With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I wanted to report to the House at the earliest opportunity on the agreement reached at Hillsborough castle between the Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Fein, and which we and the Irish Government fully support. This agreement will lead to the completion of devolution of power in Northern Ireland. I want also to report on the accompanying arrangements that Parliament will need to make to enable devolution to be completed.
I am making this statement conscious that General de Chastelain has today announced that the Irish National Liberation Army—responsible for more than 110 deaths during the troubles—and the official IRA have decommissioned their weapons. I have also just been informed that the last loyalist organisation, the South-East Antrim Ulster Defence Association, has this afternoon just completed its decommissioning. I think that the House will want to record our thanks to the international commission, which has now overseen decommissioning by the UDA, the Ulster Volunteer Force, the Provisional IRA, and now the INLA and the official IRA—a central part of the process of moving Northern Ireland from violence to peace.
In 1998, with the signing of the Good Friday agreement, Northern Ireland opened a new chapter in the peace process. The St. Andrews agreement marked the next step forward. Now, we have reached a significant and defining moment. Each of the Northern Ireland agreements since 1998 has had a different basis on which it was reached. The Good Friday agreement was an agreement between the participants to the talks, including the two Governments. St. Andrews was an agreement between the two Governments, later endorsed by the parties through their participation in the newly elected Assembly. The Hillsborough castle agreement—the final stage of the journey to completing devolution—was reached between the two parties which are the largest in the Assembly following the 2007 elections. The agreement was the outcome of many hours of talks, consultations and plenary meetings involving all the Assembly parties, and we should be in no doubt about its significance. Without this agreement, the work done at St. Andrews and Belfast could not have been moved forward. Without the completion of devolution, the whole process of devolution and the peace process itself would be at risk. So this agreement is essential to securing the future, because in turn it will also bring stability, investment, and jobs.
For decades, conflicts over institutions have dominated the politics of Northern Ireland. Even in the past two years, a failure to agree on the devolution of policing and justice has cast a shadow over Northern Ireland’s politics. When the cross-community vote takes place on 9 March and the parties request the transfer of powers, Northern Ireland’s politicians will, by 12 April, have full control over their Government and be able to focus on the economy, on jobs, housing and public services and, of course, on policing and justice. With this agreement, communities once locked in the most bitter of struggles are choosing to be bound together in a shared future with a common destiny. It must be in a spirit of partnership.
None of that could have been achieved without close working with the Irish Government. I know that the whole House will want to pay tribute to the Taoiseach, Brian Cowen; the Irish Foreign Minister, Michael Martin; and the Taoiseach’s predecessors, Bertie Ahern and Albert Reynolds. Nor could it have been achieved without the continued and unstinting support of the American Government and Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama. I especially thank Secretary of State Clinton for her generous support in the last few months.
The agreement is the conclusion of a process. The House will want to record its thanks to Tony Blair for his work and to John Major before him, as well as to previous Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland, some of whom are with us this afternoon. I want to record my personal thanks to them, to the current Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and to his Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Paul Goggins) for the time that they spent in detailed negotiations. I thank them all for their patience, resilience and wisdom.
Two weeks ago, the Taoiseach and I joined the parties for part of the negotiations in Hillsborough. There has been comment about the amount of time needed to reach the agreement. We should recognise that the talks were demanding because they went to the very core of Northern Ireland’s shared future, but implicit in the agreement that Sinn Fein and the DUP have now reached and there for all to support is an even greater prize—that the parties seize this opportunity together to build a new trust in a fresh spirit of respect, co-operation and understanding.
It is my view that the agreement represents a reasonable concord to put differences to one side and enter a better shared future in a spirit of good will. Four crucial breakthroughs have been made. First, the parties have resolved the outstanding issues on the transfer of policing and justice powers and agreed a timetable for the completion of the final stage of devolution. Following cross-community consultation, the First and Deputy First Ministers will jointly table a resolution seeking a transfer of policing and justice powers by means of a cross-community vote in the Northern Ireland Assembly four weeks from tomorrow, on 9 March, for devolution to occur on 12 April. This Parliament will then be asked to approve the necessary transfer orders so that devolution can occur on that date.
Secondly, the parties have agreed how the devolution of policing and justice will work in practice and, in particular, how the relationship between the Justice Minister and the Executive will work.
Thirdly, the parties have committed to a new and improved framework for regulating and adjudicating parades, which will maximise cross-community support. At its core is a commitment to ensuring local dialogue, transparency and mediation, as well as specific proposals for dealing with contentious parades. The First and Deputy First Ministers will set up a co-chaired working party to take forward that work, and legislation on the agreed outcomes will be completed in the Northern Ireland Assembly before the end of this year.
