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Haass Talks

Volume 576: debated on Wednesday 26 February 2014

3. What steps she is taking to ensure a positive outcome from the Haass talks; and if she will make a statement. (902700)

10. What steps she is taking to ensure a positive outcome from the Haass talks; and if she will make a statement. (902707)

The UK Government continue to support and encourage party leaders in Northern Ireland as they pursue the Haass issues. A cross-party agreement on flags, parading and the past would deliver significant benefits for Northern Ireland.

Next month, the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach meet for their second annual review of progress on the joint agreement. Does the Secretary of State agree that that offers an opportunity for both leaders to send out a strong message to all the parties in Northern Ireland about their commitment to securing agreement and advances on all the issues covered by Haass and papers, including the past?

Both the Irish and the UK Governments are strongly supportive of the efforts made by the Northern Ireland parties to reach agreement on those three matters, including the past. I cannot anticipate exactly what will be in the communiqué, but I am sure that the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach will continue to express their support for the process, and the Tanaiste, Eamon Gilmore, continues to be in close touch with me on these matters.

Does the Secretary of State agree with Amnesty International that any mechanism for dealing with the past has to be fully human rights compliant, not a patchwork? What legislation and resources does she think will be required to achieve that?

Of course, any new structures would have to be compliant with the UK’s obligations under the Human Rights Act. As for resources, as I have said on a number of occasions, the UK Government would primarily expect the block grant given to the Northern Ireland Executive to be the source of funding for new arrangements on the past. If there is a proposal for additional funding, that would be considered seriously.

Does the Secretary of State agree that if Northern Ireland is to have a prosperous future, it needs to reach full accommodation with the events of its past? What steps will she personally take to ensure that the progress that was made in the Haass agreement is carried forward into full agreement in future?

I continue to urge the parties to seek a way forward and to set out the benefits that an agreement on flags, parading and the past would bring to Northern Ireland. I continue to engage closely with the Irish Government on these matters, and I shall continue to do all those things.

As the House has already heard, the Downey case raises very serious issues. It is absolutely right that we all reflect on the consequences of that decision, and that there is a thorough investigation into the grave mistake by the PSNI which, I am afraid, led to the outcome in the case yesterday.

It has been suggested that a culture of trust needs to be developed. Will my right hon. Friend consider looking again at what are effectively the amnesties that were handed out? We need to look at that if Northern Ireland is to prosper in future.

The scheme was created by the previous Government and, to be fair to them, it was never an amnesty, as I have explained to the House. These letters set out in a factual way whether individuals were believed to be wanted by the police in Northern Ireland or elsewhere in the UK. The current Government looked at the scheme in 2012 and decided that future inquiries should be sent to the devolved Administration in line with the devolution of policing and justice.

Will my right hon. Friend report on whether there have been any proposals for a timetable to be put in place so that we can progress the Haass talks and reach a conclusion that will be satisfactory for all parties?

There has been much discussion of deadlines and timetables. I certainly think that it would be very helpful if the parties felt able to put together a road map towards reaching a full agreement, but I fully appreciate how difficult these issues are. As we have heard this morning, they have probably been made more difficult to resolve by the events of the last 24 hours.

On the past and the Downey case, I agree with the Secretary of State that there was never any question of an amnesty. May I also say that I make no apology for being part of a process that brought Northern Ireland from the hideous horror and evil of the past to the position where old enemies have now governed together for seven years in a stable, devolved Government—no apology for that at all? Just as we had to do deals with my Democratic Unionist party friends sitting over there to get to this point, so we have had to do deals with Sinn Fein to get to this point, and that was necessary for the negotiations to succeed and for peace to be established.

Clearly, many difficult decisions were made as a result of the peace process. Some aspects of the Good Friday agreement were hard to swallow for many in the House, but I think that it is important that we reflect on the implications of the John Downey case and how a very serious mistake came to be made. Of course, as I have said to the House, we are urgently checking to ensure that similar mistakes were not made in any other cases.

