I beg to move,
That this House notes the ongoing discussions in Northern Ireland chaired by Dr Richard Haass on a number of important issues including the legacy of the Troubles; recognises the deep sense of loss still felt by the innocent victims of violence and their continuing quest for truth and justice; acknowledges the valour and sacrifice of the men and women who served and continue to serve in the armed forces, the police and the prison service in Northern Ireland; and is resolved to ensure that those who engaged in or supported acts of terrorism will not succeed in rewriting the narrative of this troubled period in Northern Ireland’s history.
It is a privilege to move the motion standing in the name of my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) and other colleagues on dealing with the past in Northern Ireland. First, I wish to record an apology on behalf of my right hon. Friend. As Members will be aware, he is attending a memorial service in his constituency to mark the 20th anniversary of the Shankill bomb on 23 October 1993, in which nine innocent people tragically lost their lives.
Today we remember the families of John Desmond Frizzel, aged 63, in whose fish shop the bomb was exploded; his daughter Sharon McBride, aged 29, married to Alan with one child; George Williamson, 63 years old, married with two children, and his wife Gillian Williamson, 49 years old; Evelyn Baird, 27 years old, married with two children; her daughter Michelle Baird, seven years old, a schoolchild; Leanne Murray, 13 years old, a schoolchild; Michael Morrison, 27 years old, married with three children; and Wilma McKee, 38 years old, married with two children.
Today I am sure that all right hon. and hon. Members will join me in saying that the tragic loss and pain suffered by those families and the thousands of innocent victims—whether Protestant, Roman Catholic or of other faiths—killed or maimed in Northern Ireland, here in Great Britain or elsewhere during our troubled past will never be forgotten by those of us who cherish the value of human life, reject violence and pursue peace as the only way forward for Northern Ireland. Today we especially remember the families of the victims of the Shankill bomb.
I also wish to acknowledge the presence of the Secretary of State. I am aware that she had other obligations and commitments this week outside of the United Kingdom, and we appreciate her presence today.
Discussions between the political parties at Stormont have failed to achieve sufficient consensus on dealing with the legacy of the troubled past to which I have referred. Therefore, the First Minister and Deputy First Minister have invited Dr Richard Haass to chair discussions about this and related matters such as parades and protests, flags, emblems and symbols. Dr Haass is assisted in this work by a small team, including Meghan O’Sullivan, who is his vice-chair of the talks presently under way.
I also acknowledge the work of the previous Consultative Group on the Past, led by Lord Eames and Denis Bradley, and the recommendations set out in its report. However, I must place on record the fact that many of those recommendations were rejected at the time, not least because of the schism that exists at the very heart of the debate on the past and the definition of a victim.
The Democratic Unionist party remains firmly of the view that we cannot equate the perpetrators of terrorist violence with their innocent victims, yet that is precisely what the current law does in Northern Ireland under the Victims and Survivors (Northern Ireland) Order 2006. This is a law that the DUP seeks to change, and for that reason I have proposed a private Member’s Bill that is due to be given its Second Reading in December. My Bill would ensure that an individual killed or injured as a result of their own act of terrorism or convicted of a terrorism-related offence as defined in law would not be classified as a victim for the purposes of deriving any benefit from schemes designed to assist victims and survivors.
I referred at the outset to the Shankill bomb and the innocent people murdered by the IRA in that incident. One of the IRA terrorists on that day, the bomber Thomas Begley, was killed when the bomb exploded, and his accomplice Sean Kelly was seriously injured. When convicted of this heinous crime, Sean Kelly was given nine life sentences—one life sentence for each life he had destroyed—yet under the early release scheme that formed part of the Belfast agreement, Kelly was released after serving just seven years in prison. That is less than one year for each life that he destroyed that day on the Shankill road.
That is an enormous burden for the families of those victims to bear. Michelle Williamson, whose father and mother were murdered by Sean Kelly, campaigned vigorously to prevent his release. Regrettably, Kelly walked free. To have this injustice compounded by the fact that the law currently defines the IRA bombers Sean Kelly and Thomas Begley as victims in just the same way as the nine innocent people who died that day on the Shankill road are defined as victims is an outrage. It is an affront to decency and the rule of law, and it is something that this Parliament should act to change. For the sake of the nine innocent people who died on that terrible day 20 years ago to this day, I trust and pray that parties throughout the House will support the necessary change to the legislation.
That is fundamental to finding an agreed way forward on dealing with the legacy of the past in Northern Ireland. On the definition, let me be clear: whether the innocent victims were murdered by those IRA bombers or by the Ulster Volunteer Force gang known as the Shankill Butchers that operated on the Shankill road, or whether the victims were Protestant or Roman Catholic or of other faiths or none, it does not matter. There cannot be equivocation between the innocent victims of terrorism and those who perpetrated those acts of terrorism. The principle applies in all cases. Those who commission or commit murder cannot be equated in a definition with their innocent victims.
Of course, this is not the only challenge we face in dealing with the legacy of the past. This summer has been a stark reminder of the difficulties surrounding very sensitive issues that we desperately need to address and resolve. I am bound to say, in the absence of the Sinn Fein Members elected to this House, that their attitude in the summer and recently has not helped to create an atmosphere in which we can make progress.
I refer specifically to an event that occurred in Castlederg in August when we witnessed a blatant glorification of terrorism by senior members of Sinn Fein. Castlederg is a small town in County Tyrone near the border with the Irish Republic. Many terrorist atrocities were committed there during what we call the troubles. The IRA waged a vicious sectarian campaign against the local Protestant community and especially targeted the security forces.
This August, republicans held a commemoration event in Castlederg to unveil a memorial to two IRA terrorists, Seamus Harvey and Gerard McGlynn, who 40 years ago, like Thomas Begley, were killed by their own bomb. I cannot understate the insensitivity of this event. Initially, republicans even sought, as part of the commemoration, to have a parade past some of the locations where the IRA had murdered people in Castlederg.
The speeches that were made on that day, most notably by the Sinn Fein Member of the Legislative Assembly, Gerry Kelly, were undoubtedly interpreted as a glorification of terrorism, and rightly so. Mr Kelly was convicted of trying to blow up the Old Bailey in London in March 1973. In his speech, he asserted that his actions were not acts of terrorism. I ask every Member of this House the following question: if a gang that includes Mr Kelly plants a bomb outside a courthouse in a public place and that bomb explodes, killing one person and injuring more than 200 people, is that an act of terrorism or something else? My understanding is that that is an act of terrorism as defined by the law of the United Kingdom and international law. We have the ridiculous situation whereby republicans are trying to redefine what terrorism is and to recast the actions that they perpetrated during the troubles. They are trying to explain away the heinous nature of those actions by some form of twisted justification. That will not do and we will not stand for it. There can be no redefinition of terrorism in Northern Ireland.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues on raising this important issue. It is important that we do not paper over the fact that terrorists committed horrendous crimes during the troubles. We should all congratulate the civilians and soldiers on their courage and steadfastness at that time. Will he admit that it is important to remember those terrorist acts if only because, in remembering the horrendous nature of those crimes, the Province stands a better chance of having a brighter future?
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman and his party on calling this debate. He mentioned the fact that Sinn Fein MPs do not take their seats. Does he think that it is time for this House to get to grips with that issue? There is an idea that we cannot have that debate in this House. However, those MPs still receive allowances and support. Is it not time that we all stood up to the blackmail, almost, that we have from the Sinn Fein MPs, who think that they are entitled to decide whether they come here or not, and yet—
I concur entirely with the hon. Lady’s remarks. She can be assured that that issue will be raised on another day in the House of Commons.
On the same day that the IRA commemoration took place in Castlederg, 11 August, there was a memorial service in Omagh to commemorate the Omagh bombing of August 1998, in which 29 innocent people lost their lives. Sinn Fein members were present at that event in Omagh. I pose a simple question: how can the same party, on the same day, in the same county engage in an act of glorification of terrorism in one town and stand alongside the victims of a similar atrocity in another town, and claim that there is no double standard?
For 14 years, I represented Omagh and Castlederg in the House of Commons. Sinn Fein have a twisted mentality that means that they can easily do that, because they were not associated with the Omagh bomb and they close their minds to all the other bombings, including Teebane and the many other atrocities across the Province.
I thank my hon. Friend for those words. I pay tribute to the way in which he has represented people in Northern Ireland over many years. The personal cost that he and his family have borne for that representation is often overlooked. He is absolutely correct.
We cannot equivocate on this matter. The finger would be pointed in our direction if we sought to justify an act of terrorism by one paramilitary organisation in Northern Ireland while condemning the same kind of action by another paramilitary organisation. The two bombers whom Sinn Fein commemorated in Castlederg were transporting a bomb that was designed to murder innocent people in a country town. The people whom they condemned in Omagh on the same day were doing the same thing: they transported a bomb into the heart of a town in the same county of Tyrone and it was designed to murder innocent people. What happened in Castlederg and what happened in Omagh must be condemned equally. It is time that Sinn Fein grew up and recognised that wrong is wrong, no matter who the perpetrator. There can be no rewriting of the history of the troubles in Northern Ireland.
I am most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene, particularly given that I was a few minutes late for the debate, for which I apologise to all Members. I invite him to confirm to the House, as I am sure he will do gladly, that his party leader, who serves the entire community in Northern Ireland as First Minister, has brought those criticisms of Sinn Fein’s behaviour to the attention of his Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness. I would like that assurance.
I know that the hon. Lady takes a keen interest in all these matters. I confirm to the House that our party leader, the First Minister, Peter Robinson, has on numerous occasions brought to the attention of the Deputy First Minister the inconsistency and double standards adopted by Sinn Fein in these matters, and the damage that that does to the building of community relations and the development of reconciliation in Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein needs to address this issue.
We will not stand for a process that seeks to paint the forces of the state as the bad guys and the terrorists as the good guys. I remind the House that the Sutton index, which tabulates and records all the deaths associated with the troubles in Northern Ireland, is very clear that of the 3,531 deaths recorded to date, the Army was responsible for 297. Many of those were entirely lawful and legitimate, and were carried out by soldiers acting in the course of their duty to protect human life. The Ulster Defence Regiment, in which I was proud to serve, was responsible for eight deaths. When one hears the attacks that are made against the integrity, valour and sacrifice of the Ulster Defence Regiment, one would think that it was responsible for many more. I reiterate that those deaths were the result of soldiers acting in the course of duty. The Royal Ulster Constabulary, which is also demonised at times by Irish republicans, was responsible for 55 deaths. Interestingly, the Garda, the Irish police, were responsible for four deaths and the Irish army for one.
Let us look at the record of the paramilitary organisations. On the republican side, the Irish National Liberation Army and the Irish People’s Liberation Organisation, which were part of the same grouping, were responsible for 135 deaths and the Provisional IRA was responsible for 1,707 deaths. The Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Freedom Fighters were responsible for 260 deaths, and the Ulster Volunteer Force was responsible for 430 deaths.
Let me say that every death associated with the troubles in Northern Ireland is regrettable. I do not seek, in any sense, to diminish the sense of loss that people feel when they lose someone.
My right hon. Friend is outlining the distinction between the various paramilitary groups of all kinds and the security forces. Does he agree that there is one massive and very simple distinction: the forces of law and order were committed to maintaining law and order, whatever may be said about a tiny percentage of their number who exceeded lawful authority, while the paramilitary groups were set up precisely to kill, murder and create mayhem, which they did for many years until they were prevented from continuing to do so?
I thank my hon. Friend; he is absolutely correct and I need not add anything to what he said.
The reality is that republican terrorists were responsible for 60% of the totality of deaths during the troubles in Northern Ireland. Loyalist paramilitaries were responsible for 30%, and forces associated with the state—whether in the Republic of Ireland or the United Kingdom—were responsible for 10% of those deaths. As my hon. Friend stated clearly, the vast majority of those killings were within the law and carried out in the course of duty by soldiers and police officers protecting the community.
However, when we look at the current process for dealing with the past, whether the Historical Enquiries Team, the Office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, or an inquest or inquiries funded by the state, the vast majority of resources to examine the past in Northern Ireland are devoted to the 10% of killings, with a scant amount devoted to the 90% of killings carried out by paramilitary organisations on both sides. That cannot continue as it only adds to the sense of disillusionment felt by many people about the current process in Northern Ireland. It is one-sided, biased, and is assisting Irish republicans to rewrite what is called the narrative of the troubles. That has to stop. We must find a process to ensure that attention goes to the more than 3,000 unsolved murders in Northern Ireland, the vast majority of which were committed by illegal paramilitary organisations on both sides. The victims of those atrocities deserve better than they are getting at the moment.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is reinforced by successive Governments who have permitted, endorsed and financed inquiry after inquiry into the role of the security forces during the troubles in Northern Ireland, while at the same time there is no such inquiry into the role of republican paramilitaries?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We hear republicans talk about a truth process and the need for truth, yet when the challenge has been brought to their door, I think, for example, of the Saville inquiry into the events in Londonderry in 1972. When Martin McGuinness, now Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, gave evidence to that inquiry, he refused to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, citing some IRA code that he had signed up to when he joined the Provisional IRA.
