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Recent Disturbances

Volume 559: debated on Wednesday 6 March 2013

1. What discussions she has had with political leaders about recent disturbances in Northern Ireland. (145437)

I have had regular discussions with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister and other political leaders in Northern Ireland about the disturbances of recent months. The protests should now end. A way forward that commands broadly based support can be found only through dialogue and working together.

In the light of the recent successful interception of four mortar bombs by the police in Northern Ireland, will my right hon. Friend tell the House what steps she is taking to counter the work of terrorists whose aim is to kill and maim innocent people?

The attempted terrorist attack this week demonstrates how severe the terrorist threat continues to be in Northern Ireland. It was only through the highly effective action of the Police Service of Northern Ireland and its partners that mass casualties were averted. The Government remain vigilant in the face of the threat and have included it as a tier 1 priority in their national security strategy.

The interception of the mortar bomb attack prevented a devastating attack on Londonderry and saved lives. In the light of the string of attacks and attempted attacks from that particular quarter, will the Secretary of State tell us what extra resources she is going to give to the police and the security forces in Northern Ireland in the coming year to counter the dissident terrorist threat?

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that shortly after taking office the coalition devoted an extra £200 million to national security priorities in Northern Ireland, which has been tremendously helpful to the PSNI, not least in enabling it to replace its Land Rover fleet. We will continue our discussions on the successor funding when that £200 million runs out, and we continue to do everything we can to support the PSNI and its partners, and the Northern Ireland Executive, in countering this threat.

The Secretary of State will be aware that some of those involved in the dissident terrorist campaign in Northern Ireland who have been charged with the most serious offences, including murder, have been released on bail in recent days, while others who have been involved in the protests and who are likely to receive a non-custodial sentence have been remanded on bail. Does she understand the bewilderment of most ordinary people in Northern Ireland at that situation, and the anger that is perpetuated in the community by what is perceived to be this double standard?

The right hon. Gentleman will appreciate that those are matters for the courts, not for me as Secretary of State and not for the police. I am afraid that the courts make their own decisions on those matters, taking into account the risk of reoffending.

The Secretary of State says that those are matters for the courts, and indeed they are, but the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) has referred to the huge challenges now facing Northern Ireland from the so-called new IRA and from the loyalist demonstrations. Does the Secretary of State agree that she must now have more than just regular discussions with political parties, and that she really needs a structure for those discussions with the Irish Government and with all the political leaders in Northern Ireland if we are to deal with those serious issues?

Of course it is important that those discussions continue. I had a very helpful meeting with the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and the Tánaiste a few weeks ago, and we hope to put another so-called quad meeting in the diary very shortly. Both Governments believe that it is important for a dialogue to occur on flags and symbols, and for progress to be made towards the shared future in Northern Ireland that everyone in the political leadership wants. It is essential that that should now be delivered.

In view of the current political difficulties and the impasse on some issues, would the Secretary of State consider it useful to convene round-table discussions involving herself, the Irish Government and all the political parties in Northern Ireland?

It is important for Northern Ireland’s political leadership to develop a process so that the leaders of all the political parties can work together on matters such as flags and identity. That is an important way of ensuring that the protests come off the streets and that we find a genuinely inclusive way to decide on these issues. The Belfast agreement gives guarantees on protecting identities of Irishness and Britishness, and it is now time for the political parties to work together to see how we can translate those guarantees into a sensible way of approaching issues around flags and symbols in Northern Ireland.

I thank the Secretary of State for her comments to date. At a time when the PSNI is under extreme pressure and when the rule of law is under threat from loyalists and republicans, does she agree that it is hugely important that all political leaders in Northern Ireland give their unambiguous support to the rule of law and to the PSNI, and that they articulate within their communities the need to support those organisations and principles, rather than simply becoming a voice for dissent?

I agree. I am firmly supportive of the PSNI, which does an outstanding job. It has dealt with these protests in a very sensible way, and it has faced difficult situations. Indeed, almost 150 of its officers have been injured, so it has my firm and unqualified support. I hope that it will enjoy that support from Northern Ireland’s political leadership as well.

In her recent discussions, has the Secretary of State been able to confirm that the amendments to the Crime and Courts Bill tabled by the Home Secretary, which would allow her to transfer lead responsibility for counter-terrorism to the National Crime Agency, will not apply in Northern Ireland and that the Chief Constable will remain in overall control of all counter-terrorism investigations and operations?

The Home Secretary certainly agrees that if there were any suggestion of extending the NCA’s remit to national security matters in Northern Ireland, that could happen only with the consent of the Chief Constable of the PSNI. The primacy of the Chief Constable is retained to ensure consistency with the devolution of policing and justice.