With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement about recent events in Northern Ireland.
Before updating the House on the protests and disorder, I wish to report on a serious attempted terrorist attack. On 30 December an officer of the Police Service of Northern Ireland discovered an improvised explosive device attached to the underneath of his car shortly before he was due to drive his wife and family to Sunday lunch. The IED was viable and were it not for the alertness of the officer in checking his car, it is highly likely that he and his family would all have lost their lives.
This despicable attack bears the hallmarks of the so-called dissident republicans and looks to be the latest example of the relentless attempts of these groupings to try to murder police officers. It underlines the need for continued vigilance and the Government will continue to do everything they can to help the PSNI combat the terrorist threat in Northern Ireland.
The House should also be aware that two individuals have been charged in relation to the murder of Prison Officer David Black.
Turning to the disturbances in Belfast and other parts of Northern Ireland, since I last reported to the House on 11 December protests over the flying of the Union flag at Belfast city hall have continued, with only sporadic respite over Christmas. Although many of these protests have been peaceful, even they have seen roads blocked and daily life disrupted. A significant number of protests have led to serious disorder, mainly concentrated in east Belfast.
Although, thankfully, there were no significant public order incidents last night, the violence during the preceding six days saw masonry, bricks, fireworks and petrol bombs thrown at police, and in once instance shots were fired. Police vehicles have been attacked with sledge hammers and, in total, 66 police officers have been injured since the protests first began. On 5 and 7 January, water cannon and AEP rounds—attenuating energy projectiles—were discharged. Threats and intimidation against elected representatives continue, with the office of the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) still the subject of daily intimidation.
The intimidation and violence is unacceptable and intolerable. The Government condemn those responsible in the strongest possible terms. We reiterate our full support for the Chief Constable and his officers in their courageous attempts to maintain law and order. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the bravery and professionalism of PSNI officers, who put their personal safety on the line every day to keep people in Northern Ireland safe and secure.
According to the Chief Constable, senior individual members of the Ulster Volunteer Force are involved in orchestrating the violence, although in his view this is not being sanctioned by the leadership of the group.
Since 3 December, 107 people have been arrested and 82 charged with various offences. The perpetrators of this violence should be in no doubt that, as the Chief Constable made clear on Monday, they will face the full rigour of the law. Those who continue to organise these protests and engage in violence need to ask themselves what they think they are achieving. The idea that hurling bricks at police officers is somehow defending the Union flag or protecting Britishness is incomprehensible. These people are not defending our national flag; they are dishonouring our national flag and our country. What is more, they are being reckless with the peace process and all that it has delivered.
The damage that those people are inflicting on Northern Ireland’s economy must be considerable. Huge efforts have been made in recent years to project a modern, confident, outward-looking Northern Ireland that is a great place to do business. However, the pictures of riots and disorder that are being beamed around the world make it far harder to compete in the global race for inward investment. Jobs and livelihoods are under threat. It is therefore essential that the protests and violence stop now.
Since the disturbances began, I have been in regular contact with the Chief Constable, the First and Deputy First Ministers, the Justice Minister and other political leaders. The Northern Ireland political parties need to work together to find a way forward. It should not be impossible to find a solution which sees decisions on flags made in a way that respects different views and takes into account the different traditions and identities present in today’s Northern Ireland. For that to happen, the issue needs to come off the streets to allow local politicians and community leaders the space to sit round a table and engage in constructive dialogue.
I have used recent weeks to highlight the urgent need to make progress in addressing the underlying divisions within the community in Northern Ireland, which can make decisions on issues such as flags so fraught with tension. On many occasions, Northern Ireland’s political leaders have expressed their firm commitment to building a shared society, free from sectarian division. That is a theme to which I and my predecessor, along with the Prime Minister, have returned many times.
So much has been achieved in the 20 years since the peace process really got under way. The overwhelming majority of people in Northern Ireland can lead their lives with a normality and freedom from fear that would have been impossible back in the dark days of the troubles. However, we all need to acknowledge that the process is not finished, and the stability delivered by the Belfast agreement should never be taken for granted.