Sinn Fein agreed to co-operate with the Smithwick inquiry, which is investigating circumstances surrounding the murders of the two most senior officers of the Royal Ulster Constabulary—Harry Breen and Bob Buchanan—killed by the IRA in south Armagh. Sinn Fein agreed to assist the inquiry with its investigation, and designated two IRA members from south Armagh to meet lawyers representing the Smithwick inquiry. It was a farce. The two IRA members arrived at the meeting; lawyers were present, there was a discussion, and questions were asked. Each time a question was asked that might in some remote way have caused the IRA members to implicate any member of the IRA in any way whatsoever, they left the room, made a phone call, came back in and said, “We cannot answer that question.”
That was a private meeting with lawyers. It was not on the public record or in the public domain, yet even in those circumstances the IRA could not tell the truth about what happened and the circumstances surrounding the murder of the two most senior RUC officers to be killed in the troubles. What hope do we have of getting the truth from Irish republicans when their leadership, when called on to tell the truth, cannot do it, and when those members who have been designated by the leadership to tell the truth also refuse to do so? The problem for me is that when the state is called on to tell the truth, records are brought out, filing cabinets opened, and it is all laid bare.
I thank the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) for initiating this important debate on dealing with the past. Is he aware of the several hundreds of files lodged in a place in Derbyshire that have not yet been released to the Historical Enquiries Team? Those would bring great benefit to the Police Service of Northern Ireland in investigating many unsolved crimes.
I thank the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie)—that beautiful part of Northern Ireland—for her intervention, but I think she would be better directing that question to the Secretary of State. Of course the state has a duty to co-operate, but the difficulty I have is that paramilitary organisations are not under any such duty to co-operate, and show no indication whatsoever of a willingness to co-operate in providing the truth. Through the Historical Enquiries Team, a number of cases have been reviewed. Have republicans come forward at any stage in that process to assist the families of those victims with information that might help them get to the truth? No, they have not in any case.
For the record, there have been occasions when the authorities have inadvertently given evidence or information that they should not have given, thereby disclosing people who were involved in helping the security forces. On occasion evidence has been given that should not have been given, and compromised people who were helping the security forces.
Indeed, and I am sure my hon. Friend will wish to elaborate on that important point in his remarks. The extent to which the state is co-operating, whether with an inquest, the police ombudsman, or through the Historical Enquiries Team, could potentially compromise the modus operandi of the security services, and others who are tasked with protecting the community, not only now but in the future.
Before drawing my remarks to a close I want to place on record some principles that I feel are important as we seek to address the legacy of the past in these talks with Richard Haass. The first principle is that victims have the right to justice and must continue to have that right. Last Monday, as part of the Haass process, I met a number of victims at Stormont. I want to quote the words of one young woman, whose brother I had the honour to serve with in the Ulster Defence Regiment. He was a young man called Alan Johnston from Kilkeel, my home town, and I served with him in the 3rd (County Down) Battalion, Ulster Defence Regiment. He was murdered one morning on his way to work with his lunchbox under his arm. He was a joiner and a part-time soldier, cut down by the IRA. His sister said this:
“A denial of justice would only serve to re-victimise the innocent victims.”
I agree with her. It would be wrong to deny victims the right to justice.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman and his party on raising this important issue. He referred to his meeting with victims as part of the Haass process. Does he agree it is important that Dr Haass takes an inclusive approach to the process, and engages not just with the parties but also with victims and survivors?
I commend the right hon. Gentleman on the excellent work he did in Northern Ireland when he was a Minister. He is right, and I assure him that Dr Haass is meeting a wide range of people—as is Meghan O’Sullivan—including the victims. Indeed, some of the victims we saw on Monday had already met Dr Haass. It is important that their voice is heard in this debate.
The second principle I want to be clear about is that there must be no amnesty for the perpetrators of terrorist violence. Thirdly, as I have already stated at length, the definition of a victim of the troubles in Northern Ireland should exclude those who were killed or injured as a result of engaging in an act of terrorism, or convicted of a terrorist-related offence. We hope that that will be taken forward either in this House, or through the Haass process. Fourthly, the glorification of terrorism should not be facilitated or allowed, and if the law needs to be strengthened in that regard, it should be strengthened. This is a free country and a democracy, and we are proud of freedom of speech, but there are times when we have to step in and say that what people say and how they behave is irresponsible, provocative and should stop.
The Democratic Unionist party is strongly opposed to the establishment of any kind of one-sided and unbalanced inquiry process. Any evidentiary process such as a truth commission will inevitably focus on the state, because the paramilitary organisations did not keep records or documents and, as I have stated, are unlikely to tell the truth. Such a process would create an unfair narrative of the past, in which the true perpetrators of the vast majority of the deaths and injuries—more than 90%—will seek to legitimise their actions. They would not be held to account or held responsible for what they have done.
The needs of the victims and survivors must be met as far as possible. Their loss and circumstances should be treated with respect and sensitivity. They deserve and need proper recognition. Victims should have the opportunity to tell their story without it having to be intertwined with the voices of the perpetrators. Innocent victims should be remembered through a significant act of remembrance and commemoration, and, potentially, through a significant regional memorial in Northern Ireland. That could take the form of a memorial garden to the innocent victims of terrorism.
In conclusion, the narrative of the past should reflect core values, including that terrorism was and is wrong, and that it is not a legitimate method of obtaining a political or other objective. The narrative must clearly reflect the fact that approximately 90% of the deaths were the result of terrorist actions, and that the majority of those were by republican groups, so we are very clear that we condemn murder on all sides.
All hon. Members have a responsibility to address the issues relating to our troubled past. The Government have a responsibility—I hope the Secretary of State tells us what role the Government will play—and the process cannot be down to the political parties in Northern Ireland. Equally, the Irish Government have a responsibility. Some of the atrocities were committed in the Irish Republic; some were committed by those acting from the territory of the Irish Republic. The Irish Government have questions to answer about the arming of the IRA in the early days of the troubles, their extradition policy, and their failure at times to co-operate fully with the RUC in a way that would have brought to justice those responsible for terrorist actions in Northern Ireland. The Irish Government therefore have a role and a responsibility in the process.
Finally, I pay tribute to those who have served this country and protected the community, whether they were in the Royal Ulster Constabulary or, as it is today, the Police Service of Northern Ireland; in the armed forces and the regiments that came faithfully to Northern Ireland to serve and protect the community, some of whom are current Members of the House; or in the Ulster Defence Regiment, the locally recruited regiment of the Army, and its successor, the Royal Irish Regiment.
It is worth reminding the House that the RUC was awarded the George cross by Her Majesty the Queen, as a recognition of the collective courage and dedication to duty of all who served in the RUC and accepted the danger and stress it brought to them and their families. The Ulster Defence Regiment and the Royal Irish Regiment were awarded the conspicuous gallantry cross by Her Majesty the Queen in recognition of their valour and sacrifice over the years in Northern Ireland. It pains me when I hear nationalist parties attacking the RUC, the UDR and the Royal Irish Regiment in the way they do—without any balance in their approach to the service that those men and women provided in protecting the community.
I trust that the House will support the motion.
I thank the Democratic Unionist party for giving the House the opportunity to discuss matters of such great significance not only for Northern Ireland but for the whole United Kingdom. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) on a passionate and moving speech on Northern Ireland’s troubled past.
As the right hon. Gentleman reminded the House, and as we heard in Prime Minister’s questions, the debate coincides with the anniversary of one of the most appalling atrocities of Northern Ireland’s past: the Shankill bomb, which had the tragic consequences set out by the right hon. Gentleman. In the days following the attack, my predecessor as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my noble Friend Lord Mayhew, spoke in the House of the revulsion that people felt at such a hideous and atrocious attack on people going about their business on that Saturday morning 20 years ago.
I echo those sentiments today, and repeat the long-standing position of this and previous Governments that politically motivated violence, from wherever it came, was never justified. The Government will not condone attempts to glorify or legitimise acts of terrorism. We will never treat the men and women of the police and the Army who acted with such courage and self-sacrifice in upholding the rule of law as equivalent to those who used terrorism to try to further their political ends.
My noble Friend Lord Mayhew, in concluding his statement to the House on the Shankill bomb, reaffirmed:
“In this democracy, it is only through dialogue—dialogue between those who unequivocally reject the use or threat of violence—that the foundation will in the end be found for a fair and hence a lasting peace.”—[Official Report, 25 October 1993; Vol. 230, c. 578.]
Thankfully, over the ensuing years, that dialogue did go forward, beginning with the 1993 Downing street declaration and continuing with the 1998 Belfast agreement and its successors, and the basis was found for the relative peace and stability that Northern Ireland enjoys today.
Twenty years on from the Shankill bomb, Northern Ireland has its own inclusive, devolved Administration. Whatever the imperfections of the devolved institutions, they are a vast improvement on what went before. Relations within these islands—both between north and south, and between London and Dublin—have never been stronger, with both Governments determined to work closely together on the economic and other challenges our two countries face. The main paramilitary campaigns that led to more than 3,500 lost lives and such widespread and tragic suffering, which we have heard about this afternoon, have come to an end. Lethal though they are, the people who continue to seek to pursue their aims through violence are small in number and enjoy almost no public support whatever.
The transformation that has taken place over the past 15 years is a great testimony to the leadership and courage shown by so many of Northern Ireland’s political leaders, a number of whom are in the Chamber. It also vividly demonstrates the power of dialogue as a means of dealing with problems that were previously viewed as intractable. Yet, for all the progress, there is no doubt that the legacy of the past continues to cast a shadow and have an impact on today’s Northern Ireland. I see that whenever I meet victims of terrorism, as I did, for example, in Castlederg just a few weeks ago. I also see it when I meet those who believe that the unjustified actions of the state robbed them of their loved ones. All of them have highly personal tales of tragedy, and it is impossible not to be moved by their stories.
It is therefore not surprising that there are calls from a number of quarters in Northern Ireland for a mechanism or process to be initiated to deal with the past and grapple with the questions outlined today by the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley. I agree with him that, in taking forward that process, we must put the needs of victims at its heart. He is right to look at the options that involve enabling victims to tell their stories, so that the facts of what happened to them are on record and never forgotten.
Numerous attempts have been made in the 15 years since the 1998 agreement to come up with a so-called overarching process on the past. In 2008, the previous Government established the consultative group on the past under the chairmanship of Lord Eames and Denis Bradley. On coming to office, my predecessor as Secretary of State published a summary of the responses to Eames-Bradley and embarked on an extensive round of meetings with Northern Ireland’s political parties, victims groups and other interested bodies. Since becoming Secretary of State just over a year ago, I have had wide-ranging discussions on the subject both within Northern Ireland and with the Irish Government.
However, so far, none of the initiatives by either the previous Government or the current one has succeeded in establishing a consensus on how best to take things forward. That is certainly not to say that nothing is happening on the past—far from it. As well as a host of local and oral history projects and the tireless work by the voluntary sector in supporting victims, there are initiatives such as the CAIN archive at the university of Ulster, the renowned collection at the Linen Hall library, and thousands of hours of historical footage held by the BBC and Ulster Television. In fact, given the wealth of archive material available, Northern Ireland’s troubles are probably one of the most comprehensively recorded and documented periods in history.
For our part, the Government are committed to accelerating the release of state papers, so we are moving from the 30-year rule to a 20-year rule, although this will always have to be done in a way that is sensitive to the article 2 rights of all parties and to national security considerations. We are working with the Irish Government on the decade of centenaries that is now under way. Both Governments want to use the forthcoming anniversaries to promote mutual respect and understanding between different traditions, and to prevent them from being exploited by those intent on causing division and conflict. We continue to support the work being done in the devolved sphere, for example by the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, the Historical Enquiries Team and the Victims’ Commissioner. The Government have been fully prepared to apologise where the state has failed to uphold the highest standards of conduct. That has been done in the cases of Claudy, Patrick Finucane and, of course, Bloody Sunday, where the Prime Minister acknowledged to the House in the frankest of terms that what happened that day in Londonderry in 1972 was “unjustified and unjustifiable.”
There is no doubt that some want a broader initiative, a so-called “overarching” process, and they have asked the Government to deliver it. I understand that, and of course the UK Government are prepared to play their part in dealing with legacy issues, but I am also very clear that we do not own the past. The reality is that for any process to succeed it must command a substantial consensus among the Northern Ireland political parties and across the wider community.
The Government strongly welcome the initiative by the five parties in the Northern Ireland Executive to begin to take local ownership of this issue through the establishment of the Richard Haass working group on flags, emblems, parades and the past. While not formally part of this group, the Government are fully engaged with it. I and my officials have had a number of meetings and discussions with Dr Haass and his team, and I am seeing him again next week. Last Thursday, Dr Haass had talks in Downing street where he met the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister, who gave their full backing to the crucial task that Dr Haass has undertaken. It is clear that the Haass talks are dealing with some of Northern Ireland’s most difficult and long-standing fault lines and there is no guarantee of success, but I believe that there is a genuine willingness on the part of Northern Ireland’s political leadership to make progress. From my discussions with Dr Haass, I believe that there is no better person to help achieve that. With 12 months of protests and tensions around flags and parades, it is essential that progress is made.
While the focus of today’s short debate is about dealing with the past, it is also important that we do not lose sight of the overriding need to build a better future for everyone in Northern Ireland. That is particularly true on the economy and on building a shared society that is no longer blighted by the sectarian divisions that have caused so much damage over the years, both areas on which the Government are working very closely with the Executive. As I have made clear, progress cannot await the outcome of the Haass talks; it is vital that momentum is maintained. On the economy, there are now clear signs that, like the rest of the UK, Northern Ireland is turning a corner, with business activity growing, unemployment falling, the property market stabilising and construction finally starting to pick up after the disastrous crash experienced under the previous Government.
