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Security Situation

Volume 508: debated on Wednesday 24 March 2010

1. What recent assessment he has made of the level of paramilitary activity by republican groups in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement. (322973)

4. What recent assessment he has made of the activities of dissident republicans in Northern Ireland. (322976)

The threat level in Northern Ireland remains at “severe”. The Government are not complacent about the threat that dissident republicans continue to pose despite their having little or no community support. The House will wish to know that the Police Service of Northern Ireland continues to disrupt the activity of that small criminal group. So far this year, it has made 51 arrests, brought 12 charges and made three seizures.

The Northern Ireland Executive, fully supported by the majority of the people of Northern Ireland, not least the Unionist population, have achieved huge success, with major concessions to the nationalist population. Will the Secretary of State confirm to the House that there is now absolutely no need whatever for any paramilitary activity, unless it is by a hard core of people who want to destroy the peace, stability and economic success of Northern Ireland?

The House will know of the historic vote that took place in Stormont on 9 March—nearly all parties in the cross-party community vote were in support. I simply say to the hon. Gentleman that there never has been a need for any paramilitary activity: not then, not now, not in future. As for concessions, we need to understand this as a matter not of concessions, but of power sharing. Both sides may have compromised, but they have done so for the good of everybody in Northern Ireland.

The new Chief Constable is supported—for the first time—by all parties in Northern Ireland, and yet the police’s reputation for effectiveness in combating crime and terrorism has never actually been lower. Why is that?

I am afraid that I agree with only one part of the hon. Lady’s question, which is to recognise that the Chief Constable was appointed to his job with unanimous support; I entirely disagree with everything else she says. Confidence in policing in Northern Ireland is at record levels and will stay at record levels, and it continues to enjoy a support of which most hon. Members in this House would be extremely envious. The PSNI has brought down crime and been extremely successful in tackling even the activities of some of the most hated criminals in the community, and I hope she recognises that.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that there is no hiding place for violent republican dissidents across the border, and that co-operation has never been better, particularly under the new Garda commissioner?

I put on record that the levels of co-operation in both Northern Ireland and the Republic have never been greater or better. That is true of every aspect of dealing with and preventing crime, none more so than those areas of crimes associated with paramilitary activity, and especially the investigations that are taking place into the recent murders of soldiers and a police constable.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it was unfortunate that the Ulster Unionist party could not come on board in what was happening in the devolution process, and that perhaps, the Conservatives might have done a bit more to try and persuade it to come on board?

I think I will not take the temptation to make a political point, because I actually want to thank the Conservatives for their support. Their alliance with the UUP is of course a matter for them, as is the question of whether they can ultimately influence that party. I regret the fact that the UUP did not vote for the Hillsborough castle agreement and the devolution of policing and justice.

Dissident republicans pose a serious threat to the people of Northern Ireland. On Saturday last, a pipe bomb was found in a public place, outside the police station in Magherafelt, which is just a few yards from my home. Also, members and ex-members of the PSNI in my constituency and a number of others are under threat from dissident republicans. What active measures are the Government going to take to ensure that those organisations are infiltrated, brought to justice and defeated?

The hon. Gentleman knows a great deal about the impact of that kind of activity, not only as a very fine and outstanding constituency Member of Parliament, but as a person and as a family member, so I say this with huge respect for, and understanding of, where the question is coming from. We will do everything to support the Chief Constable and the PSNI to tackle both those who have committed crime and those who intend to commit crime. We will work as closely as possible with the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister, the Executive and the institutions of devolved Government to bring those people to justice.

Obviously it is very disappointing that the Ulster Unionists in the Assembly did not support the cross-community vote. Will my right hon. Friend continue to work on a cross-party basis in the hope that the Ulster Unionists will be persuaded to back this in future?

Although the leadership of the Ulster Unionist party and its Assembly Members did not vote for this on 9 March, it was perfectly clear from public opinion and the confidence that all political parties had established in Northern Ireland that that vote had the support of all communities in Northern Ireland, including those who would identify themselves as supporters of the Ulster Unionist party. Unfortunately, its leadership did not reflect that on the day.

The Secretary of State’s assessment of the level of risk is clearly sensible and realistic. It brings with it the potential for future challenges for the PSNI in dealing with that risk if it becomes reality. Will he confirm that he will use his good offices to ensure access to the Treasury for contingency funding should the necessity arise?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support in this. He will know that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made an additional £30 million of funding available from the reserve for the current financial year for the PSNI. My right hon. Friend has already committed nearly £40 million of additional funding, which will be available to the Chief Constable to deal with the threat posed by dissidents. This Government will stand with the people of Northern Ireland and with the devolved Government.

As the Secretary of State knows, the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs strongly supports the devolution of policing and justice. Is he also aware that we attach the highest possible importance to the operational independence of the Chief Constable in tackling dissident republicans and in dealing with all his other duties?

The operational independence of the Chief Constable is one of the principal outcomes and a huge success of the Patten reforms. It has enabled enormous confidence to be established across all communities in Northern Ireland. That, of course, has been the case and after devolution on 12 April it will remain so.

A few days ago, an attempt was made to murder police officers in Newry after they were lured there by what is reported to have been a hoax bomb. Is the Secretary of State satisfied that there are sufficient intelligence sources to enable the police to counter what is becoming a very worrying and increasingly dangerous terrorist threat?

Let us remember that those who wish to commit these crimes are people who, regrettably, refuse to accept the political settlement that has now been agreed. The Conservative party, along with other parties in this House, has helped to ensure that the early devolution of policing and justice has taken place. Let us remember that the report by the Independent Monitoring Commission said that that would be the “potent intervention” in dealing with dissident republicans.