For some, sectarian divisions remain deeply entrenched and it is time for bold moves by Northern Ireland’s political leadership to address them. We need to build a genuinely shared future for everyone in Northern Ireland. It will not be easy, but Northern Ireland’s political leaders have already shown themselves capable of taking difficult decisions in order to make progress on many matters. They have fixed tougher problems than the ones that we face today. I believe that they can rise to this challenge as they have to so many others over the past two decades. The UK Government stand ready to work with them and support their efforts to deliver a better and more cohesive future for Northern Ireland.
I thank the Secretary of State for her statement and for advance sight of it. I join her in condemning the disgraceful violence that we have seen over the past weeks. The serious rioting, attacks on the police and threats against elected representatives, including the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long), have been appalling. As the Secretary of State has said, the hon. Lady has behaved throughout with dignity and courage.
This violence would not be acceptable in London, Cardiff or Edinburgh, and it is not acceptable in Belfast. People in Northern Ireland need to know that the UK Government are giving this matter the highest priority and that Northern Ireland matters. May I therefore ask the Secretary of State what discussions she has had with the Prime Minister about the recent violence and what discussions he has had or intends to have with Northern Ireland Ministers about what might be done to support them further?
It was welcome that the Secretary of State updated the House on the attempt by dissident republican terrorists to murder a police officer and his family over Christmas, which was sickening. As she said, that reminds us of the ongoing threat from those who wish to destroy the peace and progress. It is good that the police have made arrests in relation to David Black’s murder. That sends out the clear message that the perpetrators of these crimes will be brought to justice wherever possible.
The public disorder and violence that we have seen on the streets began when the decision was taken by Belfast city council that the Union flag should be flown only on designated days. Will the Secretary of State join me in saying that in a democracy one cannot try to change decisions by the use of force, and that those who break the law can expect to be dealt with using the full force of the law? Violence can never be allowed to win.
As the Secretary of State said, the Police Service of Northern Ireland has shown exceptional bravery and courage, even at great personal cost, with 66 officers having been injured already. Let us all follow her in commending the police for their professionalism and dedication to duty.
The Chief Constable has stated clearly that senior figures from the Ulster Volunteer Force are involved in much of the violence. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of loyalist paramilitary involvement in the disturbances? Does she agree that attacks by paramilitaries on the police and elected politicians are matters of national security? Is she confident that the PSNI has the resources to continue its current level of commitment without impacting on its other policing duties?
Today, I was due to visit a project in Belfast that helps young people back to work. I have seen in communities across Northern Ireland, both nationalist and Unionist, initiatives to ensure that every young person has hope, that every community looks to the future, that jobs are created and that everything possible is done to overcome the sectarianism and divisions of the past. The responsibility for much of that is devolved, but will the Secretary of State ensure that the consequences of all her Government’s economic and social policies are fully considered with respect to Northern Ireland? Deprivation, disengagement and alienation are a challenge in any community, but if that challenge is not met in Northern Ireland, it can have dangerous consequences. As the Secretary of State said, we need to ensure that Britishness and Irishness are fully respected in Northern Ireland.
Will the Secretary of State join me in saying that the scenes that we have seen on the TV do not represent the real Northern Ireland, and that we must do all that we can to ensure that positive messages about the new Northern Ireland are seen and heard across the world? There has been real progress over recent years in Northern Ireland. It is not easy and sometimes there will be setbacks. As I have said, we need to deal with the alienation that we see in some of the communities of Northern Ireland, and particularly in some of the most deprived communities. However, the setbacks must not be allowed to define Northern Ireland and its people or to derail the progress that has been made. Too much has been achieved for that and we must not allow the clock to be turned back.
If you will forgive me, Mr Speaker, I will answer at some length, given the number of important matters that have been raised.
Like the shadow Secretary of State, I pay tribute to the courage and dignity of the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long). It is intolerable that she and so many other elected representatives from Northern Ireland have been subject to death threats and intimidation.
I welcome, once again, the constructive and bipartisan tone of the Opposition on the matters that we are discussing. I wholeheartedly agree with the shadow Secretary of State that such violence is not acceptable on the streets of the United Kingdom, whether in Edinburgh, London, Cardiff, Manchester or Belfast. It is intolerable and deeply damaging.
