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Northern Ireland

Volume 578: debated on Wednesday 2 April 2014

The Secretary of State was asked—

Security Situation

1. What recent assessment she has made of the security situation in Northern Ireland; and if she will make a statement. (903393)

The threat level in Northern Ireland continues to be severe, with persistent planning and targeting by terrorists. Action by the Police Service of Northern Ireland and its partners maintains a high level of pressure on those groups, with the aim of preventing attacks and collecting the evidence that is needed for convictions.

Given the recent attempts to attack members of the PSNI—including the events that occurred just this weekend in Larne—is the Secretary of State confident that it has all the resources that it needs in order to respond to such incidents, and does she expect members of police forces from Great Britain to undertake a mutual aid operation in Northern Ireland over the summer?

I wholeheartedly condemn the disgraceful scenes that have been witnessed in Larne over recent days. Such thuggish behaviour is absolutely unacceptable, and I know that the PSNI is taking very seriously the need to bring those responsible to justice. As we have discussed during previous sessions of Northern Ireland questions, there is an ongoing debate about police funding for the year 2015-16. The Government have provided additional funds, but it remains to be seen exactly how much the Department of Finance and Personnel will contribute. Discussions continue, and I strongly support the efforts made by the Chief Constable to resolve this important matter with the DFP.

Given that the security situation in Northern Ireland is still difficult, is my right hon. Friend confident that the police will still be able to recruit enough officers immediately to replace those who are retiring from the force?

The police are currently recruiting. They recognise the importance of maintaining numbers at appropriate levels, particularly in the light of wastage rates. It is important for us to resolve the question of 2015-16. The Chief Constable has said that he needs about 7,000 officers to ensure that he can run matters efficiently, and the level is slightly below that at present, so I hope that the future discussions with the DFP will bear fruit, as they have in relation to the security funding agreed by the United Kingdom Government.

Given the recent revelations about recordings made at Garda stations in the Irish Republic of all telephone calls made to and from those stations over a number of years, and given that information was withheld from the Smithwick tribunal that investigated the deaths of police officers Breen and Buchanan, what assessment has the Secretary of State made of those revelations, and of their impact in revealing the level of collusion that may have existed between police in the Republic and the IRA?

I had the opportunity to discuss the matter with the Tánaiste and the Irish Government on Monday, and I was assured that concern about the recording of police conversations, and other matters relating to the Garda, would not undermine the efforts being made in the south to help the PSNI to fight terrorism. A number of inquiries are under way to investigate, in particular, whether the recordings will have any impact on current prosecutions. It is very important that those inquiries establish the facts, and that we ensure that every effort continues to be made to bring terrorists to justice and put them in jail.

In the course of the Secretary of State’s discussions with the authorities in the south, particularly the police, what efforts are being made to step up the battle against fuel launderers? There is grave concern in Northern Ireland, where it is felt—given the number of prosecutions and of people charged—that the battle is not being fought with enough vigour, and that the fact that the National Crime Agency is not operating fully in Northern Ireland is having a detrimental effect.

The National Crime Agency will still be able to be part of the fight against fuel laundering, because it is a reserved matter. The latest development is the announcement of the introduction of a new fuel marker, for which I know the right hon. Gentleman and his DUP colleagues have pressed very strongly, and which is to be produced by the Dow Chemical Company. Work is being done on both sides of the border to strengthen the fight against fuel laundering, and work is also under way on the new marker, which will be much more difficult to remove from fuel.

There were 30 national security attacks in Northern Ireland in 2013. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that there will be a relentless and effective pursuit of the small but violent minority of people in Northern Ireland who prefer terrorism to democracy?

I can certainly give that assurance. The Government remain absolutely committed to combating terrorism in Northern Ireland and elsewhere. Strong support for the PSNI is vital, which is why we have given it significant extra resources. We also recognise the crucial importance of combating other forms of crime in Northern Ireland, including crime committed by individuals linked to loyalist paramilitaries.

With respect to the latter organisations, does the Secretary of State feel any discomfort about the amount of time that is spent differentiating between parts of the Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force, as though they were respectively a good organisation and an organisation gone bad? Does she agree that they are illegal organisations that should have long since ceased to exist in any structured form?

Both the UDA and UVF are proscribed organisations, but in relation to recent activities in Larne, and criminal activity in the hon. Lady’s constituency, what the individuals involved are undertaking—however they choose to label themselves—is utterly unacceptable criminal behaviour. I am strongly supportive of the extensive efforts being made by the PSNI to put those people in prison and prevent them from exploiting and seeking to control their communities merely to line their own pockets through organised crime.

The Secretary of State will be well aware that there has been some controversy within Belfast city council about inviting Pope Francis to visit the city. Does the Secretary of State believe that the security situation and, indeed, the political situation in Northern Ireland are conducive to a papal visit any time soon?