Fourthly, the agreement proposes to address how devolved Government could work better in Northern Ireland. In the talks, all parties raised the issue of the need for greater efficiency, transparency and inclusiveness. It is clear from the agreement that that was firmly recognised. The First and Deputy First Ministers have proposed three very important working groups at Executive level, which will begin work immediately. I am pleased that the First Minister is in the House today while we are discussing it.
The first working group will consider how the Executive might function better and how delivery might be improved. The two others will deal with all outstanding Executive business and make recommendations on how progress can be made on all matters outstanding from the St. Andrews agreement.
The House will know that last October, I sent all party leaders in Northern Ireland the proposals for a financial settlement worth an additional £800 million to underpin the new Department of Justice, available only if and when the parties decided to take the historic step of requesting the transfer of policing and justice powers. All the details have been studied by the Assembly and Executive Review Committee. The financial settlement will ensure stability for the new Department, enabling it to deal with the issues outstanding from the troubles and current security needs. I am sure that the House wishes to ensure that in reaching such an agreement, the Department has the stability and resources to complete the Patten proposals on policing and meet the unique pressure of Northern Ireland’s past and present security needs.
Taken together, those parts of the agreement will lead to a better functioning Northern Ireland Executive who are better able to focus on growth, jobs, public services and, of course, law and order. I believe that our duty now is to do all we can to encourage the parties to support and give effect to this agreement. Subject to the cross-community vote on 9 March, the First Minister and Deputy First Minister have now agreed to support an accelerated passage for the budget Bill and any related Assembly steps to ensure devolution of powers by 12 April.
Too many lives have been lost in Northern Ireland. Just a few weeks ago dissident republicans tried to murder a police officer, Constable Heffron. They did not succeed, but he was very badly injured. There have been significantly more attacks in the last 12 months than in any recent year. Indeed, just 12 months ago the House will record with sadness the murders of two brave young soldiers, and on 9 March last year criminals also murdered a brave Police Service of Northern Ireland officer, Stevie Carroll.
The Independent Monitoring Commission report at the end of last year was clear: early devolution would be a potent intervention on the activity of the dissidents. So the decisions made in the last few days are the most powerful signal we can send to those who chose violence over politics. I hope that the whole House will join with me in sending an unequivocal message to those who would defy the will of the people: that the politics of peaceful change must irrevocably succeed in Northern Ireland, and it must overcome whatever obstacles are put in its way.
The next stage is to show that this new stability can bring results in jobs and prosperity. So I am grateful that Secretary of State Clinton has immediately announced her invitation to the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to meet her and the US economic envoy, Declan Kelly, to see how together the UK, Irish and American Governments can together accelerate all options for encouraging new inward investment and jobs into Northern Ireland.
The peace process has taken men and women of courage, who were prepared to set the past aside in the service of the future. The peace of Northern Ireland and its future stability asks that we all put the interests of all its people above the interest of party. We have a proud record in this House of all-party support for the peace process. Today, it is important that we not only support the principle, but the dates in the agreement. Upon all of us falls the responsibility to make this work. Together we should complete the process of giving the government of Northern Ireland to the people of Northern Ireland. For with policing and justice in the hands of the Northern Ireland Executive, the future of Northern Ireland is finally and truly in the hands of its people. I commend this statement to the House.
May I thank the Prime Minister for his statement? We support devolution in Northern Ireland and we welcome the agreement reached between the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein. May I start by congratulating the British and Irish Governments and, in particular, the Prime Minister on their determination in helping to bring that agreement about?
As the Prime Minister will know, we have always been in favour in principle of policing and justice powers being devolved to the power-sharing Administration at Stormont. That is why we backed the legislation last year, that is why we will honour the financial package contained in the agreement, and that is why we released a statement immediately on Friday—a statement welcomed by the Northern Ireland Secretary.
Our overriding objective has always been, and always will be, to create a peaceful, prosperous and stable Northern Ireland in which all parts of the community have a shared future. For however long we have to sit on this side of the House, the Prime Minister will always have our fullest support in securing those objectives.
There has been much talk over the past three days of “a new chapter” and of the political process “coming of age”. Does the Prime Minister agree with the First and Deputy First Ministers that there can be no going back? Does not the evil and cowardly attack on Constable Heffron in Randalstown last month, which the Prime Minister mentioned, more than demonstrate the dangers of that? No one should doubt how far we have come. We stand here with the name of Airey Neave, the first MP I remember, emblazoned above that door. He was murdered by the INLA just yards from where we are standing. As the Prime Minister said, General de Chastelain today announced that the INLA has decommissioned its weapons. That is how far we have come.
While the agreement is welcome, does the Prime Minister agree that there are a number of areas that require clarification? These are the position of the Chief Constable; timetables; parading; and some outstanding issues from St. Andrews. Let me take each of these in turn.