The shadow Secretary of State asked for assurances about contacts with the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is being briefed every day and I have had three face-to-face meetings with him on this matter, including one this morning. I am keeping in regular touch with him. He retains a close personal interest in Northern Ireland because he knows what a great place it is and what huge opportunities it has. That is one reason why it was his personal decision to take the G8 to Northern Ireland later this year. He is keeping a very close eye on all that is going on. I should also mention that I have briefed the Irish Government on these serious matters.
Like the shadow Secretary of State I think that although the headlines focus on the disorder, we should never forget that the ongoing terrorist threat is very serious. One risk associated with such disorder is that police officers are brought into vulnerable situations where they might become targets for dissident republican attacks. I also agree with the shadow Secretary of State that democratic decisions cannot be changed by violence. The history of Northern Ireland over the past 50 years demonstrates that it is sitting round a table, talking, engaging in a dialogue, and considering compromises and an inclusive way to resolve issues that lead to progress, rather than resorting to violence and rioting.
The shadow Secretary of State mentioned the role of the UVF, which we have discussed on a number of occasions. I have also discussed the issue with the Chief Constable and other PSNI officers. It is of concern that individual loyalist paramilitaries are involved in these matters, and crucial that the police do all they can to ensure the full rigour of the law is brought to bear on anyone engaging in violent conflicts, whether or not they are members of paramilitary organisations. As I have said, the Chief Constable’s view is that the orchestration is not coming from the leadership of the UVF, and that is consistent with my view.
Whether these issues raise matters of national security is a point I discussed with the Chief Constable and Drew Harris yesterday afternoon. In essence, there is always an overlap at the border between matters of national security and other areas of policing, but I assure the House that the PSNI and its partner agencies such as the Security Service are doing all they can to combat that threat. They are certainly not letting the borderline between national security and other matters get in the way of an effective response. However these incidents are categorised or classified, it is vital that the police bring to bear every means available to combat these disgraceful scenes of violence. On PSNI resources, the Chief Constable is confident that he has the capacity to deal with the disorder, but having resources tied up dealing with these riots leaves fewer resources for the community policing that is so important for confidence building and protecting people from crime.
Like the shadow Secretary of State I welcome the positive initiatives under way in Northern Ireland to give young people hope, and I reassure him that all the Government’s economic policies are thoroughly tested for their impact on low-income and disadvantaged communities. The reality is that it becomes much more difficult to fix the kinds of problems that may concern those involved in these protests—educational under- achievement, health care, jobs—if there is rioting on the streets. It is counter-productive for protesters to engage in violence; they are doing no service to the causes they espouse but instead making it more difficult for the Northern Ireland Executive to deliver a safe and prosperous Northern Ireland.
Like the shadow Secretary of State I believe that a key part of the Belfast agreement is that both Britishness and Irishness are fully respected as different identities in Northern Ireland. The success of the past 20 years demonstrates that those who define themselves as British and those who define themselves as Irish can co-exist peacefully in Northern Ireland and work constructively together.
Finally, I welcome the opportunity to emphasise the positive about Northern Ireland, and whatever has happened over the past six weeks should not blind us to the fact that it is a great place in which to live and invest. It could be a fantastic year for Northern Ireland with Derry/Londonderry already taking its place as a successful UK city of culture, the G8, and the world police and fire games—one of the biggest international sporting events in the world. All those things are an opportunity to project a modern, forward-looking Northern Ireland. We need to get back to that because the protests are undermining what could be a fantastic year for Northern Ireland.
I thank the Secretary of State for early sight of her statement and for keeping me, as Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, informed about what has been going on in Northern Ireland. I also join her in paying tribute to the dedication and bravery of the PSNI which, along with its predecessor the Royal Ulster Constabulary, has saved Northern Ireland from sinking into even deeper problems over many years.
We have heard it said that certain people in Northern Ireland have not reaped the benefits of the peace process. Although I agree there is a lot of work to do in that respect, does the Secretary of State agree that the underperformance of the economy in Northern Ireland is largely a result of violence over many years, the likes of which we have again witnessed over the past few weeks? Is not the way forward, as she has said, for both communities to sit round the table and discuss these matters, rather than carrying out terrible acts such as the murder of prison officers and the attempted murder of police officers?
I very much agree with the Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. Many of the economic difficulties in Northern Ireland have their roots in the violence of the past. That is why it is so frustrating that rioting and violence today is undermining what have been incredibly successful efforts by the First and Deputy First Minister to attract inward investment. If any of the rioters are concerned about prosperity and jobs, going out on the streets and hurling bricks at police officers is the last thing that will improve that situation. Such behaviour is guaranteed to deter investors from coming and creating jobs.
