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Northern Ireland

Volume 528: debated on Wednesday 18 May 2011

The Secretary of State was asked—

Independent International Commission on Decommissioning

1. When he expects to receive a final report on armaments from the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning. (55379)

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to begin by paying tribute to David Cairns, the former Member for Inverclyde, who died recently. He served as a Minister in the Northern Ireland Office for a short time in the run-up to devolution in 2007, and was liked and respected in all parts of the House. I speak for many in Northern Ireland in passing on our sincere condolences.

The British and Irish Governments have been presented with the IICD’s final report, which focuses on commissioners’ experiences and lessons learned. I am considering the report with my counterpart in the Irish Government and we will publish it in due course.

I thank the Secretary of State for his reply, and may I associate myself with the condolences he expressed?

When the Secretary of State announced the dissolution of the IICD and the Independent Monitoring Commission at the end of March, he thanked the commissioners for the crucial part they played in assisting Northern Ireland’s transition to a peaceful, stable and inclusive society. Given developments since, what plans does he have to continue the work previously undertaken by those bodies?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question and her comments. I would like to put on record our thanks to General de Chastelain, Brigadier Nieminen and Andrew Sens for the work they have done over the years. We intend to keep Parliament updated on developments, probably by written statements.

May I pay tribute on behalf of my colleagues to the late David Cairns, former Northern Ireland Minister, for the excellent work he undertook during his time in that post, and pass on our sympathies to his family?

I am sure the Secretary of State will join me in congratulating the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Garda on the recent Northern Ireland weapons finds in East Tyrone and South Armagh. Will he give an assurance that the amnesty previously offered under the decommissioning legislation to those handing in, and in possession of, such weapons will no longer apply, and that anyone caught in possession of weapons will be brought before the courts and any evidence arising from examination of the weapons will be used in prosecutions?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his question, and I entirely endorse his comments on the co-operation between the PSNI and the Garda and the recent arms finds in Tyrone. The amnesty to which he refers expired in February 2010, and we have no plans to reintroduce it. There is no place for arms in today’s Northern Ireland. Everyone can pursue their legitimate aims by peaceful democratic means, and those caught with arms will go through the due process of law.

Security Threat

2. What discussions he has had with the Northern Ireland Executive on the level of security threat from dissidents. (55380)

Close co-operation with the Northern Ireland Executive plays a major part in our efforts to counter the threat from terrorism in Northern Ireland. This involves regular discussions with the Executive’s Justice Minister. I look forward to continuing work with the new Executive in the coming weeks and months on the security, economic and community aspects of this problem.

First, may I thank the Secretary of State for his tribute to David Cairns, whom I served with as a Northern Ireland Minister some years ago?

The Secretary of State will know that the PSNI is making good progress in capturing weapons and Semtex, but, with more than 100 bombings in the last year alone, I believe it is clear that supply is coming from outside Northern Ireland. Will he work with the Executive, the Home Office, the Irish authorities and, indeed, international authorities to ensure that he does everything possible to stem the supply of such material from outside Northern Ireland?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question, and pay tribute to his work on Northern Ireland. He is absolutely right that we must make sure that at every level of government we work to stem the flow of fresh arms into Northern Ireland. We now have unprecedented co-operation. That is the case not only between the Westminster Government and the Northern Ireland Executive—I pay tribute to all those who have recently been elected to the Executive, and I am delighted that David Ford, whom I spoke to this morning, has been re-elected—but there is also exceptional co-operation with the Garda. I discussed this matter with the Home Secretary yesterday as well, so we are clearly working at all levels.

May I also pay tribute to David Cairns on behalf of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs? I had the honour of working with him on a number of Committees and always found him to be extremely efficient and courteous.

All Members will recall the show of paramilitary strength by men in balaclavas over the Easter period, which brings shame to Northern Ireland. Will the Secretary of State give an update on what is being done to pursue those who obviously have common cause with those who were threatening violence?

I thank the Chairman of the Select Committee for his remarks. As he will have seen over the weekend, the police investigation into those shocking scenes at Easter took its course, and in one case charges were laid against Marian McGlinchey. I took the decision to revoke her licence as she was charged under the Terrorism Act 2000. I spoke to the chief constable this morning. The police investigations continue, and I am confident that the PSNI will bring further charges when there is sufficient evidence.

Will the Secretary of State accept—I am sure he will—that the outcome of the recent Assembly and council elections in Northern Ireland showed a clear endorsement of moving Northern Ireland forward and a clear rejection of those who would use violence, whose philosophy is to wreck Stormont and drag us backwards? Will he give a clear commitment to work closely with the security forces, the police and the new Minister of Justice in Northern Ireland to protect society and do whatever is necessary to protect all of us from dissident terrorist threats?