Does the Prime Minister agree that the most fundamental principles in devolving policing and justice are the continued independence of the judiciary and the operational independence of the Chief Constable for policing? Of course, both are already enshrined in the law, and they are reiterated in the agreement. However, the usual formulation, “operational independence”, has become “operational responsibility”. Is there any significance to that change?
On timetables, the agreement proposes the transfer of policing and justice powers, as the Prime Minister said, on 12 April this year. As I understand it, under current legislation the Department of Justice in Northern Ireland, which would of course then be responsible for those matters, is due to be dissolved on 1 May 2012 unless there is an agreement on its replacement. Does that not mean that there is a risk of there being another set of very difficult negotiations unless we can resolve that now?
On parading, the commission established by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister is given just three weeks from 9 February to come forward with agreed proposals. Can the Prime Minister tell us what will happen to the proposed vote on policing and justice powers in the Assembly on 9 March if that deadline is not met, particularly given that there is a linkage between the two issues?
As the Prime Minister said, there is also a working group tasked with looking at improving the way in which the Executive function. I do not believe that there is a timetable for that working group to deliver its recommendations. Can he indicate when that group will be expected to report, and can he tell us whether it has any bearing on the timetable for devolution?
The First and Deputy First Ministers will examine elements of the St. Andrews agreement that have either not been faithfully implemented or not been implemented at all. Can the Prime Minister tell us which issues that will cover?
Last week’s agreement is between the DUP and Sinn Fein, two of the four parties in the Executive in Stormont. On Friday, both the other coalition parties, the Social Democratic and Labour party and the Ulster Unionists, asked for time to study the agreement. Can the Prime Minister tell us what provision there is for that, and what consideration there will be of any reasonable concerns they might have? As the former leader of the SDLP, the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), has said:
“We will have to take our turn with other parties in proofing what is proposed, not trying to create problems, but pre-empting any possible shortcomings or problems there are with it so we can actually improve it”.
May I commend that, and say how much I believe all other parties should take a similar approach?
We know from reports that a number of other issues were considered at Hillsborough, including the Irish language and the Presbyterian Mutual Society. There are also reports of agreements not included in the formal text. Can the Prime Minister clarify that?
Finally, we welcome the involvement and engagement of the United States and the discussion on greater US investment promised by Hillary Clinton. Can the Prime Minister confirm that that is, of course, contingent on the implementation of the agreement?
The whole House will want to thank the Prime Minister and the Northern Ireland Secretary for their very hard work to help bring this agreement about. Of course, the devolution of policing and justice is something that we have to get right, but is it not important also that the politicians of Northern Ireland now move on and focus on the issues that people on the ground really care about, such as health, housing, schools and tackling social problems? Does the Prime Minister share my hope that that—a return to normal, healthy, democratic devolved politics as part of the United Kingdom—can now really happen in Northern Ireland?
First, may I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his very generous remarks about how people have come together to make this set of agreements possible? I agree with him that the all-party consensus that has existed on this set of challenges for many years is one that we should want to continue, and one that stands us in good stead for backing the agreements that have been made and for ensuring that on 9 March, we can encourage the Northern Ireland Assembly to make the decision to move forward with the devolution of policing and justice.
I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s support for the process and for the investment conference, which will go ahead, but of course only if the agreement is fully implemented with the devolution of policing and justice. I assume from what he said that he also supports the dates that we have set forward—9 March and 21 April—and I am grateful for that, as well. Northern Ireland began to move forward not only when the parties there agreed that they wished to come together to address issues that they had to face in common, but when all parties in this House agreed that it was essential that we worked together as well.
I shall deal with each of the right hon. Gentleman’s specific questions in turn. The continued independence of the judiciary is guaranteed by the agreements. The Chief Constable is independent and will continue to be so, and I would read no significance into the use of the word “responsible”. He has operational independence and reports to the Policing Board. That will remain, and I think everybody in Northern Ireland believes that that system has worked, and continues to work, well.
As for 2012—the point at which people have got to consider again the issue of the Department of Justice—it is true to say that the parties agreed that it should not at this point be changed, and that to do so might have made it more difficult to get the agreement they have. However, I have no doubt that if the devolution of policing and justice works, all parties will want it to move forward in exactly the way that has been designed, including after 2012.
On the working parties, it is true to say that three working parties are dealing the some of the most difficult issues. The Leader of the Opposition asked me about other issues raised at the talks. One of the working parties is going to deal with the issues that are still outstanding from the St. Andrews agreement—and I should tell him that that means all outstanding issues from that agreement. A working party chaired by junior Ministers on both sides will report to the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, and then to the Executive, on the basis of the agreement reached last week.