I say to the Secretary of State that condemning the deplorable violence is the easy bit, and will she do two further things? First, given her national security responsibilities will she engage directly with the loyalist groups and be willing to talk even to those who may be on the fringes of the violence—as we did to positive effect in 2006-07—who feel excluded from the political process? Secondly, will she come up with a package of resources to tackle the deplorable level of youth unemployment? Some of the young republicans—and in recent times the young loyalists—involved in this violent activity have no stake in the society. That does not justify their violence but it does explain why it is happening.
I certainly think that part of the way forward is an inclusive dialogue that must be led by Northern Ireland’s political parties. Indeed, as part of our work I and the Minister of State engage in regular conversations and listen to the concerns of people across the community. Addressing youth unemployment is one of the UK Government’s highest priorities. Employment figures across the UK have been improving over recent weeks but there is still a very significant problem, particularly in Northern Ireland. The issue continues to be one of our highest priorities and we will continue to work with the Northern Ireland Executive on ways to grapple with it. One reason David Cameron chose to bring the G8 to Northern Ireland was to demonstrate his commitment and attract inward investment.
The whole House agrees that the violence and intimidation taking place in Northern Ireland is totally counter-productive and undermines the very cause the protesters are protesting about. Does the Secretary of State agree with me that it is right that the flag of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland should fly above city halls, town halls and all municipal buildings throughout the United Kingdom, as it does above the British Parliament?
I agree that these violent protests are counter-productive and that those engaged in violence are undermining the cause they wish to support. It is important that decisions on flags are taken in an inclusive way with respect for different perspectives and points of view. Arguably, there is no one-size-fits-all solution, which is why I have been encouraging the leadership of the political parties to come together and engage in dialogue on the right solution for flags and symbols in Northern Ireland.
I am proud to be British and proud of our Union flag but the violence in Northern Ireland, whether from loyalists or dissident republicans, grieves me greatly. We have been unequivocal in our condemnation of all such violence and of attacks or threats against elected representatives. Before Christmas, I, my wife and my children were threatened with being shot because of the stand that I take in Northern Ireland. This House will stand with all Members from Northern Ireland who continue to uphold the standards and principles of democracy.
I echo the comments of the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain): we need more than condemnation. The Good Friday agreement and the St Andrews agreement were about developing consensus politics in Northern Ireland. With respect, the decision of Belfast city council to remove the Union flag was not about consensus politics; in fact, it was a reversion to the very thing the nationalists say they detest—majority rule. We need to build a consensus, and Unionists must be included in such sensitive issues. If we exclude one community, we get not consensus but confrontation, which we need to move away from.
A shared future must include everyone—not just one side of the community, but both sides—and it must respect the identity and tradition of both sides. I therefore urge the Secretary of State to support Northern Ireland politicians, because I believe the Government have a role to play in that. Politics is the only answer. As the right hon. Member for Neath has said, we need to consider initiatives to tackle social deprivation in areas where there is a disconnect.
The DUP will provide leadership—the First Minister has stated that—but we need a level playing field. Right now, many people in Northern Ireland feel that the peace process has become skewed, and we need to correct that imbalance.
It is a great regret and concern that the right hon. Gentleman and his family have been subjected to those threats and I pass on my sympathies to them. He is right that the way forward is to seek consensus, and one that respects the different identities present in modern Northern Ireland. I fully agree with him on the importance of the UK Government working closely with the Northern Ireland Executive on initiatives to regenerate and provide the economic prosperity that is vital to underpin the peace settlement in Northern Ireland. That is particularly important in deprived communities across Northern Ireland. I am happy to continue the work I have been doing since being appointed on how we can boost the Northern Ireland economy and attract jobs and inward investment from around the world.
I thank the Secretary of State for her statement and join her in deploring the attempted murder on 30 December by dissident republican groups.
I am conscious of some of the figures the Secretary of State mentioned: there have been more than 100 arrests and 66 police officers have been injured. We should imagine the impact in England, Scotland or Wales if 66 police officers were injured over a period of about a month. There would be absolute uproar, so my appreciation and respect for the PSNI is second to none.