The papal visit to London was extremely successful, and I have every confidence that the security situation will make a papal visit to Northern Ireland entirely possible. Whether such an invitation is extended is obviously a matter for the Northern Ireland Executive, but I think it would be a very positive step if the Pope were to visit Northern Ireland.

Cost of Living

2. What recent assessment she has made of the effect of the Government’s economic policies on the cost of living in Northern Ireland. (903394)

6. What recent assessment she has made of the effect of the Government’s economic policies on the cost of living in Northern Ireland. (903398)

I am answering these questions together as, spookily enough, they are identical in every word. The Government continue to take actions to support hard-working households. Following the Budget, 685,000 people in Northern Ireland will have benefited from the personal allowance changes since 2010. Furthermore, drivers, as well as Northern Ireland households using fuel oils for home energy, will benefit from the cancelling of the fuel duty rise planned for September.

Great minds obviously think alike. In North Antrim and South Down 40% of workers are paid less than the living wage, and across the Province the levels of part-time workers, particularly women, on poverty pay are shocking. In fair pay fortnight, can the Minister tell the House whether he will offer incentives for firms to pay the living wage, so that we can tackle one of the major causes of this Government’s cost of living crisis in Northern Ireland?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the greatest reason for the economic crisis in Northern Ireland and elsewhere in the United Kingdom is the appalling economic legacy left us by the previous Government. I am surprised that he does not welcome, for instance, the recently published Northern Ireland Centre for Economic Policy spring outlook predicting that the local economy will grow by 2.8% in 2014 and that over 13,000 new jobs will be created this year in Northern Ireland. That is a fantastic thing to welcome. It is through decent employment that people are lifted out of poverty.

Given that getting a job is the most important element in alleviating cost of living problems, will my right hon. Friend elucidate the measures that the Northern Ireland Office has taken to promote private sector investment so that new firms come into Northern Ireland?

My hon. Friend will know that last June an economic pact was signed by the Northern Ireland Executive and others that looked forward to a rebalanced economy with more private sector jobs. In the last year some 10,000 jobs have been created in the private sector. As I have said, we are expecting another 13,000 this year, and 23,000 new jobs over the next year.[Official Report, 28 April 2014, Vol. 579, c. 10MC.]

The Minister will be aware that 42% of the households in Northern Ireland suffer from fuel poverty. The most vulnerable are the elderly and cancer patients. Surely more can be done to help those vulnerable in our society?

I have great sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman says, and I am aware that some 68% of households in Northern Ireland heat their homes with fuel oil, which has gone up dramatically in price in the last few years. Our stop on the fuel escalator will have a decent impact on all those who heat their houses with fuel oil. Of course, we wish to see people doing better and those in poverty helped out of poverty, and that is why we are focusing on economic recovery, as is the hon. Gentleman’s party in the Northern Ireland Executive.

The Minister will know that the Government’s welfare reform proposals, including the caps, will hit hardest of all in Northern Ireland and will cause a severe cost of living crisis for those already struggling most. It is my contention that the universal credit project is unworkable and is falling apart. Does the Minister agree, and should not the project now be abandoned?

If I might say gently to the hon. Lady, no, I do not agree, and nor do the majority of people in the whole of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, agree that we should go on with the hugely increasing burden of benefits on taxpayers. We look forward to the Northern Ireland Assembly making progress on the Welfare Reform Bill in Northern Ireland. If the hon. Lady might say to her colleagues in the Assembly that we should have some progress, the economy and the people of Northern Ireland would look forward to greater prosperity.

Recent figures from the Office for National Statistics show that in terms of both output and pay, Northern Ireland has been the region hardest hit by the recession. One in six workers is on low pay, and the average household has seen a 9% drop in income. What are the Government going to do about the cost of living crisis facing the people of Northern Ireland?

I have already responded on this issue. The hon. Gentleman is rather kind to raise it, given that he was a member of the last Government, who led to the economic crisis that we inherited in 2010. We have done an enormous amount—I have mentioned the economic pact—and the investment conference that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State hosted in Northern Ireland in October has led to a great deal of further foreign direct investment in Northern Ireland. Indeed, the Northern Ireland Executive is working hard on this issue, and I congratulate them on the work they have done.

The idea that our Government caused the global banking crisis is complete nonsense, given that the Conservatives were calling for deregulation year after year after year.

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman to answer a serious question about Northern Ireland? Political stalemate on welfare reform within Northern Ireland and between the Northern Ireland Executive and the Treasury now poses a real threat to Northern Ireland’s recovery. Is it not time for the Government to take a more active role in seeking an end to this unacceptable stalemate?

I do not think that I blamed the last Government for the international banking crisis; I blamed them for the dire state of the UK economy that we inherited in 2010—quite reasonably, if I might say so.

