stands alongside the PSNI and provides support and protection where appropriate to police officers who may be under a serious and individual threat. However, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said earlier, we all bear a responsibility to ensure that we create an environment in Northern Ireland in which those who seek to carry out the kinds of attack that we have seen are isolated from the mainstream community and stand unsupported and alone, so that they can have no further impact. All of us, including the hon. Gentleman and me, bear a responsibility.

Paramilitary Groups

8. What recent assessment he has made of the level of activity by loyalist paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement. (314144)

Although I welcome the positive leadership that has delivered decommissioning in Northern Ireland, some individual members of loyalist paramilitary organisations remain involved in criminality, as reflected in the latest IMC report.

In January, youth workers warned that social networking sites were being used by both Catholic and Protestant groups to foment violence. May I ask what steps the Government are taking to ensure that such sites are not so used?

That is primarily a matter for the PSNI, which is looking at how such websites are used. Where there is illegal use of such sites or material, it will pursue the matter. However, I would simply say to the hon. Gentleman that the talks taking place right now in Northern Ireland will do more than anything to ensure that in the future young people find no interest in such activity. I ask him to urge his hon. Friends to do all they can to help the talks succeed.

Fuel Smuggling

The latest assessment by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs confirms that the amount of revenue lost through the non-payment of UK duty is reducing. We are not complacent, however, and in the past year HMRC has seized 1.09 million litres of illegal fuel.

In 2002, the Chancellor’s Budget targeted fuel smuggling, yet in a written answer on 14 November 2008, column WA150, the noble Lord Myners pointed out that £210 million in diesel revenue had not been collected, and that in 2005-06 it was also £210 million. Given the importance of fuel smuggling to terrorist organisations, why has there patently been no progress whatever since 2002?

The most important thing that we need to do is ensure that we find those who smuggle and deal in illegal fuel in Northern Ireland, seize their assets and bring them to justice. Under the remit of the Organised Crime Task Force, the PSNI and other law enforcement agencies are deeply involved with that. Operations now take place week after week to seize equipment and bring people to justice.

Further to that question—and indeed, to all the questions that have been asked today—does my right hon. Friend believe that conducting clandestine negotiations exclusively with Unionist politicians in a stately home in England helps or hinders the process?

Order. I was listening intently to the hon. Gentleman. I was hoping that he would refer to fuel smuggling, and he did not.

Tempted, as I often am by my hon. Friend, to respond to the question that he asked, there is a serious point, and it is the one that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made previously. This is not a moment for party political advantage in this place; it is a moment for the parties of Northern Ireland, with our support, to strive for and find the agreement that can pave the way to permanent peace in Northern Ireland.