The issue of the future of the Executive and how they work deserves the views and recommendations of all parties in the Assembly. One point consistently made to me by the leader of the UUP is that it is important that the Executive can work well, and indeed better, in future. One issue that prevented the Executive working as well as they should was the cloud hanging over them before they established a solution to the problem of the devolution of policing and justice. It was perhaps inevitable that the Executive would not work as well as they could until that was resolved.
The proposal that has been put forward—it came from the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister—that a working party to be set up would be chaired by the leaders of the UUP and SDLP is a good one. I hope that they will find it possible to take up that offer, which allows them to participate in shaping how the Executive will work in future. When that working party should report is a matter for the parties to agree on, but I know that people will want to move things forward at the earliest opportunity.
I believe that the UUP is meeting today to consider its response, as is the SDLP. I am pleased that the previous leader of the SDLP, the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan)—he has now given way to Margaret Ritchie, whom I congratulate on her victory in the leadership elections—said that he was in favour of the agreement in principle but that he wanted to be sure of the details. Both those parties will look at the agreement, and I hope they come to the view that it is essential that we move forward with it and support the cross-community vote on 9 March. In my view, that would be the best way of sending a signal not only to those people of violence, but to the rest of the world, that Northern Ireland has resolved the problems that remained; that it is ready to move forward; that it is open to investment from the rest of the world; and, indeed, that it offers a peaceful and secure future.
As the Leader of the Opposition says, discussing housing, health, welfare, social security, education and the other issues that affect the people of Northern Ireland will be the main focus of the Assembly in future. That will be a huge change from the past.
I, too, congratulate the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Minister, the Taoiseach, the Irish Foreign Minister and, as the Prime Minister said, all their predecessors, on the considerable amount of work they put in to everything that led up to this very significant deal between the DUP and Sinn Fein. I also join the Prime Minister in recognising the painstaking work of General de Chastelain and his colleagues on the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning.
The Liberal Democrats have long believed that policing and justice powers should be devolved to the Assembly if and when it wanted such powers. That is a crucial element to devolution, and it will be a momentous achievement if the powers are indeed devolved as early as April, as the agreement has set out.
There is no place for party politics here: the biggest contribution that we in this House can continue to make is to do what we can, on a non-party basis, to ensure that normality returns to Northern Ireland. I am sure that the Prime Minister will recognise—indeed, he already has done—the importance of now bringing on board all the political parties in Northern Ireland, including those that were not directly involved in the negotiations. Will he confirm that he and the Secretary of State will continue to help all the parties in Northern Ireland to work together constructively to avoid any further logjams in the peace process?
Finally, on one specific point, we share the concerns of our colleagues in the Alliance party that there is little in the agreement on how to build progress on community relations on the ground, which is where it counts, on everything from public services to the role of community groups. Perhaps the current agreement is simply not the appropriate place for such a commitment. Yet it is undoubtedly true that a political agreement between the parties will be durable only if it is accompanied by concrete steps towards greater integration between the communities. I spoke with David Ford about that this afternoon, and I know that he has also raised the issue directly with the Prime Minister. Does the Prime Minister agree that improved community relations are crucial to the future of Northern Ireland, and can he assure us today that the parties in Northern Ireland will work together constructively to take forward an agreed and practical community relations strategy?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, first, for his support for the agreement, and secondly, for his desire that all parties can move forward together in unison in supporting what has been agreed. I agree with him about the importance that the Alliance party has given to the talks. It was there from the beginning of the talks, and it was there right to the end. I praise David Ford, the leader of the Alliance party, and all the Alliance Members I talked to for their willingness to enter into discussions about the future of the Executive and, in particular, the programme for the Government. The Executive’s strategy for cohesion sharing and integration is one of the vital foundations of Executive policy for the future. The Alliance party is keen to see that that policy shapes the work of the Department of Justice and other Departments for the future.
I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that the creation of a shared and better future, based on tolerance and respect for cultural diversity, is absolutely essential to what all parties have agreed they wish to see. They are going to bring forward a programme of cohesion and integration for that shared and better future. I thank the Alliance party for its involvement in that, as I thank all the parties for the way in which they have approached the final stage of the negotiations.
It is very difficult for those of us in the House from outside Northern Ireland to understand just how challenging, difficult and sensitive the issues of law and order, and justice are. It is therefore to the credit of all the parties in the Northern Ireland, including the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, who have shown the courage and resilience to carry the process forward. May I also thank the Prime Minister and his Secretary of State? The role of the British Government, as an honest broker and a guarantor of the process and the settlement, is essential. If, after all the decades of mistrust, the Government ever deviate from that role of being an honest broker and become in any way partisan in those agreements, that will be very much to the detriment of the continuation of that process.
First, let me pay tribute to the work that my right hon. Friend did as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and also during his period as Home Secretary, with responsibility for security. He has contributed to the process that has ended today, with the announcement here that the parties wish to support the devolution of policing and justice, and wish for that to happen only a few weeks from now.
