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Security Situation

Volume 578: debated on Wednesday 2 April 2014

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.