There is much more that needs to be done, which is why the Government and the Executive are pressing ahead with implementing the economic package we signed in Downing street in June, and on which we jointly published an update a fortnight ago. As part of that package, the Prime Minister and I attended a highly successful international investment conference at Titanic Belfast, where senior business figures from across the world were shown just what a great place Northern Ireland is in which to invest and to grow a business.
On addressing community divisions, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I have repeatedly pressed for progress. We therefore warmly welcomed the community relations initiative by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, with the publication of “Together: Building a United Community” in May. It was a significant moment last week when the First Minister of Northern Ireland broke new ground for a Unionist leader in addressing a Gaelic Athletic Association event. As the First Minister himself pointed out, this would have been unthinkable a few years ago and is another sign that Northern Ireland is moving forward.
In conclusion, I would like to echo the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley in paying a warm tribute to the members of the police, the prison service and the armed forces who served with such distinction, valour and courage in defending and upholding the rule of law, defending democracy and protecting the community in Northern Ireland. This is a welcome opportunity to reiterate the thanks of this House for all they did during the troubles and to reiterate the thanks to all those who currently defend the community in the security forces in Northern Ireland.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for allowing me to intervene. I have waited patiently for the Secretary of State to put on record the Government’s deep and sincere appreciation of the members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary George Cross—not just within the general title of the police, but the RUC George Cross, which made an enormous sacrifice: 302 murdered police officers, men and women. Too often, this House lets the opportunity go past without putting on the record the debt of gratitude we owe the RUC, particularly the families of those who stood by them and those who did not come home.
I am only too happy to put on record once again the support and tribute to the members of the RUC and their families, who suffered greatly at the hands of terrorists during the troubles, and to their successors in the PSNI, who even today are subject to repeated targeting by the terrorists who still operate in Northern Ireland.
Will the Secretary of State tell us what her view is on the recent announcement that the PSNI will try to persecute and prosecute some of the soldiers involved in the terrible incidents of Bloody Sunday so many years ago? Does she think that this is a way of moving forward? Does she not realise that this is making one side of the community feel, when they cannot even get an inquiry into Omagh, that there is not even-handedness?
In the Prime Minister’s statement on Bloody Sunday, he reiterated very clearly that the vast majority of those who served in Northern Ireland, whether in the Army or the RUC, served with distinction, integrity, courage and valour. He also said, however, that one does not defend the British Army by defending the indefensible. What happened in Londonderry in 1972 was indefensible. Whether that will lead to criminal prosecutions is a matter for the police and the prosecution authorities in Northern Ireland. It is not a matter for politicians to intervene in. I am sure that great care will be taken in deciding whether it is appropriate for a prosecution to go forward in relation to what happened on that day.
I emphasise that murder was and is always wrong, and that terrorism was and is always wrong. In so doing, and to bring some relief to the victims, may I ask the Secretary of State if she would consider immediate discussions with the Secretary of State for Defence to ensure that the files held in Derbyshire are released to the Historical Enquiries Team for its investigation? That would bring relief right across Northern Ireland in terms of all the unsolved cases.
I am certainly happy to have a conversation with the Secretary of State for Defence on that matter, which the hon. Lady has raised on a number of occasions. I reiterate, however, that the need for transparency always has to be tempered against the need to protect people who might come under threat if their names were disclosed, and to take account of national security interests.
In her historic speech during her visit to Ireland and Dublin castle in 2011, Her Majesty the Queen spoke of being able to bow to the past, but not be bound by it. It is impossible to be involved in Northern Ireland and not be aware of the power of the past to affect current events, but we know that with the same kind of leadership and courage shown over recent years, the people of Northern Ireland can build a prosperous and united future together. Working with them, that is what the Government are resolutely determined to achieve.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to the debate on behalf of the official Opposition. Hon. Members will agree that we do not get the chance to discuss Northern Ireland often enough on the Floor of the House, so I thank the Democratic Unionist party for giving us this opportunity and the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) for his opening statement. I know that for him this is not only politically important, but personally extremely salient, because of the losses that he and his family suffered as a result of the troubles.
I also acknowledge the work of Northern Ireland Members who have dealt with these sensitive and complicated issues from the perspective of the friends, neighbours and families of those killed and injured. Their work, alongside voluntary organisations in Northern Ireland such as the Commission for Victims and Survivors, led by Kathryn Stone, provides crucial and unwavering support for the families of victims. As the right hon. Gentleman and the Secretary of State said, it is also important to acknowledge that today is the 20th anniversary of the appalling Shankill road bombing and horrendous loss of life. We should also remember the awful events at Greysteel the subsequent week.
The debate comes at a crucial time in the aftermath of recent concerning disturbances, and in the midst of the Haass talks, in which all the parties in Northern Ireland have agreed to participate. I have been in this role for only 15 days, so I have no intention of presenting myself as an expert on Northern Ireland, but I promise to listen and learn, and then to provide leadership on issues on which I believe that the Opposition can help to make a positive difference. Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to visit Northern Ireland for the first time in my new role. In the past fortnight, I have met the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, and many of the Northern Ireland MPs here at Westminster, and attended meetings with Members of the Legislative Assembly, business people and community organisations. I have met people whose sense of place and belonging, and connection to family and community, shines through. I would like to take this opportunity to express my gratitude for the guidance and support that I have received during the transition into my new role.
Notwithstanding the many remaining challenges, Northern Ireland has been transformed over the past two decades by the peace process. My party played an important role in making that process possible, and I am aware of the many people in the House who have shown tremendous leadership by supporting that process through the good times and the bad. Irrespective of the many continued challenges, we have a shared interest and responsibility to ensure that Northern Ireland continues on its journey to build peace, fairness and prosperity.
Make no mistake: on the whole, Northern Ireland is on the up. Most recently, we saw the successful investment conference in Belfast, and in 2013 alone, Northern Ireland has hosted some of the most important global political, cultural and sporting events. The G8 summit was held in the beautiful surroundings of Lough Erne, while the 10-day world police and fire games, the third-largest sporting event in the world, which attracted competitors and supporters from around the globe, was hosted in Belfast for the first time. Moreover, Derry-Londonderry was designated the UK’s inaugural city of culture. Northern Ireland is in the spotlight for all the right reasons and is taking its rightful place on the world stage.
Despite that remarkable progress, however, significant challenges remain and we cannot afford to be complacent. The disgraceful scenes of rioting that we witnessed over flags in the early part of the year and over parades in the summer, and the terrible murders of two weeks ago, are a reminder that deep wounds still exist and that the legacy of the past continues to afflict communities in Northern Ireland. In that context, it is important that we pay tribute to the courageous work of the men and women of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, who do such an important job on the front line.
As others have said, violence can never be condoned. It is unacceptable and should be condemned by politicians from all parties and all community leaders. We have welcomed the all-party Haass talks as a crucial opportunity to address the contentious issues of flags, parades and the past. It is essential that these talks lead to meaningful progress and action that has the confidence of the vast majority in all communities. That will require not only courageous and visionary political leadership from Northern Irish politicians, but the active and consistent engagement of the UK and Irish Governments. It therefore remains a source of serious concern that too many people in Northern Ireland feel that the present UK Government are insufficiently engaged. Engagement is essential, given the need for recognition of the responsibility the UK Government have for their role in the troubles and of the reality that any process to deal with the past will have financial and legislative implications that, ultimately, will require their support.
The hon. Gentleman repeatedly makes the allegation of disengagement, which is very far from the truth, as I outlined in my speech and at Northern Ireland questions. If he is concerned about disengagement, is he concerned about Opposition Front Benchers, given that his predecessor, the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), was barely seen in Northern Ireland during what was a very difficult parading season?
I have made it clear to the right hon. Lady that when we agree with the Government on security issues, we will continue to operate on a bipartisan basis—that is how we should work in the context of Northern Ireland. As an old boss of mine once said, however, perception is reality, and if many politicians and others active in Northern Ireland believe that there is insufficient engagement from the Government, it might just be, with respect, that they are telling the truth. As for her comments about my predecessor, there are very few politicians who, when they leave a job, receive such widespread acclaim—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] That acclaim came from all political parties that are doing their best to make a difference in Northern Ireland, so her criticisms of him were not worthy of her.
My concern is about perceptions and reality. If the hon. Gentleman believes that the Government are disengaged, I am surprised that he took the trouble to point out two great successes for Northern Ireland—the G8 conference in Fermanagh and the recent investment conference—that would not have happened without the close engagement of the UK Government.
With respect, I have been in this job for only about 13 or 14 days, but the majority of politicians I have met in Northern Ireland feel that there is inadequate engagement from the Government on a range of issues. It is not just about turning up at the high-profile events. Of course, the fact that the Prime Minister attended the recent investment conference was incredibly important, but this is about rolling one’s sleeves up and working, on an ongoing basis, on a range of issues, so that people feel that one has a passion for and a commitment to the challenges facing Northern Ireland.
Whatever the Secretary of State might say about the former shadow Secretary of State, the view of parties in Northern Ireland is that he was assiduous in his work. He visited almost all the constituencies and spent all day with Members going round them, so the Secretary of State was unfair in her allegation that he did not perform his role with enthusiasm, zeal, passion and a concern for people in Northern Ireland.
It is simply not true that the Prime Minister’s involvement in Northern Ireland consists only of his turning up at a few high-profile events. A huge amount of planning went into delivering the G8 summit, and it is this Prime Minister who has delivered a wide-ranging economic pact that enables us to work with the Northern Ireland Executive in an unprecedented way to deliver a more prosperous future for Northern Ireland.
The best thing I can do at this stage is to move on with my contribution. The right hon. Lady should reflect on how many people in Northern Ireland feel, and think about the implication of those feelings.
Engagement is essential because any process that deals with the past will involve financial and legislative implications requiring the support of the UK Government. I want to highlight an initial view of the principles that we believe should apply to any credible process seeking to deal with the past. First, as the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley said, any process must put victims and their families centre stage, while recognising that they will have different views and needs—I have learned that during my first couple of weeks in the role. One of the most powerful meetings I had during my visit to Belfast was with representatives of the families of victims who disappeared during the troubles—they have been described as “the disappeared”. As a result of the peace process, the families I met have had their loved ones returned and have been able to lay them to rest. They told me of not only their pain and trauma, but their desire not to pursue further action against those responsible. However, I am acutely aware that some families have still not experienced similar closure and that others may feel very differently about those responsible. I intend to meet and hear directly from victims and survivors from all backgrounds, as well as from their families and those who care for them. Their stories deserve to be heard and listened to, and their experiences need to be respected, as the right hon. Gentleman said.
After 14 days in my post, I can say that any violence, from whatever source, is to be condemned unequivocally. I would regard anyone who is a victim of violence, intimidation or terror as a victim. If we want to get into a detailed debate about this, I would want some more time in my post so that I can carry out further work and engagement—I have tried to respond as much as I can to my hon. Friend. A big and important part of my job is to spend time with victims and their families to get a sense of how they feel and what the definition of justice means to them. In different circumstances, there can be a different response, so we need to be sensitive to that fact.
A second important principle is that any process must recognise that significant progress can be made without trying to achieve a shared narrative about the past, as achieving such a narrative would be an unrealistic expectation. What is of paramount importance is that nationalists and Unionists learn to respect the equal status and legitimacy of their fellow citizens now and in the future.
The third principle is that while it is, of course, right to consider all options about addressing responsibility and accountability for past wrongdoing, it is also important to say that any process must recognise the rights and responsibilities defined by the European convention on human rights. The convention is clear. It stresses the importance of ensuring justice, truth and reparation in response to violation and abuses, which would require a deep and sensitive understanding of what that would mean for the wishes and expectations of victims and their families.
I have always believed that the public expect politicians, on the whole, to focus primarily on change and the future. However, it is clear that part of securing a better future for Northern Ireland requires us to deal with the unresolved issues of the past, which is why the Haass talks are so important and cannot be allowed either to fail, or to arrive at superficial solutions. Haass has the potential to achieve meaningful transformational change if all political parties, and the UK and Irish Governments, show leadership and seek common ground in the interests of all people of Northern Ireland.
Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that he, his party leader and his party will make a submission to the Haass talks, albeit he has been in his post for only a short period? Will he kindly publish any such submission so that rest of us can be au fait with the requirements of the Labour party?
I am delighted to give the hon. Lady that assurance. I will be meeting Richard Haass next week, or the week after, and we will certainly make any written representations public and ensure that hon. Members are aware of our position.
Just as it would be wrong to minimise the importance of the past, it would be equally mistaken to suggest that that, in itself, is Northern Ireland’s biggest challenge. The greatest challenge is the corrosive cycle of poor educational attainment, worklessness and intergenerational deprivation that continues to afflict far too many families and communities in Northern Ireland. That lethal cocktail has the potential to be the breeding ground for extremists, and for perpetual conflict and instability. Although those issues are primarily the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Executive, the UK Government have a key role to play in pursuing an active industrial strategy to generate jobs and growth, while reflecting on the negative impact that pernicious policies such as the bedroom tax have on the most vulnerable and also would have on Northern Ireland’s block grant.
This year’s disturbances should teach us a number of lessons, one of which is undoubtedly that unfinished business remains in relation to the past. However, we must also reflect on the impact of social and economic inequality, which cannot be allowed to prevail if peace in Northern Ireland is to move from a political accommodation to a society built on genuine reconciliation and mutual respect.