I wholeheartedly endorse the right hon. Gentleman’s comments; there is absolutely no place for the pursuit of any political aim by physical violence in Northern Ireland. I congratulate all those who were elected to the Assembly and to the Executive. Obviously, on this particular issue, I congratulate David Ford, to whom I spoke this morning. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that we will keep up the very closest co-operation with the Stormont Executive on this issue.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s action on the revocation of the licence of Marian McGlinchey—or Marian Price, as she was known—as it sends out a clear signal to those who would threaten violence. Will the Secretary of State give us his assessment of the number of people he believes are involved in dissident terrorism? What is his assessment of the current level of police and other resources deployed to combat that threat?

I am not sure that the number of those involved is as important as their capability. The right hon. Gentleman knows as well as I do that these people are continuous in their efforts to attack not just the police, but completely innocent members of the general public who are going about their day-to-day business. Although these people are small in number, as we saw in the recent elections, they do have capability and we do not underestimate the threat. That is why we endorsed £50 million of spending last year, and we managed to negotiate an extraordinary settlement of a further £200 million over the next four years. We are absolutely determined to stand by Northern Ireland and do the right thing.

I join the Secretary of State and hon. Members in their tribute to David Cairns. He was a much respected Minister when Labour were in government and a much loved colleague and friend. Our deepest sympathy goes to his family and his partner, Dermot.

It would be remiss not also to take this opportunity to put on the record the fact that the Queen’s extraordinary visit to Ireland at the moment is an enormous success. It is as healing as it is inspiring. The visit both symbolises the peace process and represents the next step in that process. The process is still necessary, as dissident republican groups pose new threats to the police and the public; just this Monday, a coded bomb warning brought huge disruption to central London. What is the Secretary of State’s evaluation of the capability of this growing number of dissident terrorists, not only in Northern Ireland but here in Britain?

I entirely endorse the right hon. Gentleman’s comments on the significance of Her Majesty the Queen’s visit to the Republic of Ireland. It is a wonderful way to end the current President of Ireland’s two terms and it is a wonderful, ringing endorsement of the normality between our two nations. Significantly, the right hon. Gentleman and I are not in Ireland this morning; we are here answering questions in Parliament. This is an endorsement of the tremendous progress that has been made and a sign of how we will move further forward. On the question of capability here, we do not like to get into operational matters but, as he knows, we do not underestimate the threat of these groups and we have done a significant amount in the past year to bear down on them.

The threat, none the less, has clearly heightened, not only in Northern Ireland, but here in Britain. We must all ensure that in Northern Ireland, as well as here in Britain, no part of government resides in just hoping for the best; realism is as vital a tool in containment as is prevention. As part of that realism, the British Government must continue to recognise their responsibility in addressing the sectarian legacy of the troubles. What is the Secretary of State’s response to Co-operation Ireland’s bid for £20 million from the British Government—not from the Assembly—to ensure that in Northern Ireland the big society is more than just aspiration?

Again, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question. We increased the threat level from moderate to substantial in Great Britain last year and we are doing what we think is necessary to work closely with the authorities not just in Northern Ireland but in the Republic and to bear down on this issue. The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that this is a policy of containment long term and we need to break the cycle. We are extremely interested in the projects run by Co-operation Ireland, such as that in Kilwilkie, but many of these projects are also run by the devolved Administration. As I mentioned in my reply to the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), we will discuss this work with the new devolved Ministers. I had a meeting with the chairman of Co-operation Ireland this week and I shall see him in Dublin later in the week.

Personal Protection Training

3. Whether he has reviewed the personal protection training plan for Government workers and VIPs in Northern Ireland in the light of recent trends in terrorist activity; and if he will make a statement. (55381)

The Government regularly review the guidance issued to staff on personal security and make them aware of any changes in the terrorist threat. The Chief Constable is responsible for the operational provision of close protection, which can include Government workers and VIPs.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his reply. Can the Minister assure the House that, following the terribly sad death of Constable Kerr, specific training methods are being put in place to help protect VIPs, policemen and the like against the threat of under-car booby-traps?

Yes, I can. My hon. Friend will know, as he did many tours in Northern Ireland, that the enemy to personal security is complacency. It is incumbent on all those employed by the state in one way or another to be vigilant at all times. The Chief Constable goes to bed thinking about the security of his policemen and women and he wakes up thinking about them, too, as do we in the Northern Ireland Office.