I also agree entirely with my right hon. Friend that it has been of great benefit to the peace process that there has been all-party support in this House—all-party support when the Conservative party was in government, with Labour supporting the Conservatives, and all-party support while we have been in government, with the Conservatives, Liberals and other parties supporting what we do. If at any time we had lost that sense that this House was united in seeking to advance the peace process and the security of Northern Ireland, we would all have been the losers from it. I am determined that we work in the role of trying to move agreement forward between the parties.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to mention the important role of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. Without their determination to come to an agreement, without their skills at negotiation and without the patience that they showed when the negotiations were very difficult, we could not have succeeded in reaching an agreement. It is right to commend the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, as I said, for the statesmanship they have shown in bringing their parties together and at the same time bringing Northern Ireland together.
May I join in the thanks to the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the Minister of State for the support and encouragement they have given throughout this process? May I express a firm and unalterable commitment to ensuring that every element of this agreement is faithfully implemented? We all have ways as individual parties of ensuring that the brakes can be put on and that things can be brought down, but only collectively can we ensure that we take them forward and that the process works.
I noticed that the Prime Minister emphasised the word “many” when he referred to the many hours of negotiations that had taken place, but will he accept that there are very special circumstances in respect of these sensitive functions and that the agreement reached acknowledges the independence of the courts and the operational independence of the Chief Constable and ensures that there is no interference in the role carried out by the Police Service of Northern Ireland board? It ensures that we have a Justice Minister, who will be elected by a cross-community vote in the Assembly and will have the support of all sections of our community and that any quasi-judicial decisions will be taken outside the political Executive who would be in power, so that there is an ability for any urgent decisions to be taken prior to the Executive’s having to be consulted. Does he agree that all of these matters will give confidence to the people of Northern Ireland, who will be delighted at the fact that a new way forward is being offered in respect of parading, which has cost so much in the past in Northern Ireland?
Will the Prime Minister therefore accept that the institutions that we already have in Northern Ireland are not the politician’s institutions, as the institutions belong to the people, so any alteration or addition to them belongs to the people as well? It therefore becomes imperative that the institutions being changed have the support of the community and that there is confidence among that community. It can be expressed in two ways—through the consultation process outlined in the agreement and through the support of all the parties in the Assembly, and without that we cannot move forward.
I am very grateful to the First Minister. I was incredibly moved when he said in his speech on Friday that for all parties there must be “no going back”, as there had been too much violence and too much conflict. As he said, there was only one way to go now, and that was forward. I confirm that everything he said about the Department of Justice, its relationship with the Executive, the powers of the Justice Minister and the quasi-judicial decisions that he or she would make is absolutely correct and in the agreement. What is most satisfying is that this agreement is jointly authored by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister—by the Democratic Unionist party and by Sinn Fein working together. In the preliminary or prefix to the agreement, it states that they will address the problems on the basis of trust, “mutual respect and equality”. I believe that that has come out of a long process of negotiation, through which people have had to come together, put aside the differences of the past and reach a solution for the future.
The First Minister is also absolutely right that there is a process of consultation, which he and the Deputy First Minister have inaugurated. On that basis of that consultation, they will put forward what they feel is the right resolution to the Assembly on 9 March. If that resolution is acceptable, we will of course move forward to the devolution of policing and justice by 12 April. I have made it clear that we will do everything in our power here to get the relevant changes put into effect in this Parliament to make that possible, while ensuring that the Department of Justice will be able, with the necessary financial arrangements in place, to start to deal with the problems it faces. I entirely agree that with the right hon. Gentleman that there is no going back. What has come out of these negotiations is the wish of every single party to move forward. I hope that every single party in the Assembly will now assent to the proposals and make them the basis of a very strong vote in the Assembly on 9 March.
May I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement and, more importantly, the positive announcement on Friday of which he and others were part? May I say to him that, based on experience, the public might feel a bit more hope if there was a wee bit less hype? Although some of us might have misgivings about how the Minister is to be appointed, as that departs from the Good Friday agreement—which, unlike all other agreements, was solemnly endorsed overwhelmingly by the people of Ireland, north and south—will he acknowledge that we nevertheless support the firm date for the devolution of policing and justice, and my party will vote for it in the Assembly and for any related measures in this House?
The Prime Minister and others have touched on the relationship between the Minister of Justice and the Executive. Does he recognise that some of us are also concerned about the relationship between the devolved and non-devolved functions? That interface could be sensitive, and we would not want controversies arising in which the Minister of Justice in Northern Ireland is left pleading ignorance and impotence. That would not be good for the integrity and credibility of a devolved justice system.
