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Public Disorder

Volume 557: debated on Wednesday 23 January 2013

2. What assessment she has made of the recent public disorder in Northern Ireland; and if she will make a statement. (137936)

4. What assessment she has made of the recent public disorder in Northern Ireland; and if she will make a statement. (137938)

9. What assessment she has made of the recent public disorder in Northern Ireland; and if she will make a statement. (137943)

The recent violence in Northern Ireland has been intolerable. The Government fully support the efforts of the Police Service of Northern Ireland in their efforts to combat this disorder and to bring to justice those responsible for it.

While the activities and involvement of many young people in the recent disorder has been criminal and wrong, does the Secretary of State agree that what those young people need is some hope for the future, through jobs and training? What will she do to ensure that the Northern Ireland Assembly gets all the support it needs in that endeavour?

The UK Government continue to support the Northern Ireland Executive through the block grant, which is approximately 25% higher in Northern Ireland than it is in England. Our economic strategy is focused on rebalancing the Northern Ireland economy, providing a boost by getting the public finances under control and keeping interest rates low. We are providing support for families by cancelling Labour’s fuel tax rises, and we have provided an income tax cut for over 600,000 families in Northern Ireland.

Belfast still sadly remains a city where communities are divided physically by walls and fences. What steps is the right hon. Lady’s Department going to take to help rebuild these communities and to link them together so that the disorder we have witnessed recently will become history rather than something we have to deal with in the present and the future?

In addition to the economic measures I mentioned earlier, there has been a strong focus—by me, my predecessor and the Prime Minister—on working with the Northern Ireland Executive to deliver a shared future by healing divisions between different parts of the community in Northern Ireland. A huge amount was achieved with the Belfast agreement, but recent events demonstrate that there are still significant sectarian divisions, which it is now urgent to address.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the Westminster Government have a responsibility to provide whatever assistance is needed to the Police Service of Northern Ireland to deal with matters of national security? Does she view it in that light?

The impact of the recent disorder on resources is certainly a cause for concern. However, the United Kingdom Government are already giving the PSNI significant assistance through the £200 million of additional security funding that we allocated in 2011, and that money is helping the PSNI to deal with the current protests. Not only has it released resources for other forms of policing, but it has enabled the PSNI to purchase a new fleet of Land Rovers which are being deployed directly in policing the protests and combating the violence.

The current difficult situation is of concern to all of us. There is significant violence and illegal behaviour, and daily we hear anecdotal evidence of the potential economic withdrawal of some of the hard-earned foreign direct investment that we have received for the past few years. We need a solution. Would the Secretary of State be amenable to a round-table conference with the two Governments and all the Northern Ireland parties to sort out all the issues that confront us?

All Northern Ireland’s political parties must work together to find a political way forward. The violence is unacceptable. The protests need to stop, and be replaced by a political dialogue. I have been urging the parties to engage in such a process, and I welcome the hard work they are doing in trying to set it up. I believe that the constructive meeting that I had with the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and the Irish Foreign Minister last week has provided an impetus for the political parties to continue their discussions on a political solution.

As we have heard, the violence in Belfast has had a bad impact on the employment prospects of people in that city. This morning the Northern Ireland Finance Minister announced that he intended to launch an advertising campaign to make people aware that, in spite of everything else, Belfast is a great place in which to work and do business. Is there any way in which the Secretary of State can support him in his quest?

I welcome my hon. Friend’s question, which gives me an opportunity to emphasise that there is much that is positive in Northern Ireland, and that 2013 still has the potential to be a fantastic year for it. There has been a very successful start for Derry/Londonderry as the UK city of culture, the G8 is coming to Northern Ireland, and the World Police and Fire Games, one of the biggest sporting events in the world, are to be held there as well. All that demonstrates the existence of a modern, forward-looking Northern Ireland that has resolved a great many of its problems.

The violence is counter-productive, and it is damaging Northern Ireland’s image abroad. I will strongly back efforts to bring people back to the centre of Belfast to support the economy there. I urge everyone to recognise that Northern Ireland is a great place for inward investment, a great place in which to set up a business, and a great place to visit as a tourist.

Order. Before I call the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds), I must emphasise that we have a great deal to get through. We need short questions and short, sharp answers.

May I continue the positive theme? The Secretary of State will be aware of the Belfast Telegraph’s excellent campaign, “We’re Backing Belfast”, which people have joined in supporting. Could the Secretary of State do any more to back the city at this time? Could she, for instance, arrange for meetings of the Northern Ireland Grand Committee to take place in Belfast, or arrange for the Cabinet to meet in Belfast in order to show support for it—and, perhaps, take the opportunity to announce economic measures such as a cut in corporation tax?

Those are interesting ideas, and I will pass them on to those who make such decisions. As for corporation tax, the Prime Minister is considering the issue and will make an announcement in due course.

The Secretary of State will know of reports that leading members of the Provisional IRA who were formerly involved in its campaign of violence in Northern Ireland are now working with dissident groups there and providing them with expertise. What discussions has she had with the Chief Constable about the matter, and has she asked Sinn Fein what it knows about those people and their involvement in dissident violence?

I regularly discuss with the Chief Constable the serious terrorist threat posed by dissident republicans, and I will continue to do so. The UK Government are vigilant in combating the threat from dissident republican terrorists. They are small in number but they have lethal intent, and unfortunately they also have capability.

The Secretary of State will be aware that it is not just city centre traders who have been affected by the current trouble. During her visit to my constituency last week, she met representatives of local businesses who have been affected by the disruption. Does she agree that we will only be able to create the conditions for long-term stability and growth on which we can build if the parties in Northern Ireland work collectively, along with both Governments, to develop a shared future and tackle sectarianism?

I agree that the lessons from the past few weeks demonstrate, once again, how important it is that all the elected representatives in Northern Ireland work together to build a shared future and to heal sectarian division. I very much welcome the opportunity to come to the hon. Lady’s constituency and her office, and to meet those who have been affected by the protests. She continues to have my sympathy for the treatment that she has undergone and to which her staff have been subjected.

I join the Secretary of State, and hon. Members on both sides of the House, in standing against the recent violence. It is important that Westminster sends a clear message that it is unacceptable. Does she agree with me, and with what other hon. Members have said today, that we need more than just condemnation—we need action? Will she outline what steps she has taken and, more importantly, what steps she intends to take now to deal with these problems?

My focus has been on meeting the people affected by this disorder, talking to the businesses and the communities that have been disrupted by it, keeping in very regular touch with the Chief Constable to give my absolute support to the brave efforts of the Police Service of Northern Ireland in keeping order on the streets, and driving forward a political solution from the political parties. I am in very regular touch with them, urging them to meet to discuss this issue, in order to find a political way forward to resolve these critical issues on identity and build a shared future.

I thank the Secretary of State for her reply. Of course, as she said, there is positive news, but will she now, with the Northern Ireland Executive and the Irish Government, review what has happened? Will they then set out together concrete proposals to deal with the underlying issues, specifically those relating to culture and identity, social and economic deprivation, and sectarianism? In doing that, we can continue to work together to build the shared and prosperous future that we all want for Northern Ireland.

As I have said, at last week’s meeting with the First Minister, Deputy First Minister and Irish Foreign Minister we did review the current situation. I will continue, as I know the Tanaiste will, to press the Northern Ireland parties to make real progress on this situation. It is now vital that we see practical steps towards delivering a shared future and healing those sectarian divides. That is a point I have made repeatedly in pretty much every speech I have made since being appointed. Now is the time for real progress and seeing the Northern Ireland Executive and all Northern Ireland’s political leaders going forward to deliver that shared future that they all very much support.