I thank the Democratic Unionist party for today’s two debates, both of which are very important. I pay great tribute to the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson), who has been a friend of mine for many years, for the way in which he introduced the debate. I think that the whole House will have found it extremely moving and very sad when he read out the names, ages and family connections of those murdered 20 years ago today—it really reminds us of what a terrible time in Northern Ireland we have seen. I would like to add my sympathies and condolences to all those who survived that attack and lived with the pain of it—it is unimaginable what they went through then and what they are still going through.
Just last year, I visited Enniskillen with the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) for the 25-year anniversary commemoration of another terrible atrocity. I was in Dundalk the day the bomb went off at Omagh and have since visited Omagh three times. I have also met the families in relation to the events at Kingsmill and Ballymurphy, and the Finucane murder. Terrible though those atrocities were, it is worth remembering that they all took place some time ago and since then enormous progress has been made in Northern Ireland—it is very important to remember that. We have seen Her Majesty the Queen pay an outstanding, historic visit to not only the Republic of Ireland, but to Northern Ireland, when she shook hands with Martin McGuinness and many other people. We have also seen power sharing and several important events in Northern Ireland which have been referred to already: for example, the G8 meeting was held there and Londonderry is the city of culture. There are many tourism opportunities in Northern Ireland, such as Giant’s causeway and the Titanic centre—there are very many reasons to go to Northern Ireland. We have seen so many changes, even just over the years I have been going there.
It is also right to say that challenges remain, however. There is unfinished business in Northern Ireland and sadly it is still, in some ways, a divided society. For example, there are more peace walls there now than there were 10 years ago, which cannot be a good thing. There are still dissidents attempting to murder members of the security forces and, over the summer and during the flag protests at the end of last year, we saw so-called loyalists throwing bricks at police officers. That simply cannot be right.
Much has been done, but this debate is about dealing with the past. How do we deal with the past? Can we ever do it successfully? There has been a call for an inquiry to be held into the Omagh atrocity, and there are powerful arguments for doing so, but there are also people who do not want such an inquiry because it would bring back the pain and rake over the past. It would risk prolonging the pain.
Perhaps the only way to deal with the past is to build a better future. Since 2010, the Select Committee, which I have the honour of chairing, has been concentrating on the future. For example, it has been inquiring into and making recommendations on economic matters such as corporation tax and air passenger duty—which we shall discuss in a short while—in an attempt to cement the peace that has been achieved by building a better economy, and by giving people greater opportunities and allowing them to feel that the peace process has been worth while for them. This is about building a Province that is very different for present and future generations from what it was in the past.
The Select Committee also considers security matters and issues relating to the past. For example, we are meeting Dr Richard Haass next Tuesday to discuss his work. We will also be meeting the Chief Constable and Deputy Chief Constable to discuss the security situation. Shortly after that, we will meet the Secretary of State to discuss all those issues and more.
One issue that the Committee cannot look into in any detail, because it is devolved, is that of education and schooling. I believe, however, that we need to make more progress on integrated education. We need to bring children together at the age of four, rather than separating them and allowing them to live separate lives. We need to show them that there is no difference between a Catholic and a Protestant, and that what differentiates us is the way we behave rather than the labels that are placed on us.
I thank the Chair of my Select Committee for giving way. It is important to remember when we talk about integrated education that many of Northern Ireland’s grammar schools are highly integrated. The idea that the only way of getting Catholics and Protestants to be educated together is through the introduction of integrated schools does not reflect what is actually happening.
I accept that the hon. Lady knows an awful lot about this subject, and I accept her point about grammar schools. She will also be aware, however, of the turmoil surrounding the ability of children to qualify to go to those schools. I suggest that there is still a need to move the general principle of integrated education forward in the wider sense.
My hon. Friend is making a thoughtful speech. I congratulate the Select Committee, which he chairs, on its work. I also congratulate my hon. Friends in the Democratic Unionist party on securing this timely debate. Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the best ways to make progress on burying the past would be for Sinn Fein Members to come to this House and take part in debates such as these? It is a matter of great sadness that they do not do so. I appeal to my hon. Friend to make a plea to that effect—
I thank my hon. Friend for that powerful intervention. That point was also raised earlier, and I agree entirely. I have in fact taken the matter to the very top, in that I have said to Mr Gerry Adams and Mr Martin McGuinness that that is exactly what they should be doing. They should be coming here to argue their case. They travel to Westminster and hold meetings here in this building, but they will not come to the Chamber to discuss these issues. They are not serving the people of Northern Ireland very well by pursuing that abstentionist policy. Almost a third of the Province is unrepresented here in this Chamber, which is a tragedy for the people of Northern Ireland, regardless of whether they are republicans or Unionists.
As a fellow member of the Northern Ireland Select Committee, I congratulate my hon. Friend on the way in which he chairs it. Does he agree that we have begun to make progress, in that Sinn Fein has started to attend some meetings of the Select Committee, including when we are in Belfast? We have opened a dialogue of some sort. We have much further to go, but that will be down to my hon. Friend’s activities as well.
I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. It is true that Sinn Fein has started to give formal evidence to the Select Committee, and I regard that as progress. Despite what I just said in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South (Mr Binley), I must point out that these things sometimes take a little while. There has been progress in that respect, as my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) says, and I hope that it will continue because I see it as a positive move. It is sensible for Sinn Fein to make that move, but there are still a number of steps that it will have to take.
I was talking about integrated education, and I am very keen on that concept. I attended a Church of England secondary school, and I am proud to have done so, but I must point out that Bolton in Lancashire is very different from West Belfast—as you will know, Mr Deputy Speaker—and presents very different challenges. I want to see a society in Northern Ireland in which peace walls are no longer required, and in which we stop counting and publishing the percentages of Catholics and Protestants in organisations. We need to reach a point at which that does not matter.
We must move towards a society in which, rather than segregating children almost at birth, we teach them to live together. That is the way to achieve a shared future, because a shared future involves sharing institutions and sharing lives. The peaceful future that we all want to build in Northern Ireland will not be secured through treaties or international agreements; it will be secured through changing hearts and minds. That is something that we must try to work towards.
I have mentioned the violence in Northern Ireland over the summer and at the end of last year. I was there during the marches in mid-July, and I witnessed many thousands of people celebrating their culture. There was not a single problem among all those thousands of people. Of course, as ever, the 0.1% did cause problems and, unfortunately, those are the pictures that get flashed across the world. The Select Committee visited America a few months ago, and the people we spoke to told us how disconcerting it was to see the pictures of the flag protests and of the problems relating to marches. We had to point out to them that the problems were due to that 0.1% of the people. Unfortunately, however, those pictures that are flashed across the world lose revenue for Northern Ireland. They lose us tourists and inward investment, and that cannot be right. Those acts of violence cannot be right, whether they are the result of political ambitions related to republicanism or loyalism or the result of pure thuggery, which I suggest some of them were.
Either way, we have to move forward and try to build a better Northern Ireland, so that this generation and future generations do not suffer as those in the past have done, in the ways that my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley so graphically described earlier. To summarise, perhaps we can best deal with the past only by building a better future.
It is good to follow the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), and I congratulate him on the good work he has done as Chairman of the Northern Ireland Select Committee.
It was L. P. Hartley who famously said of the past that it is
“a foreign country: they do things differently there.”
He was right in the sense that we should learn from past mistakes, either as individuals or collectively as a community, in order to ensure that they are not passed down to be repeated by a further generation. Perhaps because of the immediacy of the troubles in Northern Ireland, however, we have not yet reached the stage where we can describe the past as another country or as something foreign; it is not. There are tens of thousands of people, including hundreds of my own constituents, who live with the trauma caused by past events. They have lost loved ones—fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives—to the conflict, and that legacy of hurt is enduring, despite the progress made over the last decade or so. We owe it to our fellow citizens to ensure that they are at the heart of the transformation process that our society is undertaking. They cannot be left behind.
In every sphere of life, people see things from different perspectives. If we ask two people to describe an event they both witnessed, we will often get two very different descriptions of it. If we did not, there would be no need for football commentators or current affairs television shows. This is especially the case in historical debate and discussion.
When the premier of the People’s Republic of China, whose name I will not try to pronounce, was asked about the impact of the French revolution, he famously declared that it was “too early to say”—some 200 years after the event. We were tasked with addressing issues that happened within the living memory of most people in Northern Ireland. History is, and always will be, a contested field, and there will never be any agreed interpretation of historical events. This is the case in every society. In that regard, Northern Ireland is no different.
Although there are differences of emphasis and differences of approach to the interpretation of past events that occurred in Northern Ireland, I believe it essential to establish a basic framework of first principles. Truth is not a relative concept; it exists independently of historical visions or approaches. Without the establishment and widespread acceptance of such truth, we cannot adequately hope to address the legacy of pain and suffering that still exist in our society as a consequence of past events.
The first and most obvious statement of truth is that not everyone in Northern Ireland is a victim. There are some who would seek to claim that every single person in our country is a victim. That is an insidious concept for two reasons. First, it diminishes the genuine suffering and pain of those who were directly affected by the actions of terrorists during the troubles. Secondly, it elevates those who engaged in criminal acts to equal status with those whose suffering they caused in the first place. Terrorists of whatever variety or hue do not exist on the same moral plane as those whom they terrorised. They cannot ever enjoy such standing.
Secondly, although general attitudes in society shape people’s outlook and perspective, we must accept that people are ultimately individuals and that, as such, they must be responsible for their individual actions. Society, even one as divided and conflict-riven as Northern Ireland was, did not make people engage in murder or other such crimes. While we are not all victims, we are also not all collectively responsible for the actions of terrorists. No one made Sean Kelly and Thomas Begley plant a bomb on the Shankill road that murdered nine innocent people, as we have already heard, and ultimately cost Mr Begley his own life. That applies to any other atrocity carried out by either side of the community in Northern Ireland. To latch on to the concept of society and to use it to justify such barbaric acts is a measure designed only to placate the conscience of evil people and to lay the blame for their actions at the door of the huge majority of the citizens of Northern Ireland. That is much like a wife-beater saying that his unfortunate spouse made him do it. For terrorists to blame society is a lazy get-out clause, with no moral basis at all.
The third principle we must adhere to is that those who engaged in armed insurrection against the state are in no position to demand the recovery of openness and truth from anyone while they lie about what they did. We have reached the absurd point in Northern Ireland today where the President of Sinn Fein would seek to deny he ever was a member of the Provisional IRA, yet would then with a straight face demand truth and honesty from the state. People cannot lie through their teeth while at the same time demanding truth. It is time that Sinn Fein grew up and accepted the fact that they will never—I say never—be allowed to rewrite the history of Northern Ireland.
You will be aware, Mr Deputy Speaker, that the intensive talks process involving Dr Richard Haass is currently under way in the Province. I suspect that of all the challenges he faces, dealing with the legacy of the past will be the greatest, but I believe it is essential that we do so in a way that is victim-centred and founded on principles that are rooted in justice, honesty and the truth.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson), along with his Democratic Unionist colleagues, on securing the debate. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis) on his new post as shadow Front-Bench spokesman on Northern Ireland. I have to say that I hope he will have his shadow job for a very long time, but only because it would help him to gain a better understanding of what happens in Northern Ireland. I have been a member of the Northern Ireland Select Committee for the last three years, and I certainly think I have a better understanding now than I did beforehand. Let me also pay tribute to the previous Minister of State in the Northern Ireland Office, who has now gone to the Department for Work and Pensions. He was incredibly helpful to me and did a very good job. I know that his successor, the former Defence Minister, will do an equally good job.
As I have said, I have been a member of the Northern Ireland Select Committee for the last three years, so I have been able to see first hand some of the real problems that confront many families, having been through the experience of seeing their loved ones killed, murdered or maimed. I attended a number of meetings with such families and I was particularly struck by our meeting with the victims of Kingsmill—a horrendous story. While visiting Northern Ireland, I took the opportunity to look at some of the paperwork from historic inquests. Reading some of these accounts of what happened—there were lots of them—was incredibly moving.
I want to pay tribute to the armed forces—of course, I would do that, because I represent a constituency that is a naval garrison city—and to the Royal Marines, who have certainly given their lives in support of ensuring peace in Northern Ireland.
Speaking as an ex-member of the armed forces who frequently went to Northern Ireland, I would like to pay full tribute to those people wearing uniforms who lived in Northern Ireland and who had to leave their families behind as they went out, day after day, to do their duty. Risk is something that we normally do not have to deal with, but the courage of people in the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the Ulster Defence Regiment or the Police Service of Northern Ireland was quite breathtaking.
I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman.
The riots in Northern Ireland were one of the main stories during the summer, along with the flags issue. I welcome Dr Haass’s efforts to find solutions, because I found the riots quite appalling. On 12 July last year I visited Belfast and saw the loyalist parade that was taking place. I learned a great deal from all that. I witnessed some of the marching at first hand, and observed that a number of Roman Catholics and nationalists found it difficult to accept.
If we are to find a solution to the past, we must recognise that Northern Ireland now has a devolved Assembly with its own responsibilities. One of the problems that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State may encounter is the difficulty of ensuring that she does not tread too much on what the devolved Assembly and the devolved Executive are seeking to do.