First, let me thank the hon. Gentleman for his outstanding record as leader of the Social Democratic and Labour party. I first met him 25 years ago, and have seen him work patiently for peace in Northern Ireland over the 25 years. He has an outstanding record in arguing the case not just for peace but for economic justice in Northern Ireland. We thank him for his service as a member of the SDLP.
I am also grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s comments this afternoon. Although he is not a signatory to the agreement, he has not only supported it in principle but said that he will wish to vote for it on 9 March. I hope that is the message that all parties will take up so that we can move forward.
Obviously, the arrangements between the Minister of Justice and the United Kingdom Government will be such that he or she will be kept properly informed about what is happening, and will be able to make the decisions subject to the devolution of policing and justice in Northern Ireland. I believe that the process that is being agreed will work smoothly, so I assure him in that regard. Most of all, however, the House wants to thank him for everything that he has achieved.
On behalf of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, I unreservedly congratulate the Prime Minister, Secretary of State and Minister of State on what they have helped to bring about. I also congratulate the First Minister and Deputy First Minister on their courage and persistence. Will the Prime Minister also recognise, sensitively, that the Ulster Unionist party and SDLP—under Lord Trimble and John Hume, who were jointly awarded the Nobel peace prize for their efforts—showed us how to begin this road within Northern Ireland? Will he impress on them that their continued presence and participation is essential for success? We do not want the current Executive and Assembly to collapse as theirs did, but they have a vital role in ensuring that it will not do so.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his chairmanship of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. He was in Northern Ireland as we were having talks and played a part himself in encouraging the parties to accept that an agreement is absolutely necessary. I value the comments and representations of the UUP and SDLP, and I of course have huge respect for Lord Trimble and John Hume and for what they achieved over the years. However, it is important to recognise that we now have an agreement. Although the parties are right to look at the detail of the agreement, it is important that they make up their minds—in my view, the right decision would be to support the agreement. The former leader of the SDLP has said today that he will support it, and I hope that soon we will have the same answer from the Ulster Unionist party.
In the past, we have succeeded through all parties in the House seeking peace. The importance of this agreement is that it is between the parties in Northern Ireland, and the wider the agreement, the better it will be for the future. I have had talks with the DUP and Sinn Fein, but I have also had talks with the SDLP, the UUP, and, of course, the Progressive Unionist party. All have a big part to play in the future of Northern Ireland, and I hope they will be able to vote yes in the cross-community vote on 9 March, and that they will tell us soon that that is what they wish to do.
I congratulate the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State and the Minister of State, and all who took part in the exceptionally protracted negotiations. Although there has been criticism of the length of time that those negotiations took, I do not think that the people who took part in them should be embarrassed. It is in the nature of things that the most difficult issues are left until the last bit of any negotiations, and these negotiations involved dealing with a couple of issues that no one had managed to address before. I think that the people involved deserve to be congratulated, and I think that the rest of us will wish them well in difficult circumstances.
People in Northern Ireland still think of old, unhappy, far-off things, of battles long ago, and even of battles more recently. Everyone in the country must wish those who took part in the negotiations well, and wish the people of Northern Ireland well as a result of the product of those negotiations.
My right hon. Friend is well respected in the House, and has taken an interest in these issues throughout the time during which I have known him. When he says that this is the time to move forward and that this is the time not only to reach the agreement but to implement it as quickly as possible, I think most Members will agree that the right thing to do is to bring people together, to move forward and put the past behind us, but to ensure that the devolution of policing and justice is intact so that it is in place in only a few weeks’ time.
I strongly endorse what the Prime Minister said about the vital importance of a bipartisan approach in the House throughout the peace process. I also join him in hoping that both the SDLP and the UUP will be able to sign up fully to the agreement. May I gently put to him, however, that those two parties felt somewhat marginalised because they were not as involved in the negotiations as many of us thought that they should be? I hope that lessons can be learned both by the Government and by the First and Deputy First Ministers.
I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s support for the agreement, and also for the support that has come from both the UUP and Sinn Fein. Let me say to him, however, that we held a number of plenary sessions in Hillsborough castle, and invited all the parties to them. I tried to meet all the party leaders individually, not just the First Minister and Deputy First Minister but all the representatives of all the parties. I met representatives of the UUP and the SDLP on a number of occasions to go through the issues that were at stake, and the plenary sessions were an important part of the process.
Of course I understand that the UUP and the SDLP will want to look in detail at what the agreement entails, but I think that the UUP’s main concern—which was about the working of the Executive—will be best addressed by a working party of the Executive, chaired by the leader of the UUP alongside the leader of the SDLP. I hope that, having made their offer, the First Minister and Deputy First Minister will receive a positive response from the leadership of the UUP in particular. We received a positive response from the SDLP today, and I hope that a positive response from the UUP will come soon. I believe that the sooner we see Northern Ireland politics resolved to move ahead with this issue, and the sooner the community sees that the parties are able to reach an agreement, the better it will be for the future of Northern Ireland.
