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Amnesty International Report

Volume 571: debated on Wednesday 27 November 2013

1. What assessment she has made of the Amnesty International report entitled “Northern Ireland: Time to deal with the past”, published in September 2013; and if she will make a statement. (901223)

Let me first express my sadness at the passing of Alec Reid and Eddie McGrady, who will be sadly missed as strong supporters of peace in Northern Ireland.

I have considered the proposals in the recent report by Amnesty, which covers devolved responsibilities in the main, but also covers some reserved matters relating to Northern Ireland’s past. I expect the all-party group chaired by Richard Haass also to take account of Amnesty’s contribution to the debate on these important matters.

This morning I hosted the parliamentary launch of the report, which reinforces the need for a comprehensive mechanism to deal with the past, addressing justice, truth, recognition and support for the bereaved and the injured, and also reconciliation. What assurances can the Secretary of State give that the Government will support, co-operate with and properly resource any such comprehensive process emerging from the Haass talks, allowing the Police Service of Northern Ireland to focus its finite resources on policing the present, and, in particular, protecting our community from those—from both loyalist and republican sources—who wish to drag us back to the past?

Let me take this opportunity to reiterate the calls made in Northern Ireland in the wake of recent attacks. There is determination that Northern Ireland will not be dragged back to its past, and there is universal condemnation of the disgraceful attacks that we have seen in recent days.

The Government strongly support the Haass process. We welcomed its establishment, and we urged the Executive to examine the very divisive issues involved. We will, of course, consider the outcome of the process very seriously, and will give thought to what resources we can deploy to support it within the constraints of the budgets available to us.

The report states that

“there are longstanding allegations that Irish authorities turned a blind eye to arms smuggling across the border and to members of republican groups fleeing—after attacks had been carried out—back to the Republic of Ireland”.

Will my right hon. Friend raise that aspect of the report with the Irish authorities to ensure their full co-operation?

I shall be happy to do so. Let me add, however, that the security co-operation between the police services north and south of the border has never been stronger. It is hugely important in combating the threat not just from dissident republicans, but from other criminals who seek to use the border to enhance their criminal activities. We continue to work with the authorities in the Republic of Ireland to establish how we can enhance our security co-operation with them.

The Amnesty report contains a section on inquests. Has the Secretary of State been offered any explanation of why the Attorney-General in Northern Ireland, who has ordered the reopening of more than 40 historic inquests, now seems to believe that they should be abandoned?

The Attorney-General’s remarks were patently made on his own behalf rather than that of the Northern Ireland Executive or the Government, and they received almost universal criticism. The Prime Minister has made it clear that we have no plans to introduce an amnesty along the lines suggested by the Attorney-General—and yes, I acknowledge that there is a degree of contradiction between his actions and his comments in relation to inquests.

Will the Secretary of State go a bit further and tell the House what action she is prepared to take to ensure that justice is done and seen to be done, rather than justice and the process of law being abandoned, which is what a senior law officer in Northern Ireland wants to happen?

The Government are entirely committed to the integrity of the rule of law, and we will maintain our position. I think it important for the outcome of the Haass discussions also to abide by that principle, and to be consistent with maintaining the integrity of the rule of law.

Does the Secretary of State agree that all the victims out there still need truth and justice, and, indeed, are entitled to truth and justice? What assessment has she made of last week’s “Panorama” programme about the military reaction force and the murders committed by its members?

Let me take this opportunity to emphasise how important it is for victims to be at the centre of any proposals on dealing with the past. That was also emphasised during the Democratic Unionist party’s Opposition day debate. The allegations made in the “Panorama” programme have been referred to the police, and it is for the police to investigate them. I should stress that when the troops were operational in Northern Ireland they operated according to strict rules, and that the vast majority of the police and the Army officers who served there during the troubles were entirely courageous, supportive, and compliant with the rule of law.

May I begin by associating myself with the Secretary of State’s comments about Father Alec Reid?

On the Amnesty report, will the right hon. Lady go further in agreeing with me that the problem with last week’s proposals from Northern Ireland’s Attorney-General is that they would deliver neither truth nor justice, and that instead of healing the wounds of the past, they would cause them to fester even further?

The death of Father Alec Reid is a very sad loss. He played a key part in establishing the peace process, particularly in its early stages. As I have said, the Government have no plans to follow the advice of the Northern Ireland Attorney-General. I do not believe that it represents a viable solution to the past, and it received almost universal condemnation. As the hon. Gentleman suggests, it would result in significant problems, and many victims would feel real concern if people advocated that we follow that route.

Will the Secretary of State assure us that she is working with the Irish Government to engage with all parties involved in the Haass talks to seek a comprehensive framework to address the past? Such a framework needs to deal with truth, justice and reconciliation in a meaningful and substantive way. Tinkering at the edges will be seen as a missed opportunity with potentially lasting consequences, and it is essential that the Secretary of State shows leadership at this crucial time.

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I am very supportive of the Haass process and very engaged with the Irish Government. I have had discussions with all the political parties on these crucial matters. I have also had a number of helpful discussions in the United States about how our American friends can continue their role of supporting Northern Ireland’s political leadership in the difficult decisions that it needs to make on the issues that are the subject of the Haass process.