A key issue is the feeling among some of those aged between 16 and 24 that they are not really involved in the peace process. They do not understand it, and they do not have a sense of engagement with it. They are the NEETs—those who are not in education, employment or training. My hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), who is an excellent chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, made a serious point about the importance of improving education and skills, and it is in that connection that I have argued in the Committee that it is time for a review of the progress made following the Belfast agreement, or Good Friday agreement. I hope that Dr Haass will conduct such a review, because it is the only way in which we shall be able to reach some conclusions about what else may happen. Before I was elected to the House, I ran a small public relations company which advised developers on how to obtain help with public consultation. I think there is a very big job to be done—the job of engaging with small, deprived communities in order to understand what they are up to. We need to think about the likely impact on those youngsters.
Another key issue is the need to rebalance the Northern Irish economy. A good 70% to 80% of people still work in the public sector, and I am sure that they do an extremely good job, but I think that unless more people in the private sector invest in the economy, things will be very difficult. It is important for us to create opportunities and jobs if we can possibly do so.
We must retain our commitment to striving for peace. I strongly support the peace campaign, and also the work done by both Tony Blair and, more importantly, John Major, who kicked off the whole peace process. Before I became a member of the Select Committee, I was very much aware of what was going on in South Africa, where there was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. That would not work in this instance, because many people would feel intimidated by the idea of becoming involved in such a process, and would fear for their own futures.
I believe that we need to expand the university technical colleges, which are working very well; there is one in my constituency. We also need to increase the amount of development, and to encourage the Americans to invest in Northern Ireland, so that we can create private sector jobs and bring about aspiration and hope.
I thank those who tabled the motion for giving us the opportunity to discuss this subject today. I should like to think that the debate will lay some foundations for the work of Dr Haass and Meghan O’Sullivan.
Let me begin by endorsing the honest comments of the Rev. David Clements, who said this morning that neither the past nor victims should be used by anyone to advance a selfish political agenda. Let me also draw Members’ attention, as others have done already, to the fact that today is the 20th anniversary of one of the most horrific events of the troubles. I offer my sympathy, and the unconditional sympathy and support of the SDLP, to all the innocent people who were killed in that horrific Shankill road bombing.
Dr Richard Haass has, in essence, been invited to help us to sort out critically important unfinished business dating back to the time of the Good Friday agreement, more than 15 years ago. We are grateful to him and his team for agreeing to help us. Our failure to grasp the issues of flags, parading and the past has cost us dear, summer in and summer out, year in and year out, during most of those 15 years.
The SDLP’s firm goal in the Haass negotiations is a further comprehensive agreement that would grab the imagination of people in Northern Ireland—and, indeed, further afield—and would inspire hope and create ambition for the future. Not least, such an agreement would send a resounding message to potential investors that Northern Ireland is an even more secure and stable place to which to bring business, thus creating the jobs and prosperity that we dearly need. A piecemeal, temporary, cobbled-together agreement would sell Northern Ireland short and dash the hopes of our people, who look to us, the politicians, to deliver meaningful change.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that real progress was made 10 years ago in Derry/Londonderry, when both communities worked together to ensure that parades in that great town did not cause the strife and difficulties they are causing in Belfast?
I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman. All the difficulties have been resolved in Derry. Everything is now a celebration, and the contention surrounding the parades has gone. Derry’s month as UK City of Culture has been an outstanding success story. I congratulate the people of Derry, and, indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), who represents them.
We in the SDLP seek from Dr Haass—in broad terms—a bigger and better agreement. We want an agreement that transcends the narrow issues of parades and flags, and addresses the past in an expansive way; an agreement that celebrates rather than denigrates the expression of culture, allegiance and political identity across the communities in Northern Ireland; an agreement that promotes healing and reconciliation, and enables us to grow up politically and develop mature politics in the atmosphere of growing mutual respect that was promised in the Good Friday agreement, after which—in 1998—the people voted for
“reconciliation, tolerance and mutual trust”
“partnership, equality and mutual respect”.
Only a radical change of attitude all round that embraces the values and ambitions of that agreement will deliver the successful outcome that Northern Ireland needs so much. Surely, given ambition, flexibility and resolve, that much is not beyond our reach. We in the SDLP are up for the challenge posed by Dr Haass and Professor Meghan O’Sullivan.
In recent weeks—I put my hand up at this point, as indeed we all must, because we have all made mistakes and must now join others in making progress—we have sought to make our small contribution to the healing process by addressing an issue that has been raised in the House from time to time. Some months ago, our councillors in Newry voted to retain the name of a local play park that the council had named after an IRA hunger striker 10 years earlier. Our councillors genuinely believed that if the name were allowed to remain, a line would be drawn in the sand and no other public spaces would be similarly named in future. In local terms, perhaps, that was a pragmatic decision—it was, perhaps, understandable in terms of local government. Our representatives acted entirely in good faith. They reassured me, one and all, that it was neither in their thinking nor was it their intention to cause hurt or distress to anyone. I want now to reaffirm the SDLP’s position. Our position is that no public place or public space should be named after any person involved in state or paramilitary violence of any sort.
The issues addressed in the Haass process can be resolved only on the basis of mutual respect, equality and parity of esteem. The SDLP will not be found wanting in generosity or determination to bring about a comprehensive agreement that will be an example to divided communities everywhere. The atmosphere for these talks would be greatly improved, and Belfast traders would breathe a huge sigh of relief, if the loyalist flag protesters called off their planned demonstrations in the city in the run-up to Christmas and if the Orange Order agreed to call a halt to its continuing irresponsible protests at Ardoyne, which are resulting in a policing operation that the PSNI estimates is costing £50,000 a day—which amounts to £5 million over the period. That would have paid for 200 or more young teachers, 200 nurses and perhaps even 200 extra police that we so badly need
The point the hon. Gentleman makes about the economy is an important one. Is it not therefore a matter of regret—this is not an issue for this House but it is nevertheless worth placing on the record—that yesterday the Minister for the Environment, who belongs to the SDLP, refused to move a Bill that could transform our planning system and help attract a lot more investment into Northern Ireland? Should not the SDLP act on its own words?
At this point, may I welcome you, Madam Deputy Speaker, to your place and say what a privilege it is to speak in this Chamber under your chairmanship?
I will respond later to the comment that was just made, because it is a clear example of what is wrong, rather than what is right.
The past is a more intractable and complex issue than flags and parades and it casts a long shadow in Northern Ireland. By far the best and most coherent blueprint for tackling the past is the report of Lord Eames and Denis Bradley. The group jointly chaired by Lord Eames and Denis Bradley carried out an immense amount of work, publishing a report that ran to almost 200 pages and carried more than 30 main recommendations. It is unacceptable that such a balanced and carefully considered document should apparently be forgotten—gathering dust on a shelf somewhere—because of the controversy that attached to one of its recommendations in relation to ex gratia payments. The SDLP believes Eames-Bradley still has much to commend it. All would benefit from giving it the reconsideration it has well-earned and is due, while, of course, bringing additional ideas of their own to the table.
There are many among us who would wish to forget the past, but there are many victims out there whose lives have been wrecked and who cannot move on without closure.
Nearly 20 years ago six people from my constituency of South Down were murdered in cold blood at O’Toole’s bar in Loughinisland, and nearly 20 years later the victims and families of those six good men have still not received justice or an answer as to why they were killed, and those who carried out this heinous crime have still not been brought to justice. Does my hon. Friend agree that the PSNI must now complete its investigation, based on the work of the former police ombudsman, so that families have a pathway to justice and truth?
I agree with my hon. Friend. [Interruption.] I also agree with others who are whispering from a sedentary position that there are many victims out there whose lives have been wrecked and who cannot move on without closure and without answers. I do not distinguish between people based on what their politics were or what their religion was: innocent victims are innocent victims.
Unfortunately, time and again the past comes back to haunt us. I am told that this evening “Channel 4 News” will bring us some horrible truths about the past in Northern Ireland, and on Friday a book will be published called “Lethal Allies”, chronicling some of the criminal collusions between renegade elements of the security forces and loyalist killers. I am given to believe that, among its revelations, it will throw some light on the horrific murder of a former colleague of mine, Dinny Mullen. Dinny was the father of my friend and colleague, Denise Fox. Dinny was targeted and murdered in his own home because he was an SDLP activist. His crime was that he was the election agent for my colleague, Seamus Mallon, a former Member of this House.
There is a murky past out there, and while I must put on record my view that the vast majority of the members of the RUC—as the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) said earlier—and the security forces, including many who are now Members of this House, served with integrity, honour and distinction, a small number of others acted in the shadows and they dishonoured that honourable vast majority. They acted in a way that was no better than those they were attempting to oppose—the terrorists they were challenging. They acted well outside the law, and lines of accountability were blurred and, indeed, ignored. They acted directly and indirectly in acts of terrorism. The gang that murdered Dinny Mullen went on within a short space of time, and with little challenge by police or security forces, to murder well in excess of 100 people, including members of the Miami show band. We need to get closure on a lot of these issues.
I want to say a few words about the two Government co-guarantors and about an earlier point that was made. The British and Irish Governments, who are co-guarantors of the Good Friday agreement, must be bold, decisive and vigilant in standing up to the narrow self-interest of the DUP and Sinn Fein, which the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) referred to. The DUP and Sinn Fein made a savage attack on what was otherwise a very positive and creative planning Bill. They tried to hollow it out and destroy it, and the Minister responsible had no choice but to dismantle it. This was petty party self-interest to destroy the Bill.
The two Governments must remain centrally involved in the Haass process and be prepared to underwrite the comprehensive agreement that I hope we will have, with good will and mutual respect. I compliment Peter Robinson, leader of the DUP, on what he has said in two recent very significant recent speeches. With attitudes such as that, we can achieve a further agreement and achieve peace.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I thank the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) and his party colleagues for introducing this important debate. As they know, I am half-Northern Irish and have made many visits to Northern Ireland ever since I was a child—since the beginning of the troubles. I share the right hon. Gentleman’s profound belief that we have to manage the past properly and fairly if we are ever to have a positive future. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), who made a very thoughtful contribution. I agree that we must try to move forward in a much more inclusive way if Northern Ireland is ever to have the wonderful, prosperous and peaceful future that all of us in the House wish for it.
Having said that, in Northern Ireland the past is always a challenge. Although I am only half-Northern Irish—and half-English—I know that it is an incredibly delicate area to tread in, and I also know that that is one of the reasons why there have been so many piecemeal attempts to try to get on top of the past. In some ways, I think that Northern Ireland has succeeded. When compared with the situation of only a few years ago, the recent progress has been substantial, but the complexity of Northern Ireland, its past and the troubles cannot be resolved easily or simply, because otherwise that would have happened many years ago under the previous Government. Strong movement in one direction tends greatly to upset people on the other side of the divide.
A good example of that, to which the hon. Member for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell) alluded, was the Eames-Bradley report, which I thought was outstanding, detailed and fair. It tried honourably to address the immense complexity of the sectarian divide, but we all know the result: it was shelved, ostensibly for one reason. My personal view is that that reason was used as an excuse to shelve the whole report, which was disappointing. However, the report is still in a drawer somewhere in Whitehall, so perhaps one day we can bring it out, re-evaluate it and use much of its learning, because the Eames-Bradley report was a good way forward.
On the one hand, I am optimistic about the Haass initiative, which I think is a good, positive step. On the other hand, however, I am slightly depressed about it because Dr Richard Haass’s consultation has come about because we have yet again reached an impasse. My hon. Friends from Northern Ireland will know that “impasse” is a French word, and impasse may be a common occurrence in Northern Ireland, for the reasons that we know. I am glad that the five political parties have endorsed and supported Haass. After he has spoken to people, including the Secretary of State and the shadow Secretary of State, but more importantly the political parties in Northern Ireland, and his group presents some recommendations, I am pretty sure that not everyone will agree with all of them, as the day when that is not the case in Northern Ireland will be the day the Liberals sweep to sunny uplands and have a majority in government. That will take a few years yet; I like to be an optimist—I am a Liberal. However, I hope that when Haass’s recommendations come forward, we will engage with them properly and seriously.
First, may I congratulate our newest Deputy Speaker? I am delighted to see you in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker.
May I double-check something with the hon. Gentleman, as I did with the shadow Secretary of State? Will the Lib Dem wing of the coalition Government make a separate submission to the Haass talks? If so, will the hon. Gentleman confirm that it will be published?
The hon. Lady raises an important point. The honest truth is that we are still considering the matter, but if we make a separate submission, it certainly will be made public. I sound as though I might be obfuscating only because I am not entirely sure that, separate from our colleagues in the coalition Government, we would have anything productive to say, but I promise her that if we do make a submission, it will be made public.
When we receive the Haass report, I hope and trust that all of us in the House, and particularly in Northern Ireland, will do what is necessary to move forward on key and extremely difficult issues. As I am someone who perhaps is not as steeped in the issues as some hon. Members from Northern Ireland, I imagine that there would be nothing more irritating than for me to pretend that those issues were anything other than challenging and complicated.
I was struck by a recent quote from Amnesty International. I do not always agree with everything that Amnesty says, even though I have been a member for around 30 years. I would, however, like to repeat some comments from Amnesty International so that they will be recorded in Hansard because I think that they sum up the problem. Amnesty International says:
“the piecemeal approach to investigations adopted in Northern Ireland is too diffuse and too incomplete to provide a comprehensive picture of all the violations and abuses that occurred during the decades of political violence. Inherent limitations within the mechanisms…have meant that much of the truth remains hidden while those in positions of responsibility have remained shielded. It has also contributed to a failure to develop a shared public understanding and recognition of the abuses committed by all sides.”