The Minister will be aware that a small number of civilians work in security establishments in Northern Ireland, particularly in areas with a high dissident terrorist threat. He should also be aware that I wrote to him some three months ago about one such person who was trying to get a personal protection weapon to ensure his safety as he went to and from his work. Will the Minister ensure that he gets in touch with the Chief Constable to ensure that person’s safety, in so far as that can be guaranteed, in the light of this threat?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. We take applications for PPW licences extremely seriously and they are looked into in great detail and independently assessed. I am aware of the case to which the hon. Gentleman refers and we will get back to him once we have all the necessary details.

Bill of Rights

As the right hon. Gentleman is aware, progress on this issue has been difficult in the absence of any agreement within Northern Ireland on how best to proceed. We want to see the issue resolved and we will be taking the views of the new Executive, political parties and others in Northern Ireland on how best to move matters forward.

I am grateful for that answer. I want to pay my own tribute to the late David Cairns, who was a fine Minister and a fine man.

With a new Executive and new Assembly in Northern Ireland, and as this issue is a fundamental part of the Good Friday agreement and the political process over the years, will the Minister undertake to try to seek consensus among all the political parties in Northern Ireland as soon as he can?

The Secretary of State and I have been very clear. We said we would return to this after the election of the new Assembly, which has now happened. The right hon. Gentleman might not be aware of the commission on a UK Bill of Rights, and the Lord Chancellor has written to the First Minister asking for two people from Northern Ireland to advise on the implications for Northern Ireland. The Executive need to initiate a parallel process to come to some consensus on what specific rights that recognise Northern Ireland’s particular circumstances might look like.

When members of the United States Congress asked the same question, perhaps not as elegantly as it was phrased by my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy), the Prime Minister replied in a letter that he stood “ready to facilitate agreement”. Will the Minister tell me what steps he and the Secretary of State have taken in the past six months specifically to facilitate this agreement?

We have talked to a number of people, not least the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, and we are currently advertising for replacements. The Secretary of State and I have been quite frank and have said that we want to return to the issue after the election and to move forward on it, which the hon. Gentleman’s party, I point out gently to him, did not do for 12 years.

Union (Referendum)

5. What his policy is on the treatment of any request by a Northern Ireland political party for a referendum on the future of Northern Ireland as part of the Union; and if he will make a statement. (55383)

No such request has been made to the Government. The policy and legal position on this issue is set out in the Belfast agreement and the subsequent legislation, the Northern Ireland Act 1998.

I thank the Minister for his answer. He will be aware that Sinn Fein raised the issue of a referendum in the recent Assembly elections. May I push the Minister a little further and ask what mechanisms would be used to deal with any future request for a referendum?

I do not want to dwell on the hon. Gentleman’s domestic situation in Scotland—it is not the same in Northern Ireland. The Secretary of State has the right to hold a referendum at any point and he has a duty to hold one if it appears there is likely to be a majority for a united Ireland. It is quite clear in the Belfast agreement, but no such situation arises in Northern Ireland. Indeed, we very much hope that the new Executive will concentrate on bread-and-butter issues such as the economy rather than issues that seem to be of interest in Scotland.

Does the Minister recognise that dissidents try to make the argument on the ground in nationalist areas that those of us who support the Good Friday agreement have gone derelict on Irish unity? Does he recognise therefore that he has to treat with validity those of us who make the case for framing progress towards unity? Will he confirm that in the event of a referendum the British Government would play no part in imposing or opposing any free choice that would be made by the Irish people?

The hon. Gentleman’s party’s position is well known and I pay tribute here again to the way in which his party has embraced the ballot box and the democratic process. In a referendum, that would be for the people of Northern Ireland to decide. I can do no better than support the words of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister—it is probably a career-advancing thing to do—who, in a speech in May 2010, stated clearly and unequivocally:

“I will never be neutral on our Union. We passionately believe that England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are stronger together, weaker apart”.

I believe that, as Aristotle said, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Terrorism (Powers of Detention)

6. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for the Home Department on powers to detain terrorist suspects. (55384)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are in regular contact with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary regarding this issue. The Government are absolutely clear that reducing the maximum pre-charge detention period to 14 days will strike the right balance between civil liberties and the need to protect the public from the terrorist threat.

I thank the Minister for his reply. David Cairns was a fine colleague and I join all those who have paid tribute to him this morning.

The recent detention of three terrorist suspects in Northern Ireland for periods of 13 and 14 days indicates that the Government are right to bring in arrangements to extend the maximum period of detention beyond 14 days in exceptional circumstances. Given the likely pressures of those circumstances, does the Minister agree that the mechanism for implementing those arrangements needs to be both swift and straightforward?

The Minister does very much agree with what the right hon. Gentleman has just said in his usual responsible manner. The right hon. Gentleman is on the Joint Committee that is scrutinising the draft emergency legislation. I agree with everything he has said and I urge him to make his point very forcefully. The principle is right and we must make certain that, if necessary, we can enforce that principle swiftly whether Parliament is sitting or not.