It is rather disgraceful that any former Secretary of State could compare the DUP to terrorists. Has not the Downey revelation in reality made the Haass talks a farce and destroyed any process Haass has ever started? Does it not erode confidence among the general law-abiding community, and is this not indeed a dark day for justice as far as the United Kingdom is concerned?

My primary thoughts are with the families of those who died on that terrible day in July 1982. This whole episode must have provoked very painful memories. I am sure that it is a source of sadness and regret for them, as it is for us, that no one has been brought to justice for the Hyde park bombing. Despite the long shadow that this case is likely to cast, I hope that the Northern Ireland parties will continue to work together to see whether a solution can be found to deal with the legacy of the past in Northern Ireland.

Can the Secretary of State convince the House that there is still momentum left in the talks started by Ambassador Haass?

As I have said, these are hugely important matters. It would be of great benefit to Northern Ireland if an agreed way forward could be found. Some very important work has been going on in recent weeks between the party leaders, with real dedication to try to find a way forward. There is no doubt that finding a way forward will now be more difficult, given the events of the past 24 hours, but I continue to encourage the parties to do so.

Does the Secretary of State agree that a key reason why we must deal with the past is the need to assure people that we did not end the dirty war just to end up with a dirty peace? Is that not even more imperative after yesterday’s revelations, which prove that some of us were right when we warned the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain) and others that they were blighting the peace process with their penchant for side deals, pseudo-deals, sub-deals, shabby deals and secret deals, which are now doing fundamental damage to the Haass process and to the process more widely?

I know that the hon. Gentleman was one of the foremost opponents of Labour’s proposed legislation on an amnesty, which was also opposed by both coalition parties. I cannot agree with him on his characterisation of Northern Ireland’s troubles as a dirty war. I believe that the vast majority of members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the military served with great integrity, distinction, courage and bravery, and we owe them all a huge debt of gratitude for creating the conditions in which peace was eventually found.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the issues raised by the judgment in the John Downey case underline the importance of the Government supporting the all-party talks to reach an agreement that puts truth and justice for victims at the heart of dealing with the past? Can she confirm that the current Government have sent out a number of letters to on-the-runs as part of the scheme covered by the Downey case? Today it is important that above all else we remember the soldiers who lost their lives in Hyde park on that dreadful day in July 1982 and the suffering that their families continue to endure. That act was heinous and, like all terrorist atrocities, totally unjustifiable. The PSNI is right to apologise to the families of the victims and commit to an investigation into how such a horrendous error could have occurred.

I agree that a way forward on the past must put victims at its heart. I can give the hon. Gentleman an assurance that I remain very supportive of efforts through the Haass process to find a way forward. I can confirm that 38 cases were dealt with by the current Government under the OTR administrative scheme. That was reviewed by the current Government, who decided that it was better for any future cases to be referred to the devolved authorities, in line with the devolution of policing and justice, but we did process a number of cases supplied prior to the general election. I also believe that it is absolutely vital that the PSNI investigates thoroughly why things went so badly wrong in relation to this case and that all of us in this House convey our deep and grave sympathy to the victims of the terrible atrocity that took place in Hyde park.

Order. First, there are far too many noisy private conversations taking place in the Chamber. Secondly, I very politely ask the Secretary of State please to speak up a little. Mr Lewis, I am sure that the second question will be much shorter than the first.

At a time when the Haass talks are seeking to focus on truth and justice for victims and their families, will the Secretary of State give a commitment today that the Government will stop buck-passing between Departments and prevent the Survivors for Peace programme going to the wall? At the invitation of Labour’s excellent parliamentary candidate in Warrington, Nick Bent, I had the privilege of visiting the Warrington peace centre last week. The Tim Parry Johnathan Ball Foundation for Peace, under the inspirational leadership of Colin and Wendy Parry, does a tremendous job and deserves support from this Government.

I, too, have had the pleasure of visiting the peace centre; Colin Parry has done a wonderful job there. I am keen to work with my excellent hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat) to see whether we can find a way forward on the victims’ support charity. I assure the House that the future of the peace centre is secure; I understand that it is separate from the victims’ support charity. However, I fully appreciate the importance of seeking to find a way forward to resolve the difficulties that Colin Parry’s charity faces.