I should like to emphasise the flag issue. I have been doing research in the past few weeks. Interestingly, I discovered that, in the city of Lisburn, all the political parties have reached an agreement, led by the DUP and the Ulster Unionist party—
Order. I very gently say to the hon. Gentleman that I extended a degree of latitude to the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson)—that was a matter of discretion—but this is a statement to which the responses must be brief questions. I feel sure that the hon. Gentleman is now approaching his question mark.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am grateful for your reminder—I am approaching my question. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is incredibly important at this time that the political parties provide leadership and maturity, and that the leading political party in Northern Ireland needs to go that one step further in providing that leadership by accepting that democracy trumps everything?
It is very important for the political parties to provide leadership in Northern Ireland and I am confident that they are doing so. They take this matter seriously. The events are a wake-up call to all of us—a reminder that we need to address the underlying causes of the tension, and to find ways in which to bring different parts of the community together to build mutual understanding, so that it becomes easier to resolve flags and symbols issues without provoking such distressing scenes on our streets.
I join the Secretary of State in condemning the attempted murder of a police officer and his wife and family in my constituency by dissident republicans. I also join her and the shadow Secretary of State in commending the police for their professionalism under extreme pressure during the loyalist disturbances and riots, and for holding the line on behalf of the whole community of Northern Ireland between the rule of law and descent into chaos.
The PSNI has assessed that senior members of the UVF in my constituency are involved in orchestrating that rioting and are participating in it. Combined with the dissident republican threat, we find ourselves in a grave situation in the general peace process. What role does the Secretary of State believe the UK Government can have in tackling not only that violent threat, but the deep-rooted sectarianism that is rampant in Northern Ireland, in trying to create a more stable foundation on which to build for the future? Does she agree that the only sustainable, lasting and enduring solutions in Northern Ireland will be found by our sharing responsibility and taking things forward on behalf of the whole community, and that such solutions will not be found in partisan and tribal options?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. Yes, it remains a grave concern that individual members of the UVF are involved in the violence—I discussed that with the Chief Constable and the Justice Minister yesterday. Indeed, I passed on some names that had been provided to me on the matter.
On the dissident republican threat, the riots create dangers and vulnerabilities for the PSNI that it would not otherwise have, as I have said. The increased presence of members of DR organisations in nationalist areas such as Short Strand is gravely worrying. The hon. Lady is right that the threat is real—those who are engaging in the violence are being reckless with the peace process.
I also agree with the hon. Lady that it is important for the UK Government to be engaged in efforts to help the Northern Ireland Executive to make progress on a shared future. That is why such progress has been the focus of pretty much everything I have said as Secretary of State, why my predecessor returned to it again and again, and why the Prime Minister highlights it every time he visits Northern Ireland. It is vital that we see progress, and we are keen to work with the Northern Ireland Executive on those matters.
I agree with the hon. Lady that sharing responsibility and building consensus is the way forward on sensitive issues such as flags, rather than seeking to change things through violence.
May I associate myself with the Secretary of State’s words on the PSNI and the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long)?
Two very important points have been made by the shadow Secretary of State and the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain). This is not about flags, but about something much more profound. When visiting Northern Ireland over the new year period, I spoke with residents in the Sandy Row and Shore road areas of Belfast. There is a profound sense of alienation in the deprivation of those communities, and a real sense that they are not being listened to by those they have elected. Will the Secretary of State join me in urging all elected politicians in Northern Ireland—Members of the Assembly, councillors and Members of Parliament—to get into those communities and listen, and will she listen to what they tell her about what we can do to improve the conditions in those communities?
Certainly, in any democracy, it is vital for elected representatives to engage at the grass roots with members of the community who feel alienated. I urge all those who feel a sense of detachment from the political process to come forward. I imagine that many people who are rioting on the streets are probably not even registered to vote. There are many ways for them to express their political views and to support Britishness, and many ways to support the flying of the Union flag, that are peaceful and constructive, and that will work. There is a way forward. There is openness and an opportunity for those who genuinely care about our national flag to get involved in a broad conversation on how we resolve those issues. I encourage them to do so.