I welcome the decision by the Secretary of State to revoke the licence of Marian Price. Is he as concerned as I am that the courts would have granted bail to the Old Bailey bomber on charges of support for an illegal organisation? What sort of message do our courts send out if they seem to take a softly, softly approach to confronting dissident republican terrorists?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that justice is a devolved matter. I believe that my right hon. Friend acted extremely swiftly and that he was right to do what he did. The legal process will take its usual course.

Economy

Like many in Northern Ireland, I believe that we need to rebalance the Northern Ireland economy and boost private sector growth and investment. The Government will work closely with the Northern Ireland Executive to help make Northern Ireland a beacon for foreign investment and growth.

Enterprise zones in England are an exciting opportunity to grow the private sector, and I hope they will be delivered in my constituency by the Welsh Assembly Government. Will the Secretary of State update the House on what progress is being made in Northern Ireland to deliver such an innovative opportunity?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the question. I have been travelling to Northern Ireland for nearly four years and wanting to turn the whole of Northern Ireland into an enterprise zone, making it an attractive place for investment and building on all the advantages that it now has. On my hon. Friend’s specific question, enterprise zones as described in the Budget are now in devolved hands and I hope the devolved Ministers grasp the opportunity with both hands. [Interruption.]

Order. There are far too many noisy private conversations taking place in the Chamber. The House must hear Mr Sammy Wilson.

Recently the Irish Republic abolished air passenger duty, which has put at risk cross-Atlantic flights from Northern Ireland and had an impact on the tourist and investment strategy of the Executive. Ironically, that was done as a result of loans facilitated by the UK Government. Will the Secretary of State ensure that in the renegotiation of those loans or any further loans, conditions are attached that stop the Irish Republic gaining such competitive advantage?

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his re-election, and re-election to his Ministry. He is right that maintaining good, cheap and quick transport links between Northern Ireland and the rest of the world is vital. I have discussed APD with Treasury colleagues. A consultation is going on and I would like to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss how we work together on the matter. In meetings with the Government in Dublin, I will also raise the issue.

West Lothian Question

8. What discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on the establishment of a commission to examine the West Lothian question. (55386)

I discussed the matter recently with the Minister with responsibility for political and constitutional reform, the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper). The Government will establish a commission this year to consider the West Lothian question.

Does the Minister agree that, given the complexity of the West Lothian question, no time should be lost in establishing the commission?

The programme for government promised to establish it in this Parliament, so the answer is yes.

Security Threat

9. What assessment he has made of the security threat from dissident republicans; and if he will make a statement. (55387)

The threat level in Northern Ireland remains at severe. Despite the overwhelming community rejection of their murderous strategy following the despicable murder of Ronan Kerr last month, the terrorist groups continue to pose an indiscriminate threat to the lives of police officers and the general public, who just want to go about their lives without fear, disruption or intimidation.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s comments, but may I have a reassurance that everything possible is being done to make sure that those people are apprehended as quickly as possible?

I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that we take the threat extremely seriously. We do not underestimate it. As I said earlier, we endorsed an extra £50 million package last year for the PSNI and we have negotiated an exceptional four-year plan of £200 million over the coming years. I know that Matt Baggott, the Chief Constable, to whom I spoke this morning, is already putting those funds to very good use. We are determined to bear down on that small number of wholly unrepresentative, dangerous people.

Legacy Issues

10. Whether he plans to provide further direct funding for projects to deal with legacy issues in Northern Ireland. (55388)

This Government funded the four public inquiries into legacy cases, which were set up under the previous Government, so that they could be completed as soon as possible. I am currently considering what, if any, further role the Government can play in dealing with the past in Northern Ireland.

A successful and prosperous future for Northern Ireland requires the Government to deal responsibly with all outstanding issues related to the peace process. Does the Secretary of State intend to honour all those outstanding issues?

Yes, I understand the tone of the hon. Gentleman’s question. We endorse the agreements. We made that clear, as our record over the past year shows, but we also recognise that the past continues to be an issue. That is why I am continuing to talk to a wide range of groups, as is my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, to see whether we can find a way forward on which we can work with the Executive.

Does the Secretary of State agree that a coherent and comprehensive strategy to deal with legacy issues is vital if we are to build a stable future for the people of Northern Ireland?

I could not quite hear the hon. Lady’s question, but I think I got the gist of it. As she knows, it is not easy to achieve consensus on this issue, which is why we are carrying on this listening exercise and talking with a wide range of groups, and I am very happy to talk and listen to her.