It is a long road that we have taken since the Anglo-Irish agreement of 1985—from violence to peace, as the Prime Minister has said—but does not statesmanship bring peace, does not patience bring peace, and does not peace bring prosperity, as anyone who has visited Northern Ireland will know? The Prime Minister has talked of jobs, stability, growth and inward investment. Can we not build on that statesmanship and that patience to enhance the economy of Northern Ireland and bring prosperity to all?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is always listened to with care in the House. I think he will acknowledge the huge amount of work done by the Secretary of State and the Minister of State—and, previously, by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales when he was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland—in pushing forward Northern Ireland’s economic future.
We know that Northern Ireland is looked to by the rest of the world because of what has been achieved. The statesmanship of those people who came together to reach an agreement is applauded in every part of the world. One of the lessons that Northern Ireland has sent to the world is that if tensions can be reduced and conflict removed, prosperity can result. Northern Ireland has had more jobs and more investment as a result of the decisions that its politicians have made.
Hillary Clinton has offered to meet the parties from Northern Ireland, and she will want to help run and organise an investment conference that will bring more jobs to Northern Ireland. I believe that companies will now look at Northern Ireland and know that, once this agreement is voted through the Northern Ireland Assembly, the future of Northern Ireland will be far more stable and therefore investment will be far more beneficial to them and to Northern Ireland. So this agreement not only brings to an end a long period of conflict about the institutional future of Northern Ireland, but it means that there is the possibility—indeed, the probability—of more jobs coming to Northern Ireland. The economic future of Northern Ireland looks more secure this week than it did last week.
The whole House welcomes the news on decommissioning by the paramilitary groups mentioned by the Prime Minister. As we are nearing the end of that process, can he say when and if an inventory of the various decommissioned arsenals will now be published at its conclusion, as was originally agreed? The agreement is in keeping with the manifesto pledges of my party. There are a number of elements to it, including on better delivery by the Executive and on parades, and we expect everybody to act in good faith. We know that the Government are the guarantor of delivery, so will he accept that if there is bad faith—we sincerely hope there is not in relation to delivery—there are means and devices open to us to ensure that there is delivery on the issues of parades and better functioning of the Executive. We cannot have policing and justice on the one hand without delivery of the other elements on the other, and they cannot be sustained one without the other. Those means must be open to us as a party to deliver, just as Sinn Fein has threatened in the past. Along with this, however, we are also certain that people in Northern Ireland want to move ahead. They do not want to go back. They want to build a better future, and we are all absolutely committed to making that happen.
I am grateful for the terms in which the hon. Gentleman has expressed his hopes for the way forward for Northern Ireland. It is a way ahead in which there is peace and stability, as well as trust. He is absolutely right that we and the Irish Government are guarantors of this agreement and wish to see it work, and, as he said, that means there must be delivery on all the issues—delivery on issues that are difficult for some parties, but delivery on them as they have promised in this agreement. I repeat to him that the working party that has been set up will look at all the issues that are outstanding from the St. Andrews agreement, and it will be able to report on all these issues so we can see what progress has been made and what progress can, if necessary, be made in the future.
The hon. Gentleman is also absolutely right to record our thanks to the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning. When we consider that it has now overseen decommissioning by the UDA, the UVF, PIRA, the INLA and now the Official IRA, we can see that it is a central means by which we have moved from violence to peace. I not only want to thank the international commission, but to confirm that it will conduct a series of reports, and there will be a report in the end on armaments. That will be the concluding work of the commission.
May I join others in congratulating my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on the success in what must have been an incredibly gruelling process of negotiations? May I also welcome the steps in further decommissioning that have been undertaken by bodies in Northern Ireland? Although I recognise that this devolution process will send a very powerful signal to the remaining violent dissidents in Northern Ireland, what assessment has he made in practical terms of the new arrangements in dealing with those who might still wish to pursue the course of violence?
We will never be complacent. We will continue to monitor and pursue those dissident groups that hold to a policy of violence in Northern Ireland. We know that they are a real threat, which is why we have stepped up the resources available to the security services and, as part of the financial agreement, we have made sure that the Executive ministry responsible for justice and policing is properly resourced. So we will do everything we can to take on this terrorist threat. It is important to recognise, however, that in one day the INLA, the Official IRA and the last loyalist organisation, the South-East Antrim UDA, have completed their decommissioning, and that is a move from violence to peace that those in all parts of the House will want to commend. So I remain optimistic that those people who support the political process—who are strengthened by the agreement that has been made in the past few days—will always defeat those people who wish violence to replace politics in Northern Ireland.