Without in any way taking sides, I believe that that is a true statement. From my relatives and my relatives’ friends from both sides of the divide, I know well that in the Northern Ireland that I love so much, there is often a lack of understanding and appreciation, and a sense of “more evil was done to us than to you”. As someone who has one foot in Northern Ireland and one foot outside, my observation is that both sides in their own way are right and both sides in their own way are wrong. That is the tragedy, and that is why I tread delicately but sincerely. I treat with profound seriousness the shadow role on Northern Ireland that I have in my party. I profoundly respect the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley and his party for calling this debate as it has demonstrated the strengths and weaknesses of the whole challenge in Northern Ireland.
I hope that the Haass report will move matters forward. As an observer, I think that the impasse has hit the Executive—and has done so for a while. It may equally have affected our own Government. We have got stuck, and that is unfortunate, but I hope that the Haass consultation, which will see him and his group talking to all the key individuals and parties in Northern Ireland, will lead to progress.
Finally, I pay tribute to the Royal Ulster Constabulary. The RUC and the security services had an incredibly difficult role, but they played an incredibly important part in ultimately defeating terrorism. The Royal Ulster Constabulary was not perfect in every way and the security services were not perfect. Mistakes were made and a tiny proportion of people clearly worked in the shadows, but overall, without the bravery of the RUC and the security services, Northern Ireland would have lost to terrorism, and that would have been wrong. Both my uncle and my grandfather were in the RUC, and my uncle survived a couple of assassination attempts. That demonstrates the importance of this debate and the importance of Northern Ireland, because while my uncle and grandfather were Catholic, the paradox is that, on the one hand, the IRA tried to blow them up a couple of times and, on the other hand, a section of the Loyalists would not trust them as far as they could throw them. That sums up the challenges facing us in Northern Ireland.
I hope that a positive and productive debate such as this, and moving forward in the way that my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury outlined, leading towards the Haass discussions, will mean that, within the next few months, Northern Ireland will begin to move forward from the past in a more positive way. It is timely and necessary, and the blockage should come to an end.
It is a pleasure to see you occupy the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I wish you great wisdom as you give leadership to the House.
I thank my colleagues for tabling the motion at a time when many of our fellow citizens are gathering with my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) to remember the tragedy of the Shankill bombing 20 years ago today. On that day, many innocent lives were lost because of the atrocity committed by the Provisional IRA.
I acknowledge that Dr Richard Haass and Professor Meghan O’Sullivan have been given the task of seeking a way forward on a number of important issues that have divided our community for years, and I know that the House wishes them well in their endeavours. Today, however, my colleagues and I believe that there are issues that cannot be airbrushed out of existence, as some would wish, as if they had never happened. Nor must we let Sinn Fein and its republican fellow travellers rewrite the narrative of our troubled past in Northern Ireland.
I pay tribute to the thousands of men and women who donned the uniform and stood in the gap between community and anarchy throughout the long years of IRA terror. Those soldiers who patrolled the roads of Ulster over the years, alongside the RUC/RUCR, GC, USC, UDR and RIR, did so with valour and distinction. They rightly deserve our deep gratitude, having faced gangsters and thugs who reigned over 30 years of terror on a law-abiding population. We must never forget the sacrifice of our security forces and their bravery. We must also never forget the sacrifice of their families—mothers and fathers, sons and daughters—who anxiously waited, hoping that their loved ones would return home safely—alas, many of them did not.
The deep sense of loss still felt in the hearts of many innocent victims of violence across our Province today is raw, and no one except those who have walked this dark and lonely path can understand the pain. But this anguish has been made worse by the coat-trailing exercises of the republican movement, and Sinn Fein in particular, over recent months. The leader of my party has on many occasions gone out on a limb, seeking to reach the hand of friendship to nationalists and republicans in an effort to build a stronger community spirit and give the generations to come a better future and a prosperous Province of which we can all be proud. But, sadly, many Sinn Fein representatives just cannot leave their failed past, while others pretend they have—that is, of course, until the mask slips. Yes, some politicians speak piously of a shared future, but in reality the proof is that they cannot bear to see Orange feet walk the Queen’s highway. They cannot even share a road in Belfast or Portadown for a few minutes to allow a small contingent of Orangemen to walk home after a day when Protestants celebrate their culture. The reality is that when we scrape beneath the surface, we find that the old leopard has not changed his spots.
As Mr Robinson sought to build a peaceful future, Sinn Fein representatives such as Gerry Kelly defied the law by hanging on to police Land Rovers in north Belfast, and on another occasion, they celebrated the escape from the Maze prison, in which a prison officer was murdered. Sinn Fein coat-trailed through Castlederg and north Belfast, lauding as heroes those who blew themselves up with their own bombs, leaving a trail of innocent blood across the Province. Today people gather to remember the slaughter of the innocent on the Shankill, but no world attention will be focused on this event of course: they were only Protestants—innocent men, women and children, slaughtered by the blatantly sectarian IRA.
In reality, the authorities here on the mainland, as well as international Governments, have granted favoured status to those who murdered and maimed, while the law-abiding people of Northern Ireland were left to suffer and then told simply to move on. The Prime Minister made an apology to the families in Londonderry. The media spent hours of air time propagating one single event in the history of our Province just as if no one else had endured any injustice over the years of turmoil and trouble. No apology has been given to the law-abiding Unionist majority for the years they were plagued with IRA terrorism. I have no doubt that our security forces were well able to crush these terrorists, but political expedience would not allow them to do so. We are expected, and were expected, to suffer in silence, while world leaders kowtowed to, and wined and dined, Adams and McGuinness. Over the years, I have wept and comforted many families of innocent victims, and I carry in my heart deep wounds because of what the IRA has done. However, if we allow hatred and bitterness to take over our lives, we destroy ourselves and allow the enemy a victory over us.
The IRA were terrorists, formed as an organisation with the aim of removing the British from Northern Ireland and bringing about the unification of Ireland by force. They were doomed to fail, not because the Governments of the day stood up for the rights of the people, but because tens of thousands of ordinary people were determined to remain part of the United Kingdom and exercised their democratic right accordingly. Do not forget that Ministers from the Fianna Fail governing party in the Irish Republic diverted funds intended as emergency aid illegally to import weapons directly for the provos. Surely it is time for an unreserved apology from the Prime Minister of the Irish Republic for the actions of a former Government who helped to spawn and support IRA terrorist gangs. An apology from the Irish Republic’s Government would go some distance to assure the Unionist community that the pain of innocent victims of terror has been recognised. How long we will have to wait for such an apology, I do not know, but time will tell.
The Provisional IRA was responsible for the deaths of 1,706 people up to 2001. Of those, 497 were civilian casualties, 183 were members of the UDR, 455 came from regiments of the British Army and 271 were members of the RUC. Of its victims, 340 were Northern Ireland Roman Catholics, 794 were Northern Ireland Protestants, and 572 were not from Northern Ireland. The university of Ulster also states that the IRA lost 276 members during the troubles. However, in 132 of those cases, IRA members either caused their own deaths as a result of hunger strikes, premature bombing accidents and so on, or were murdered due to allegations of having worked for the security forces.
Let me put the record straight in the House. The IRA was not fighting a just war, but through bombings, assassinations, kidnappings, punishment beatings of civilians, torture, extortion, robberies, racketeering and so on, it forced successive British Governments into endless concessions. Those who were involved in terrorism should be called terrorists and must not be granted a similar status to those they terrorised, irrespective of what part of the community they come from. The IRA terrorist made a deliberate choice to join a terrorist organisation. Their victims and the families are worthy of justice, but their chance of getting that seems small. If the IRA claims it was a war, Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and Martin Ferris whom, on 20 February 2005, the then Justice Minister of the Irish Republic, Mr Michael McDowell, publicly named as members of the IRA army council, should be hauled before the war crimes tribunal for their acts of brutal crimes against humanity.
Some suggest that a truth commission should be enough to satisfy the innocent victims, but what would that achieve? When asked about his terrorist past, Gerry Adams looked into the camera and quietly, brazenly denied that he had ever been in the IRA. Martin McGuinness was exposed by the report into the events in Londonderry, but he told the Saville inquiry:
“I wish to make it clear that I will not provide the Inquiry with the identities of other members of the IRA on 30th January 1972 or confirm the roles played by such persons whose names are written down and shown to me...As a Republican I am simply not prepared to give such information.”
Yet that same person had the audacity and the cheek to welcome the £192 million report into Bloody Sunday pointing the finger at soldiers while dismissing the findings of the same report in regard to his being identified as having a submachine gun in Londonderry. Now they talk about prosecuting soldiers who put their necks on the line to preserve life in Northern Ireland, yet those others are lauded and applauded worldwide.
There will be no films or documentaries made about the Shankill bomb, even though there have been bloody Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays that must never be forgotten by this House. We must ask: why did the innocent have to die on Ulster soil? Was it because there was an acceptable level of violence, as was said, or because, as a previous Prime Minister said, his Government had no strategic interest in Northern Ireland?
We need closure, but we must not allow republicans to rewrite history or romanticise their murderous campaign. No one can understand the nightmare that the people of Northern Ireland have been through. They were terrorised in their kitchens and bedrooms, while walking on the streets as they went to restaurants and hotels, or while worshiping in their churches. They left their children in the morning not knowing whether they would ever come home to see them again in the evening. We lived through that. It was reality. We need the truth; we need justice. No one should be too high or mighty to escape the rule of law.
Like other Members, I want to say how pleased I am to be here today under your chairmanship, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I obviously cannot agree with all the terms and tone of the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea), but I share his strong sense of solidarity with those gathered today in sombre commemoration of the terrible Shankill bombing. Equally, we will all lend our solidarity to those families who go through next week’s anniversary of the Greysteel attack, and all the others who lost loved ones, sometimes in lonely deaths that are not remembered in the commemorations of the landmark atrocities of the troubles, because they, too, have their feelings touched or stirred by commemorations such as today’s and by debates such as this. I also concur with him completely on the need to repudiate any pretence that some sort of claim about a just war can be made in relation to the IRA campaign, or indeed any other campaign of republican violence over recent decades.
It is supposed to be a Russian proverb that to dwell on the past is to lose an eye, but to forget the past is to lose both eyes. That is why we must properly acknowledge and address issues of the past. It is not enough, as some people sometimes suggest, to draw a line under the past and move on, or just to find some glib form of closure. Too many people are burdened by the past, carrying hurt and feelings that are all too present. They cannot just decide that they are well adjusted victims and move on when they are confronted with denial about what actually happened to them and about the nature of the crimes committed against them, their loved ones or their community. In those circumstances, we cannot treat victims as though some are well adjusted and some are badly adjusted because of where they are on the reconciliation scale according to some commentator or other.
We have to confront the past properly if it is not to be repeated. We currently have a group of dissidents who are basically happy to say that they are continuing the methods and principles of struggle pursued by the Provisional IRA. Thankfully, many of those who were involved in the Provisional IRA now choose to repudiate and reject the violence pursued by these dissidents, but it is important that current and future generations know the truth about the nature of the Provisional IRA campaign. Those who were involved in the Provisional IRA cannot give themselves some sort of moral superiority over the violence carried out by today’s dissidents, which is targeted in the same vicious and reckless way.
Other hon. Members—I want to acknowledge the opening statement by the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) in particular—talked about the breakdown of victims in that sense, but it was also important that he read out the names, particularly the names of those whose deaths are being commemorated today, so that we remember not only the numbers, but the “whoness” of those people. They were loved and loving members of families and communities. That needs to be remembered as well.
My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell) referred to the fact that the Pat Finucane Centre will soon publish a book called “Lethal Allies” by Anne Cadwallader, which looks at some very dark aspects of the troubles. It relates to a number of cases—10 in particular—that have been investigated by the Historical Enquiries Team, but the reports have never been made public because the HET reports are offered as the private property of the families. That is a weakness that I think we need to address. I agree with the point the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd) made, picking up from Amnesty International. That is one of the reasons why I tabled amendments to the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill to give the Secretary of State new powers and new responsibilities to do more to consolidate the value of the HET’s work and draw on its work. It should not just be left to the Pat Finucane Centre or somebody else who happens to have had the reports shared with them. That is something that we, as a Parliament, should take more responsibility for. The truth about many of those deaths and murders is coming out now in different ways, but the fact is that here in this House untruths were told about many of those deaths and murders. The claims of my colleagues Seamus Mallon, John Hume, Joe Hendron and Eddie McGrady about the dirty war, and our concerns about intelligence not being properly shared or used, about people not being apprehended and about collusion, were all denied. But the truth shone through in the De Silva report on the Finucane murder and it will shine through in the book I mentioned as well.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast South said, some of the victims were targeted by loyalist gangs, which included some members who served concurrently in the security forces. Those victims were targeted not because they were involved in the IRA or anything else, but because they were obviously seen as uppity Fenians—they had been associated with the civil rights movement, were involved in the SDLP, were buying property and developing businesses, so they were put down. It is clear that the people specifically targeted in their homes and cars came into that class. Others, of course—including members of the security forces themselves—were more randomly targeted.
Other Members have paid tribute to members of the security forces. Let us remember that some of those lost their lives in attacks that could have been prevented had intelligence been shared and acted on. However, there was a warped game going on, in which some inside the security forces—particularly in the intelligence services—put the long war intelligence game ahead of the immediate protection of the lives of civilians and members of the security forces.