We are working very hard with the Executive to bring about a better economic situation in Northern Ireland. We want to see the Welfare Reform Bill passed in the Assembly, as indeed do many parties in the Executive. Unfortunately, it is currently bogged down in the Assembly because two parties are unwilling to support it.

Haass Process

I have been working with Northern Ireland’s political leadership to support and encourage progress on flags, parades and the past. It is important to find an agreed way forward on these issues in order to underpin political stability, support economic renewal and overcome community division.

Can the Secretary of State reassure the House that she still believes a positive outcome from the ongoing all-party talks will be reached, and is she fully engaged in trying to make that happen?

I am fully engaged in trying to make that happen, and I remain optimistic that an agreed way forward can be found. The party leaders continue to meet. The speeches made by the Deputy First Minister and First Minister in Washington on these matters were very clear that both Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist party were determined to find a way forward. The on-the-runs crisis has set things back, but I know that the party leaders continue to work. It is a pity that the Ulster Unionist party has pulled out, and I urge it to come back to the table.

Does the Secretary of State accept that if the process begun by Richard Haass is to be brought to a satisfactory conclusion, party leaders and parties in Northern Ireland will require the active hands-on support of both the British and Irish Governments—namely, her good self and the Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore?

They certainly will need the support and encouragement of both Governments. I can assure the House that they very definitely have that, and that was confirmed in my discussions with Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore on Monday. We are committed to this process and we want to see it succeed. If we have learned anything from the events of recent days, it is the importance of a balanced, transparent and accountable process to deal with Northern Ireland’s past.

The Secretary of State referred to the party leaders meeting, and of course they are meeting, with the exception of the Ulster Unionist leader. We should encourage progress in those discussions because many people want to see those issues addressed and resolved so that we can get on and deal not just with the past, but with the present and the future.

The hon. Gentleman is right. Resolving these issues or finding an agreed way forward will enable further efforts and energies to be concentrated on pensions, the economy and so on. There is a real opportunity here. A lot of good work was done under the auspices of Richard Haass and Meghan O’Sullivan, not least by the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) as part of the negotiations under Richard Haass.

11. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of any need for legislation to implement any possible agreement on Haass? (903403)

As we are currently advised, structures of the sort proposed by Richard Haass in draft document No. 7 would not need Westminster legislation, apart from a fairly straightforward devolution of responsibilities for parading. Some of the issues are quite complex, and we would work with the Northern Ireland Executive, once there was an agreement, to see whether further legislation might be needed in Westminster.

I call Sammy Wilson. No? Mr Wilson had signalled an interest, but never mind—we will hear from him another day.

Does the Secretary of State agree that following the local and European elections and the conclusion of the judge-led inquiry into on-the-runs at the end of May, all Northern Ireland parties should see it as their top priority to reach a speedy agreement on the issues covered by the Haass talks? Three years of elections in Northern Ireland cannot lead to permanent political logjam.

I certainly agree with the shadow Secretary of State. We have a crucial opportunity, which I hope the party leaders will seize. We are on the eve of a new parading season. The next few weeks will be crucial. I very much welcome the fact that the party leaders are continuing their discussions and will do so throughout most of the election period. It is crucial that we find a way forward on these matters and the crisis surrounding OTRs only makes the case more strongly for a solution on the past.

First World War (Irish Soldiers)

4. What steps her Department is taking to commemorate the sacrifice of Irish soldiers during the first world war. (903396)

The Northern Ireland Office is committed to delivering the Government’s programme for the first world war centenary in Northern Ireland in a manner which promotes reconciliation and contributes to a peaceful, shared future. The Department is also co-ordinating closely with the Irish Government on the centenary and the wider decade of commemorations in Ireland.

Enormous numbers of Irish men from both communities willingly volunteered. That is the key: they willingly volunteered for king and country, and many of them made the ultimate sacrifice. Can the Minister tell the House how he will use the commemorations to bring both communities together in remembrance of their common sacrifice?

My hon. Friend is right. Some 200,000 Irish personnel volunteered to fight in the first world war. It is difficult to tell who was a regular, who was Irish and from the north, or whatever. They were just termed British in those days. Some 49,000 were killed in the first world war and we do commemorate them. As a Government we get on extremely well with the Irish Government. For myself, I laid four wreaths on Armistice day at Islandbridge, Glasnevin and elsewhere—the first time, I think, that a British Minister has done that since partition.

The men of the 36th (Ulster) Division and, indeed, all Irish soldiers were volunteers in the great war. More Victoria Crosses were won by Irish soldiers than by any other section. What will the Secretary of State’s office do to encourage primary schoolchildren in Northern Ireland to learn about the great sacrifice of our volunteers and our soldiers, and the commitment of our men and women in the previous century to our nation?