While recognising the social problems that unfortunately continue to exist in Northern Ireland, is it not necessary to make it perfectly clear that there can be no excuse whatever for violence or intimidation from either side? Is it not the case that the large majority of people in Northern Ireland support the peace settlement, which was started by John Major and negotiated successfully, following a change of Government, by Tony Blair and Mo Mowlam? Moreover, as a result of those negotiations, articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution were removed—the very articles that caused such annoyance and complaints from the Unionist community over many years.
The hon. Gentleman is right. We should not forget everything that has been achieved by the peace process. He is also right that there is no excuse for violence, regardless of social background. It is important to recognise that although there are problems with sectarian division in Northern Ireland, there are many people who no longer share those sectarian views and have left them behind. We need to ensure that that becomes more broadly based across the community.
The House is still in shock about the death of the prison officer David Black. The second incident on 30 December sends us again into shock. It is an appalling regression to what might have happened in the past, and let us hope that we can get a grip on it. May I ask my right hon. Friend whether there has been evidence of weapons either being seen or used in the riots in Belfast?
Further to the point articulated by my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State, on education, and as one who, as a former student leader, worked with the National Union of Students-Union of Students in Ireland as long ago as the late ’90s, it is clear there is a generation of young male Protestants who have not achieved their full education potential, and have been educated in crumbling schools with no great drive to go on to further and higher education. Will the Secretary of State listen to the cross-party pleas to help the Executive to invest more in education to give all parts of the community in Northern Ireland a real future?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that educational opportunities are key to addressing some underlying problems. This is an issue I have discussed with a number of community groups, for example, a great organisation called the Resurgam Trust in the Lisburn area. There is a crucial opportunity for the early intervention programmes that have proved so successful in many parts of the United Kingdom. It is not for the UK Government to dictate to the Executive how much of a priority they give to that, but we are very supportive of the work that is being done. He is right that this is a key way to improve the current situation.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her well-thought-through statement. Has she made an assessment on whether this is localised to Belfast, or is it a broader issue? May I also ask her what can we do to ensure better school results in Northern Ireland? I understand that there is success in some places, but that in others only 3% or 4% of children end up getting five GCSEs or more.
The Northern Ireland education system has significant contrasts. For many children, it is spectacularly successful, and, of course, it has two world-class universities. However, there is a concern about those for whom it is not delivering and a concern about educational underachievement. As I said, this is a high priority for the Northern Ireland Executive and the Education Minister, and the UK Government continue to support them through the block grant they give to Northern Ireland. I am very happy to work with the Northern Ireland Executive on the good work they are doing to improve the current situation.
I agree wholeheartedly with the remarks made by the hon. Member for Bournemouth West (Conor Burns). There have been a lot of glib phrases about a shared future. Will the Secretary of State define for the House what she means by a shared future? Many people from the majority Unionist community feel bewildered that the British Government and the British Opposition are campaigning to keep Scotland part of the United Kingdom, while in Northern Ireland we are talking about a shared future. Why are we not talking about a shared future in Scotland, and why are we not putting the same resources and support into keeping Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom?
As the hon. Lady will be aware, and I am sure she will agree with me, the question of Northern Ireland’s future in the Union is settled on the basis of consent. The Government are not neutral on the Union and we believe that Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom is safer than it has been for many years. Regardless of that, it is crucial to find ways to unite the community in Northern Ireland. It is true that there remain sectarian divisions. On the subject of Scotland, I know that there are indeed some concerns about sectarianism there, although it does not manifest itself in the same ways as it does in Northern Ireland. It is true that many people in Northern Ireland have left those sectarian divisions behind, but not everyone has. We need to give children the opportunity to participate in shared education, and look at ways to have space that can be genuinely lived in, occupied and used by both parts of the community. In particular, I single out some of the education initiatives in County Fermanagh, which have demonstrated that it is possible to give children the opportunity to be educated alongside those from other backgrounds in a successful way. Those are the sorts of initiatives we need to deliver.
I thank the Secretary of State for her statement and join her in praising the PSNI for all it is doing to maintain peace in the Province of Northern Ireland. Does she agree, as we try to continue the peace process and move towards reconciliation, that all political leaders should be very careful in their use of language and what they put into print, to ensure that they do not create a climate that leads to a feeling of justification for other measures that people unfortunately take that are beyond the bounds of political debate?