Collusion was not just something whereby agents of the state allowed loyalist attacks to happen; they also allowed republican attacks and servants of the state and people in the community to be killed. That truth needs to be told. If we do not have the truth about the dirty war, we will be settling for a dirty peace. If we do not have the truth about the viciousness and nastiness of all the violence that took place from all the paramilitaries, we will be selling future generations a false narrative about the experience of the past.
I was amazed to be told by a young man in my own city that the IRA only ever killed so-called “legitimate targets”—only those in the security forces and only in the high heat of active service incidents. That, of course, is completely untrue. It is one of the reasons why we need a proper truth process about the past to spell things out. Will we get the truth from the victim makers? No, but we need at least to gather and consolidate the truth from the victims. They need to know that their truth will be remembered and acknowledged. They must not die with the burden of remembrance heavy on their shoulders, as it is for too many of them.
We have to resolve the issue with a proper framework for dealing with the past. It will not be a one-size-fits-all approach, and it will mean that we politicians have to face up to our failures on this issue. Ever since the Good Friday agreement, every time there were talks and an impasse, both my party and I made proposals about the need to address the past. We were constantly faced with evasion, both from the two Governments and from other parties.
As I was told by the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy), the Secretary of State at the time, the reason why there was nothing in the 2003 talks in Hillsborough for victims and the past was that both Sinn Fein and the Ulster Unionist party were absolutely clear that there should not be. The past was not to be touched and there was to be nothing for victims in that deal, which was meant to be a breakthrough.
There was a good speech from the Opposition Front Bench today, but we need to remember that the last Government produced the most insulting effort on the past that anyone could have—the Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill. We were told by the then Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain), that the Bill was about bringing closure, but it would have given all sorts of secret immunity certificates to all sorts of people. In fact, the only people who might have been prosecuted or sent to jail for any past crimes in Northern Ireland would have been any journalists or victims who reported or speculated on those who might have got one of those certificates, who might have been at a tribunal and what might have been involved. That was a gross insult.
I think that the Haass process really does give us another chance. At least the parties are gathered together and we are engaged in a process. Previously we have been arguing about whether there should be a process or the shape of it. People resiled from the very good recommendations in Eames Bradley, and I think that the Haass process will look at those. The HET has already done good work in a lot of areas, but it has not been consolidated and built up. A lot of good and strong recommendations in Eames Bradley need to be revised and revisited.
There is also very good work going on in the cultural sector. I think of Theatre of Witness, which has done so much to portray the true stories and experiences of people, whether loyalists, republicans, innocent victims, members of the security forces, prison staff, or whoever. Those true stories are all brought together compellingly, not in any controlled or contrived balance but in a very powerful and emotional way. That is a strong way of helping to discharge us from the past so that people can see truth instead of injustice and reconciliation instead of retribution.
I congratulate you, Madam Deputy Speaker, on achieving your position and wish you well in your job for the future.
I also congratulate the shadow Secretary of State and welcome him to his new post. He is only 14 days into the job and already finding his way in what could be a very difficult portfolio. We are a bit disappointed that the shadow Minister of State, the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), is unable to be with us because he is away on parliamentary duties. I think he would use the phrase “erudite tones” of the debate if he were here. It is a pity that he is not, and we are obviously disappointed to miss his contribution.
I recently attended Irish Fest in Milwaukee, USA, where I highlighted the other side to the history that many of Irish descent and many of Ulster descent had learnt from the propaganda and an often slanted media view. Americans and those from mainland USA watch films like “The Devil’s Own”, which have a degree of artistic licence that I fear greatly rewrites history. These and other stories make it seem as though 302 RUC men and women—men and women with the George Cross—were not human beings with families and lives but simply moving “legitimate target” signs; or make it seem as though 30 prison officers and 763 armed forces members were simply numbers on a score sheet, not people whose spouses and children still feel the devastating loss to this day. These histories and films would glibly portray a prison break as a great lark and not take into account the lives that were destroyed by the loss of a father and husband. One of those was my constituent Mr Ferris, and other people were shot and injured as a result of that escape. Never portrayed in a film is a scene where a busy fish shop is bombed with no warning on a busy Saturday, killing one terrorist and nine people, including two children, and injuring 57 others. Nor do we see depicted the unveiling of a plaque in memory of this terrorist, yet that is the legacy that we are dealing with in Northern Ireland today, as so ably laid out by my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson).
This is history. It should not be rewritten to glorify what were nothing more than acts of evil. I watched the snippets of the Shankill bombing and saw one of the bombers on the one hand apologising but, on the other hand, stating that he was proud to be unveiling a plaque in memory of his fellow murderer. That certainly stirs up the feelings of anger and loss in communities that are determined that they cannot and should not let their heartbreaking histories be displayed in a light that would dull the horrific nature of what has taken place.
How does my hon. Friend think that people would feel if anyone in the Unionist community were to suggest that next week a commemoration was held to acknowledge and to celebrate what happened at Greysteel, when eight innocent people were slaughtered? How would he feel if we decided that there should be a band parade and a celebration? What would that say about this community, and does not it say the very same about nationalists and republicans whenever they decide to do that about the Shankill road bombing?
I thank my hon. Friend, who makes the point exactly. That would annoy me no end, as it would annoy everybody in this Chamber and everyone right across the whole of Northern Ireland. It does a disservice to every man, woman and child in Northern Ireland who has ever suffered loss on either side of the troubles. It does a disservice to those who are rehabilitated and living with injuries caused by the troubles, and to those who work hard to see the past for what it was and still try to find a way forward.
I want to make it clear that I believe there is a way forward for Northern Ireland, because I am positive and always try to be so. I would even go so far as to say that Northern Ireland is at long last on a journey forward, but it is not an easy task. There are many bumps in the road and many hurts that must not be whitewashed, and must be sensitively handled. Sometimes that happens, but a lot of the time it does not. Make no mistake: there are tensions. They are stirred up in all communities by agendas that would not seek to move forward while ever remembering the past, but that would seek to throw us into turmoil once again.
The removal of the Union flag from city hall is one such tension-stirring issue. There was no doubt about the strength of feeling in favour of retaining the flag. I asked people at Irish Fest in the United States of America how they would feel if they were asked to remove their flag at the Alamo. They would never do it, and yet the people of Belfast had it enforced on them in the name of progress. That is not progress: it is not now and it will not be so in the future. It is disrespectful. We are trying to engage with those on the ground to ensure that it does not derail the good that has been done thus far.
The Haass talks will, I hope, be positive. I would like to think that they will pave the way for another step forward, but if people continue to disrespect and alter what has gone before, that will not take us forward but leave us for ever going over the same ground. It is important that we be positive, but some in the community are not and are holding things back.
I am delighted that our party tabled this motion and it is only right and proper that we address the attempts to rewrite what really happened. Winston Churchill, whom I admire greatly and who was one of my childhood heroes, once said:
“History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.”
The history of Northern Ireland is too fresh to undergo a rewrite and we can never defend the indefensible or justify the unjustifiable, no matter whether a tweet about a 30th anniversary is sent by a twit—I can think of other words, but I am not allowed to use them in this House—and no matter how many people gather to celebrate the lives of terrorists and murderers.
Anyone who saw the faces of those family members who gathered at Castlederg during the despicable and wretched IRA parade—I was there—would say that the history of that area is not written but etched on the lines on their faces and the breaks in their hearts. The Protestant and Roman Catholic members of the Castlederg community had no wish to see the glorification of atrocities committed there. They had no wish to listen to the words of IRA members and elected leaders, or to see them parading through their streets with blatant disrespect. They stood silently in dignified protest with photographs of their murdered loved ones.
There are 28 unsolved murders in Castlederg and only one person has been held responsible. Imagine the anger and pain that the people of Castlederg felt at the time. My cousin Kenneth Smyth, a sergeant in the Ulster Defence Regiment, was murdered along with his Roman Catholic friend on 10 December 1971. That caused real pain, real sorrow and real frustration. An elected representative tried to elevate the position of two would-be killers, and the parade disregarded totally the feelings of those who were only 100 or 150 yards away.
We can move forward and find a way to make things work in Northern Ireland, but we cannot do so when such events are perpetually thrown in the faces of victims. Those real victims—as opposed to the perpetrators—have enough daily reminders, and it is essential that they feel supported by their community, their representatives and this House.
I ask Members to send a message of support that they will stand with my party and me against the artistic licence that is too often used to lessen the impact through phrases such as “legitimate targets” and “collateral damage”. There is no such thing: there is no such thing in Castlederg, on the Shankill road or at La Mon in Castlereagh in Belfast. There is certainly no such thing in Ballydougan in Downpatrick, where four UDR boys, three of whom I knew personally, were murdered by the IRA. There are only evil people, carrying out evil deeds for a cause that even those they think they represent do not want.
Today I stand for every true victim of the troubles and say to them: even as we attempt to move forward to a functioning society, your loss has not been erased, you were not irrelevant, your family were not ignored or emotionally isolated, and you are not now—indeed, you will never be—forgotten. That is my promise and the promise of my party.
I pay tribute to the DUP for the extremely well phrased motion, which covers everything that anyone who has been involved in Northern Ireland for many years sees as essential to the future. I feel a little like an interloper, but I think it important that somebody from the Labour party speaks, other than my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis).
I pay tribute to the previous Minister of State, the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), and the previous shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), both of whom I had the pleasure of being with at Northern Ireland football matches. I hope that the new shadow Secretary of State, the new Minister of State and, indeed, the Secretary of State will come to the next Northern Ireland international match, which will hopefully take place at the newly developed Windsor Park stadium. We will not talk about the results in the World cup.
Much has been said about the Eames-Bradley report. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee discussed that report and took evidence on it. As the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) said in his speech, Eames-Bradley could never have gone any further until the whole section on victims was changed. As he said, we cannot have a situation in which innocent victims are equated with perpetrators who die in the act of undertaking a killing or an atrocity.
I am sorry that so few Members from both sides of the House have been here to hear the very moving speeches of Members from all parts of the House, particularly those from the DUP and the SDLP, who have lived through what we are discussing. Those of us who are involved in Northern Ireland have observed it and have been there a lot, but they have lived through it. The speech of the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) encompassed so well the frustration, anger, despair and misery of the many people in Northern Ireland who feel that they have not received justice. We cannot have a proper look at the past or look to a brave new future until there is honesty and truth. Honesty and truth are not coming from Sinn Fein-IRA. Until those leaders are honest about what happened in the past, we will not move forward.
I welcome the honest statement from the SDLP about the decision of its councillors on the naming of the park, which it knows caused huge distress. It is important that the leader of the party was prepared to say what he said. I also welcome the U-turn from the DUP on the Maze. It would have been quite shocking if it had become a shrine to terrorists, so that visitors could have gone to the Titanic in the morning and to the shrine in the afternoon. I am delighted that that has been dropped. I just hope that Sinn Fein does not throw its toys out of the pram and that the proper development of the site can go ahead.
We are all very happy about that.
We have to recognise that there is a feeling among the pro-Union community in Northern Ireland that there has been an unevenness about the way in which we have investigated atrocities, particularly in relation to the huge amounts of money that were spent on the Bloody Sunday inquiry. That inquiry did produce a very good report and the Prime Minister made an excellent contribution in recognising that, but the idea that the PSNI will spent thousands and thousands—
Does the hon. Lady accept that the reasons why so much money was spent on the Bloody Sunday inquiry were, first, that a whitewash job was done on it in the beginning and the lies had to be reversed and, secondly, that half the money was spent because of Ministry of Defence obstruction, which caused endless amounts of money to be spent on lawyers, who had to move all over the place? A fraction of the money could have brought us to the same conclusion.
The fact is that a huge amount of money was spent on that inquiry. We have had the report and the apology, and I do not see the necessity of the PSNI spending a lot more time and money trying to prosecute people who are now pensioners and who, whatever happened in the past, and whatever went wrong, were doing what they thought at the time was their duty.
Why have that money, time and effort not been spent investigating atrocities such as that at Kingsmill? That was a shocking atrocity, as the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) who met some of the victims said. This is something people do not understand. They do not understand why no one has been investigated further for Omagh or Enniskillen—we could go through a whole list. It is just not acceptable because it seems that things are investigated only when the military or armed forces have been involved in some way. I know that their standards have to be higher, but when it comes to looking at justice, people feel aggrieved because they feel they have not had justice.
I join the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley in paying tribute to the Royal Ulster Constabulary. People who did not live in border areas in those days realise that they do not understand what many of those RUC officers and their families went through in dark nights, when they were subject to the most appalling retribution. I add my tribute to the RUC to those of other hon. Members.
Dr Richard Haass has a huge task. He may find that he can move some things forward and get some more agreements, but ultimately, one man coming in from the United States will not change what people feel. This is interesting because we are talking about the past, and I hope Dr Haass recognises his country’s past role in the way it spent thousands and thousands of pounds allowing money to come to Ireland that was then used to fund the IRA and kill innocent civilians. I hope he realises that the United States had a bit of involvement for some time in ensuring that money was coming through to the IRA. We must remember that kind of thing as well; otherwise, the issue is again seen as one-sided.
I see huge changes in Northern Ireland, and tourism now is brilliantly up on all the figures we have had in the past. The Titanic centre, the new Giant’s Causeway centre—I can name something in every constituency in Northern Ireland that has improved and is bringing in tourism.
I have had the honour of speaking at the annual dinner in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, so I do know it.