We are very keen that all children should know of the sacrifice of our forefathers 100 years ago. Education and education policy are devolved, but the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) is leading on commemoration and is doing an extremely good job. The hon. Gentleman mentions VCs. The first Victoria Cross awarded to a British soldier in the first world war was won by Maurice Dease at the battle of Mons. It was posthumous and he was a Catholic Irishman from Coole in County Westmeath.

Many nationalists from the south served and died in the first world war. My grandfather was from Mayo, and he fought on the Somme. Will the Minister be able to send me precise details of the events taking place in the south to commemorate 1914?

There is a programme of events and, as I have said, the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley is leading on this in Northern Ireland. A ceremony is planned for 4 August in Dublin—probably in St Patrick’s cathedral—which will be followed that evening by a ceremony in St Anne’s cathedral in Belfast. I will send the hon. Gentleman further details.

On Monday, along with other members of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, I had the honour of visiting the war memorial that commemorates the 49,000 Irish who were killed in the first world war. We were ably led by the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson). Will the Minister congratulate the BIPA on all the work it does, and will he do all he can to ensure that the commemoration in Flanders later this year is a success?

I certainly congratulate the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), who laid a wreath at Islandbridge. Islandbridge is a very fitting memorial, designed by Lutyens, which the Queen also visited recently.

Dealing with the Past

5. What recent discussions she has had with political parties in Northern Ireland on dealing with the past. (903397)

I hold regular discussions with representatives of the Northern Ireland political parties on a range of issues, including dealing with Northern Ireland’s past. I continue to encourage party leaders to work towards an agreement on the past which is balanced and can command public support.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for her reply. Does she think it has become harder to reach a deal on the past as a result of the on-the-runs issue, which was effectively an agreement on partial immunity for people who might be required to tell the truth about various incidents?

The concern caused by the on-the-runs issue, and the fact that the scheme was not dealt with transparently, have set back the progress on dealing with the past. However, the proposals set out in the Haass No. 7 document provide a good basis for further discussions and I welcome the fact that many of the parties have said that they can support that kind of architecture, despite the fact that further issues need to be resolved before an agreement is found.

Does the Secretary of State accept that honesty is essential in dealing with the issues of the past? Does she also agree that it is time for Sinn Fein leaders to face up to their past of murder and destruction, and to apologise to the people of Ulster for their bloody campaign of terror?

I do believe that honesty and transparency are an important means of dealing with the legacy of the past. The UK Government have taken a lead in taking responsibility where the actions of the state have been wrong, and we would expect everyone involved in the troubles to account for the role that they have played.

In order to give lasting peace the best chance, there has to be equity and balance when addressing the past. Given the way in which the on-the-run letters contrast with how some ex-soldiers fear they might be treated, will the Secretary of State look at the ongoing peace process in the round to ensure that there is balance?

Of course it is crucial in all matters relating to Northern Ireland to maintain balance and fairness. I reiterate the assurances I have given the House that the letters issued under the on-the-runs scheme did not amount to an amnesty or to immunity; they were merely a statement of fact as to whether the individual concerned was wanted by the police for arrest at a particular time.

I agree with the Secretary of State’s last answer, and I stress that if we are to find a way of bringing closure to the victims of the most difficult cases that haunt us from the past, that has to be done in an even-handed fashion. It would be wrong, for example, if Bloody Sunday soldiers were prosecuted but loyalist or republican paramilitaries were not.

I emphasise again, as the Prime Minister has done at this Dispatch Box, that this Government do not support amnesties from prosecution for anybody. It is crucial that, whatever arrangements are made in relation to the past in Northern Ireland, they should be balanced and fair to all sides in the community.

12. One aspect of how we deal with the past is the continuing support we give to victims. May I thank the Secretary of State for the support she gave in securing the funding for the Peace Centre in Warrington announced in the Budget? May I also ask her to address the issue of European Union funding being ring-fenced for the island of Ireland, which means that victims on the mainland do not have access to it? (903404)

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words about my role in securing additional funding for the Warrington Peace Centre. The people there do fantastic work and I am keen to continue working with them. I am, of course, aware of the concerns about the fact that they are not able to access funds which are provided solely for people in Northern Ireland, even when, sadly, there are many victims of terrorism in Great Britain. It is vital that those victims have all the support that they need, and this Government believe that any solution on the past in Northern Ireland must have victims at its centre.

May we have a bit of order in the House for the last question so that the questioner can be heard and we can hear the Secretary of State as well?

Beyond her exhortations to the parties, has the Secretary of State actually scoped what legislative measures would be required from her in respect of the Haass proposals on the past? In addition, what authorisations and directions would be needed from ministerial colleagues in Whitehall?

The advice I have been given is that Westminster legislation would not be required if the parties decided to implement the Haass 7 proposals, apart from a devolution of parading. The measures on the past, I am advised, could all be done via legislation in the Assembly, but I am happy to review this matter in discussions with the hon. Gentleman at a later date.