I join the Secretary of State in praising the bravery of PSNI officers, particularly in recent days and nights. She is right, and the Prime Minister was right yesterday, to underline the vital responsibility that every politician in Northern Ireland has to map out a shared future to which everybody, including disaffected loyalist communities, can feel they belong. One area that she retains responsibility for is the work of the Parades Commission. Given that we are just weeks away from the start of this year’s parading season, will she update the House on recent discussions she has had with members of the commission about the role that they can play, alongside police and community leaders, to make sure that parades, and indeed legitimate protests, are properly stewarded and responsibly organised?
I met the whole Parades Commission just a few days ago to discuss its thoughts on the forthcoming year. Technically speaking, I think the parading season begins in mid-February. The commission takes its role very seriously and there was some progress last year on public order issues related to parading. It is focused on doing the best it can to make the right decisions that are balanced and fair, and to take into account competing considerations. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the work of the right hon. Gentleman, and members of his Government, in building peace and calling for the same kind of shared future that the Prime Minister has focused on so strongly during his term of office.
Further to the decision of Belfast city council on which days the Union flag may be flown, what steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that all citizens of Northern Ireland feel that they can express their views, including by the ballot box, rather than being disengaged as so many seem to be?
It is important for this House to send out a clear signal that there are a whole range of ways that people can get involved in the political process, whether they express their views by e-mailing their MP, using social media sites, or coming along to public meetings. That is the way to influence the outcome of important debates on the future of Northern Ireland—not by chucking bricks at police officers.
It is my understanding that when Scotland hosted the G8, additional policing resources were not provided. I think the Secretary of State said that they would be provided in Northern Ireland this year—can she confirm that point? Will she also confirm whether the Chief Constable has asked for additional resources to deal with the ongoing violence?
The Chief Constable has not asked for additional resources to deal with the ongoing violence, but he is making a careful assessment of the impact of the violence on his resources. The resources needed to police the G8 summit are under consideration, and we are working with colleagues in the Home Office and the PSNI to see what might be possible. It is also important to emphasise that the £200 million deployed by the Government to assist the security efforts in Northern Ireland have played an important part during the riots, not least because it has funded the vehicles that have come under attack—the capital renewal of the PSNI’s vehicle stock was partly funded by the extra £200 million.
The saddest aspect of this senseless violence is the potential deterrent effect on business investment and tourism. Will my hon. Friend update the House on conversations she has had with business leaders, retailers and other potential employers on improving the Northern Ireland economy, increasing investment and creating new jobs?
Virtually every day I am in Northern Ireland, I am in those kinds of discussions, because it is crucial that Northern Ireland’s economy recovers. We saw some fabulous, successful events last year, including the Titanic centenary events and the Queen’s visit, and, as I have said, this year again we have opportunities to showcase all that is good about Northern Ireland. I am enthusiastically taking part in that, and I know that the Prime Minister will be doing so as well during his forthcoming visits to Northern Ireland, including for the G8. We are confident that we can host a successful and secure G8 summit, despite the recent disorder.
I was struck during the statement by the sense of disengagement in certain parts of the community, but I have been less clear about the Secretary of State’s strategic vision for dealing with that. Will she be a bit more specific about the steps that will be taken to try and engage some of these communities? Simply asking them to come forward is not a solution. Will she tell us specifically what she is doing, with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, to engage some of these communities?
As I said, I have regular discussions with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. Today sees the first meeting of the Unionist forum, which will be engaging with members of the Unionist community, and, as I have said, I and the Minister of State are focused on wide and inclusive engagement on all the challenges facing Northern Ireland. It is important for the Northern Ireland Executive to continue the work to build a shared future and to engage with disaffected communities. A key way to do that is by focusing on educational under-achievement and the sorts of social problems we have debated this morning.
I join my right hon. Friend in paying tribute to the PSNI, which has behaved with professionalism and bravery in the face of intense provocation and attacks over recent weeks. I expect it will be almost impossible to put a cost on the economic and reputational damage to Northern Ireland, but has she been able yet to estimate the policing costs so far of the recent protests and disorder?
Various unofficial figures are circulating, and it is deeply regrettable that resources that could be going into visible community policing and confidence building are being taken up by rioting. As I said, the Chief Constable is looking carefully at the implications of the situation for his resources and will keep me updated.