As chairman of the all-party group on Northern Ireland, may I also commend my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition for his support for the process of the devolution of policing and justice? I am sure that the Prime Minister agrees with me that continuity of effort and engagement in the process by all political parties will be essential in the highly charged timetable and atmosphere before a general election. Can he confirm that all-party briefings will continue should this Parliament be dissolved during what will be a crucial time for the people of Northern Ireland?
I think the hon. Gentleman wants me to comment on something on which I shall not comment. The one issue I shall comment on is the all-party briefings that have been given, particularly by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to his opposite numbers, which will continue. We will keep people in touch with developments. The outstanding issue that we really must address is our wish to build all-party support in Northern Ireland for this agreement; it is important to recognise that it was an agreement of two parties—it is not an agreement between the Governments—and it will work only, as the First Minister said, if we can secure wider support before the cross-community vote that will take place in Northern Ireland on 9 March. I hope that the hon. Gentleman can use his good offices to persuade any of the parties still looking at this issue and wondering about the right way for them to address the future that it is worth their being unequivocal in their support for moving this process forward and using the working party process to deal with the issues that they have raised.
May I add my congratulations to the Prime Minister and to all the individuals and parties who took part in this very important agreement on justice and policing? May I speak on behalf of some of the people who perhaps were not there except in spirit and who cannot move forward quite as easily as the parties would seem to be able to do? Such people include those whose relatives and family—including my own—were killed in the McGurk’s bar bombing. The people who did it are known to the person who was found guilty of being part of the group, but their names have never been given. Many families wonder where their loved ones are buried but that has never been revealed. Does the Prime Minister assess this move as bringing forward the possibility that these things will be laid to rest and that people in the innocent community of Northern Ireland will genuinely be able to move forward?
There is a need to deal with the issues that arise from the past—of course, the Eames commission has looked at this—but we also know that we must move forward. I appreciate that feelings are still very raw in many communities as a result of what has happened over these past decades, but I hope that having dealt with some of the issues of reconciliation as we have done through the commission that sat to consider this matter, we can now also agree that we must move forward to build that better future.
When responding to my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), the Prime Minister explained that issues outside the formal text of the agreement will be dealt with by a special working party, but I did not hear him tell the House what these issues are. Will he take this opportunity to do so?
Having been involved in Northern Ireland matters for many years, may I express my relief and my congratulations to all those concerned on an achievement of which all parties, this Government, this Prime Minister and his predecessor, Tony Blair, can be truly proud? Could this case study in conflict resolution at home offer lessons for negotiated solutions to apparently intractable conflicts abroad?
I think the important thing is for us to move to 9 March and then to 12 April and show that the process that has been engaged in so determinedly by the political parties in Northern Ireland has definitively worked. We still have to get some people on board to make that happen. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that all around the world people admire what has been achieved in Northern Ireland; it has been the subject of not only Nobel peace prizes, but much examination by people who are in conflict zones. I think that one of the lessons is that if the tension and the conflict can be reduced, people can be shown the benefits of peace and therefore the benefits of not moving back to a position where conflict is endemic in their society. I think that Northern Ireland can show not only the courage of politicians who have reached difficult decisions to get to peace but the benefits that have come from that peace process. Belfast and much of Northern Ireland have been transformed economically as a result of the decisions that have been made and people’s willingness to invest in Northern Ireland for that better future.
The Prime Minister, in his statement, emphasised the importance of American investment for the prosperity of Northern Ireland. Is there also an important role for investment flows within the United Kingdom? One way to do that might be to try to get higher interest in Northern Ireland among the English media. What can the Government and the Northern Ireland Government do to encourage that?
The interest in Northern Ireland will cease to be based on long-standing conflicts and on the issues that are not yet resolved after the agreements that we have seen reached there. It will be based on how Northern Ireland is moving forward and on the talent, genius and potential of the Northern Ireland people, their ability to innovate, their strong universities, the education system, which is improving, and the innovative work of many businesses, some of which receive inward investment but some of which are generated by Northern Ireland talent on its own. The focus in Northern Ireland in future will be on the economic choices and social improvements that are made in that country. When people look at Northern Ireland today, they see a Northern Ireland that is different from a few years ago. In a few years’ time, if the whole focus of the Assembly is on jobs, health, welfare, the environment, tourism and all those issues, that will be how people will wish to look at Northern Ireland—it is a beautiful country with great people, who have come together and confronted and surmounted difficult times.
The Chief Constable is operationally independent and reports to the Policing Board. That is how we secure the independence of the Chief Constable. I must say that, from my discussions in Northern Ireland, I think that people are satisfied that the Chief Constable has those powers, assumes those responsibilities and is able to act with operational independence. I believe that he and his predecessor are respected for the way in which they are independent of the political process.