Finally, we must remember—this is a point for those on the Front Benches—that there is a feeling in Northern Ireland that it is somehow great and okay to be Irish and have the Irish flag. The Irish Government are always speaking up for nationalists in Northern Ireland, and people who feel more Irish than British. Somehow, however, there is almost an embarrassment somewhere about sticking up for people in Northern Ireland who feel British and have the British flag. Our Government and Secretary of State have to feel that they are above it all and neutral, but the Irish Government do not feel like that. They are quite clear: they support people in Northern Ireland who would ultimately like to be part of an all-Ireland state. We must be careful about that issue.
People voted to stay part of the United Kingdom. They want to stay part of the United Kingdom, and until there is a vote, I do not understand why anyone is saying that the British flag should not be flying anywhere in Northern Ireland, particularly on our town halls. There are all these nice words about everybody getting on well with each other. Of course that has to happen, and the work going on in our communities is making that a lot better than it was. However, we cannot divert the important issue of identity. That would be important to people in my constituency, so why should it not be just as important to those in Northern Ireland?
Finally, on victims, would mainland MPs—we do not have the same law on victims as Northern Ireland—accept it if someone who had committed the most appalling atrocity was treated as a victim in the same way as those who suffered from their atrocity? We would not let that happen. I hope Northern Ireland will be part of the UK for a very long time—for ever. People in Northern Ireland must be entitled to the same rights and privileges as people in the rest of the UK. That is fundamental. Until that approach to victims is changed, we will never be able to move forward to the future all hon. Members want.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I will adhere to that time. It is a pleasure to serve under your deputy speakership.
The debate has been telling and important. As many right hon. and hon. Members have said, it is being held on the 20th anniversary of the Shankill road massacre. My right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) outlined in very emotional yet diplomatic terms what happened on that day. October 1993 was an horrendous month. As the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) and others have outlined, we had not only the Shankill massacre, which resulted in nine murders, but the Greysteel massacre a few days later in my constituency, which resulted in eight murders. They are to be condemned equally. Without equivocation or hesitation, we utterly and totally condemn all those murders. In fact, 28 people died in October 1993, such was the nature of the violence that year.
My hon. Friend will vividly recall that on that morning we were sitting in a meeting of party officers in a hotel in Dungannon when we got the news of the atrocity at Shankill. Many of us raced to the Shankill road and saw for ourselves the horrid vista of violence that was visited on the people of Northern Ireland. When we witness such things with our own eyes, it drives home how atrocious terrorism in Northern Ireland has been, and how grateful we should be that we can start to move on.
We all recollect exactly where we were and our reactions at that time.
I welcome the shadow Secretary of State to his new position. He indicated that he has been in place for only 14 days, and yet he is rapidly getting to grips. He understands that his position is a challenging profile. The hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson)—the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee—said that the future had to be better than the past. All hon. Members concur with that. My hon. Friends the Members for Upper Bann (David Simpson) and for South Antrim (Dr McCrea), and other colleagues, elaborated on double standards.
The hon. Member for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell) made a reasonably positive contribution, although I do not get what connection the Planning Bill, which was debated yesterday in the Northern Ireland Assembly, has with dealing with the past. I will leave that to one side. The hon. Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd) spoke at some length about the need to reconcile the distinctive and profound differences, which all hon. Members understand.
The hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) said that honesty was required, and I shall speak in the remaining moments I have on the theme of honesty. There is a distinction in Northern Ireland, but it is not between Unionism/loyalism and nationalism/republicanism. There is a distinct difference in how we look at the past. The vast majority of people, be they Unionists or nationalists, look at the past and see that there were those who carried out evil, heinous atrocities. There were then those in the RUC, the UDR and the Army who had to respond and try to deal with the problem that had been created by the paramilitaries. The vast majority of people on both sides know that that distinction is absolutely clear. The security forces endeavoured to contain the paramilitaries that carried out so many atrocities, whether they were republican or loyalist organisations. Unfortunately, that containment was for many years restricted by political considerations. We always knew that the decoded message was, “Do not rock the boat. We’re trying to include republicans in the political process. Please do not rock the boat.”
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He rightly talks about the nefarious activities of all paramilitaries, but does he not recognise that the UDA, which carried out the murders that the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) talked about, carried out many of those murders while it was a legal organisation, with the British Government failing to proscribe it and both main Unionist parties supporting keeping it as a legal organisation, even though everybody knew it was up to its necks in sectarian murder?
The hon. Gentleman makes an intervention that, unfortunately for him, is not based on fact. Whether there was murder by the UDA or the UVF, or any overreaction by security forces, our position has been that if there is any evidence against anyone, no matter what their standing is, it should be brought before a court of law and that person should face the full rigours of the law.
Unfortunately, there are those in the republican community who engaged in paramilitary violence and seem to be beyond the reach of the courts and the prosecution service. No matter how much pressure people bring to bear by indicating their knowledge of previous events, there seems to be a reluctance to call in for questioning Gerry Adams, the former Member for West Belfast, Martin McGuinness the former Member for Mid Ulster, and a host of others.
The position is this: the past is there and we, in different communities, are trying to grapple with it. We are having a difficult time coming to terms with how we move forward. Dr Richard Haass and his team have been involved, and will be involved in the course of the next few months, in trying to help us to come to terms with that past. The perpetrators of violence might not acknowledge their part in it and not accede to the rest of the community that they were wrong. That has been Sinn Fein’s position to date and it gives no indication of changing it. If it holds to it, it may well be that we cannot deal comprehensively with the past. It would have to admit that it was wrong to engage in murder on Shankill road and so many other places, as others were equally wrong to engage in murder in Greysteel and in other locations.
While the guilty refuse to admit their guilt, we cannot come to a successful conclusion about the past. We may have to make do with whatever agreement we can reach to try to minimise the impact the current situation brings to all sides and say, as the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee said, that we have to make a future that is better than the past. As we are dealing with honesty, as the hon. Member for Vauxhall said, it would be churlish of us not to say that we must move forward. Let us try to indicate to everyone that what we have done in the past has been done. If the guilty refuse to own up and we cannot bring the evidence to bear to bring them to court, we will have to move beyond that and leave them to the contempt that, hopefully, their peers and successive generations will heap upon their heads.
Madam Deputy Speaker, I join others in congratulating you on your new role. I also thank all Members for their contributions. It has been a very good and, at times, extremely moving debate, and I echo the praise of the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) for the number of the contributions. We all in the House should pay particular tribute to political representatives and MPs in Northern Ireland who were prepared, courageously, to put their heads above the parapet during the troubles. It is an honour to have them in the House and to hear directly from them, who lived through these events, about their experiences.
A theme that has pervaded the whole debate is our profound sympathy for all those who suffered in Northern Ireland’s troubles. We have heard some desperately sad stories, and I am sure I speak for the whole House in again offering our condolences and sympathies to those who were injured, to those who lost loved ones and to those whose injuries might not be visible or physical, but are none the less deep-seated. It is a privilege to have the opportunity, thanks to the DUP, to debate these matters in the House.
The second thing common to almost every speech was a profound and sincere tribute to the men and women of the armed forces and police, particularly the Ulster Defence Regiment and the RUC, for all they did in upholding the rule of law and protecting the community in Northern Ireland, despite huge personal risk to themselves. Of course, many of them made the ultimate sacrifice.
Too many points were made in the debate for me to cover them in the short time available. The hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) expressed his concern about pubic inquiries, and certainly the Government have also expressed their scepticism about public inquiries as a means to deal with the past. In particular, it simply is not possible for each of those 3,500 victims to have their own public inquiry, which means that those we have are uneven and can divide opinion. Several other speakers, including the hon. Member for Vauxhall, raised that potentially uneven approach. She was also concerned about so-called Government neutrality. I can assure her that the Government are not neutral on the Union, but are fully supportive of Northern Ireland’s place within it. It was the previous Government who professed neutrality on the Union.
On the comments from the hon. Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis), yes we had a little episode of non-bipartisanship, but there will always be areas in which the Front Benches work together—that has always been the case—and I welcome his reiteration of that this afternoon. As he said, we have a shared responsibility to do all we can to help Northern Ireland make progress. Crucially, I can provide the warmest of assurances that the Government remain determinedly engaged in Northern Ireland matters, as was seen not least in the Prime Minister’s bringing eight of the world’s most powerful leaders to a summit in County Fermanagh as a means of demonstrating what a fabulous place Northern Ireland is and how much affection he has for it.
Picking up on the comments and criticisms made by the shadow Secretary of State, I say very gently to the right hon. Lady that the perception in Northern Ireland is of a polite disengagement by the Government. If 54 police officers had been injured in rioting in Manchester or Birmingham, Cardiff or Bristol during the summer, the Home Secretary would have gone there, and it would have been equally nice and appropriate had she gone to Northern Ireland and said to the Chief Constable and the Justice Minister, “We support you all the way.” That is just one example of what I regard as polite disengagement. Will the Secretary of State address that concern?
I assure the hon. Lady that I was fully engaged throughout this summer. I was in Northern Ireland for much of it, and I kept in close touch with the Chief Constable and the Justice Minister because of my grave concerns about what was going on. I assure her that I was the first very publicly to condemn the violence and the attacks on police officers, which were absolutely unacceptable. I will continue to call on all to ensure that they comply with the determinations of the Parades Commission, that they respect the rule of law and that these disgraceful attacks on police officers are not repeated.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), the Chairman of the Select Committee, was right to focus on the future. Like other hon. Members, he expressed concern about the parading system and the violence we have seen. He was right to emphasise that hundreds of parades take place in Northern Ireland every year that are entirely peaceful, but it is important to point out that not only were the attacks we saw on police officers unacceptable, but they do huge economic damage to Northern Ireland because of their impact around the world. That is an important reason why I hope we will see a resolution of the current situation in north Belfast. It is a concern to have a protest camp and nightly parades so close to a very volatile interface, and I hope that local conversations can take place to try to find a way to resolve the situation.
The hon. Member for Bury South and my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury made a number of points about the importance of going forward with educational improvements. We heard an exchange about whether integrated education was the way forward. I am sure that all in this House recognise the importance of ensuring that children in Northern Ireland have the chance to learn alongside others, whether that is through shared education or integrated education.
The hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) started his contribution by emphasising that it is vital to learn from the past, and I fully agree with him. Like him, this Government will not accept attempts to rewrite the history of the troubles. As many hon. Members have done today, he called for any process to have the victims of the troubles at its heart.
My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) paid tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) for the excellent work he did as Minister of State. He also told us of the poignant and moving meetings he had with victims, including those of the horrendous Kingsmill massacre. Like others, he paid tribute to the armed forces, doing so as a Member of Parliament for a constituency with a proud naval tradition. The hon. Member for Upper Bann, too, talked about the importance of education and skills in building a successful future in Northern Ireland. I firmly agree with that and I am sure that the Northern Ireland Executive, who have responsibility for education now, do as well.
The hon. Member for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell) spoke frankly about his party’s position on naming places after those responsible for previous violence, and it was welcome that he was able to clarify that. I share his call for a move towards a truly reconciled society. I am sure that everyone in the House will agree with calls made by him and by many others for all the political parties to approach the Haass process with the determination to give courageous leadership and to make progress. He also spoke, as others did, about the Eames-Bradley report. That proved quite divisive when it was published, but no doubt Dr Haass and others will seek to look at aspects of that report to see whether any of them are appropriate in terms of the outcome of the work that is undertaken by the Haass process.
My hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd) was right to focus on the complexity of this issue and the fact that there are no easy answers. It is of grave concern that so many victims are still seeking the truth and still feel that they have not had justice. He also talked about whether lessons could be learned from the Eames-Bradley report as part of the process that is now going forward.
The hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) spoke movingly about his experiences, and I wish to pay tribute to all the work that he has done in Northern Ireland on behalf of his constituents. They could not possibly have a more resolute defender of their interests, and I know that he and his family have personally suffered as a result of the terrorist campaigns in Northern Ireland. This House owes him a great debt of gratitude for all that he has done for his constituents. The hon. Gentleman said that, in his view, there was a need for an apology from the Government of the Republic of Ireland. I hope that he will welcome, as I did, the speech made recently by the Tánaiste, Eamon Gilmore, at the British-Irish Association conference, in which he acknowledged the concerns and the perceptions around the way in which his Government had occasionally approached the troubles. That was a welcome speech, and an important step forward by the Tánaiste.
The hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) spoke with great determination and passion, and repudiated any suggestion that the troubles amounted to a just war. He was right to emphasise how important it had been to start this debate with a list of names being read out by the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley. It is crucial, in this debate and in the Richard Haass process, that we remember that this is about individuals, each with their own story of tragedy. Hearing their names was an entirely appropriate way in which to commence what has been an excellent debate.
We have heard much about the past this afternoon, but a number of people have also called for a determination to move forward and build a better future for Northern Ireland. Much is being done to improve the economy, and important work is under way to address sectarian divisions and build the genuinely united community that we all want to see. The Executive, the political leadership and the people of Northern Ireland all have the full support of the UK Government in taking that important work forward.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House notes the ongoing discussions in Northern Ireland chaired by Dr Richard Haass on a number of important issues including the legacy of the Troubles; recognises the deep sense of loss still felt by the innocent victims of violence and their continuing quest for truth and justice; acknowledges the valour and sacrifice of the men and women who served and continue to serve in the armed forces, the police and the prison service in Northern Ireland; and is resolved to ensure that those who engaged in or supported acts of terrorism will not succeed in rewriting the narrative of this troubled period in Northern Ireland’s history.