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Northern Ireland

Volume 582: debated on Wednesday 11 June 2014

The Secretary of State was asked—

Shared Future

1. What assessment she has made of progress made by the Northern Ireland Executive on building a shared future in Northern Ireland. (904128)

In May 2013, the Northern Ireland Executive published their strategy, “Together: Building a United Community”, which contained a number of key actions to help build a shared future for Northern Ireland. The Government support efforts to embed the political settlement through the delivery of those commitments. Additional borrowing powers have been granted to the Northern Ireland Executive by the Government to support those programmes.

Like my right hon. Friend, I welcome the publication last year of “Together: Building a United Community” by the Northern Ireland Executive. Does she agree that addressing community divisions is absolutely key if Northern Ireland is to gain the full benefits of the peace process?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Apart from anything else, it is crucial to address those issues to embed political stability, because that is key in attracting inward investment and boosting Northern Ireland’s prosperity. The Government, including the Prime Minister, have pushed the Northern Ireland Executive on these matters and very much welcome the progress that is now being made.

As we move into the parading season, I wonder whether the Secretary of State will comment on what she thinks the contribution of Sinn Fein is when it objects and protests, for instance, against a parade in Dungiven, where there are no flags, bands or anything of that sort that could cause offence to anyone, and against the sharing of a main arterial route in north Belfast? Where is the shared future in that?

I believe that all parties who are involved in or affected by parading have a responsibility to engage constructively to find local solutions and build local relationships and trust, which are essential to a peaceful parading season. That goes for Sinn Fein, as it does for all other groupings that are involved in such matters.

Will the Secretary of State also comment on what contribution is made to a shared future by people who go out, as Sinn Fein has done, to glorify and revel in the murderous past of the IRA and to cause great offence to victims—for instance, by refusing to go to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee sitting on Monday and refusing to be open and transparent about the on-the-runs scheme? What sort of contribution is that to a shared future? Would the Secretary of State care to comment on that?

As I have said many times, it is important for all political leaders in Northern Ireland to express themselves in temperate terms and to bear in mind the impact of their statements on members of the community who come from different traditions. The way forward for Northern Ireland is to build mutual respect, rather than to focus on division and disunity with inflammatory statements.

Can my right hon. Friend explain how that division is to be addressed when the state continues to fund segregated education to the extent that it does?

There is a live debate in Northern Ireland about such matters. I believe that it is possible to ensure that the education system plays its part in building a shared future, without undermining parental choice. That is why I welcome the proposals in “Together: Building a United Community” that provide for far more opportunities for children and young people to learn alongside others from different traditions through the promotion of shared education. In addition, much work is under way on integrated education.

12. A shared future in Northern Ireland must be for everyone, regardless of race. I am sure that the Secretary of State will deplore the despicable attacks against Anna Lo, a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to address hate crime in Northern Ireland? (904139)

I share the hon. Lady’s concern about hate crimes in Northern Ireland. There has been a distressing number of such incidents over recent months. I strongly condemned those incidents in a speech that I made to the Police Federation for Northern Ireland. I have, of course, discussed these matters with the Police Service of Northern Ireland, including with the Chief Constable and Assistant Chief Constable Finlay. Such attacks are unacceptable and incompatible with a civilised society, and I totally condemn the attacks that have taken place.

Further to the last question, there is a small but significant number of ethnic minorities in Northern Ireland. What more needs to be done by the Northern Ireland Executive to ensure that those minorities can play a full part in a shared future for the Province?

In reflecting on how to build a shared society, it is important for the Northern Ireland Executive to look not just at the traditional divisions in Northern Ireland’s society, but at how more can be done to integrate and support minority communities in Northern Ireland. One way in which they can do that is by providing leadership and condemning the attacks that have taken place.

There has been a recent announcement about the resumption of inter-party talks, which will deal with issues that are a barrier to building a shared future: flags, parades and dealing with the past. Will the Secretary of State outline what she and the British Government will do to ensure that those talks are brought to a successful conclusion and what her exact role will be?

I will continue to urge all the parties in Northern Ireland to engage in the discussions on flags, parading and the past. The Prime Minister is also taking a close interest in that, with his article in the Belfast Telegraph making a strong argument for pressing ahead with an agreement for the sake of the future of Northern Ireland. Both he and I have had several conversations with Northern Ireland’s leaders in recent days. We will continue to encourage, support and facilitate the discussions between party leaders and work in a co-ordinated way with colleagues in Dublin and Washington, who are of course also interested in these matters.

The Secretary of State will agree that a successful shared future largely depends on the younger generation. A recent poll in the Belfast Telegraph suggested that two thirds of young people want to leave Northern Ireland for good, with many citing sectarianism as one of the reasons. Does she agree that a summit of politicians, business people, civil society and representatives of young people should be convened urgently to begin to address that crucial issue?

I am sure that such a summit would be helpful in looking at those matters. It is key to make progress on addressing sectarianism, but rebuilding and rebalancing the economy is also crucial to addressing the grave concern that the hon. Gentleman raises. I hope that this morning’s positive announcement on jobs for Northern Ireland will start to resolve these matters, not least the news that the claimant count in Northern Ireland has fallen again today for the 17th month in succession.

Now that the local and European elections are over, there is a window of opportunity for the Northern Ireland all-party talks to reach an agreement on parades and the past before the summer recess at Stormont. That is an important milestone on the way to achieving a shared future. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Government are willing to play a far more proactive role than they have done in the past in facilitating the all-party talks? Will she clarify the level of financial support that the UK Government will make available to support any agreement?

We are playing a proactive role and will continue to do so. I made the point strongly to party leaders over recent days that the process needs to be more intensive to take advantage of the coming weeks. I welcome the fact that the party leaders are now addressing the intensity of the process by setting up longer meetings, with a secretariat. The Prime Minister and I will continue to do all we can to support this process, but ultimately the answer has to come from Northern Ireland’s political leaders. It is not within our gift to impose a solution from outside and we will not do that.

National Crime Agency

Although the National Crime Agency currently operates in Northern Ireland in relation to non-devolved matters, and in support of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, its important work is restricted by the lack of agreement among the Northern Ireland parties on the agency’s remit there. Discussions between them are proceeding and very early resolution is essential.

On 23 April 2013, Royal Assent was given to the Crime and Courts Act, which established the National Crime Agency. We spent many months in Committee discussing the agency. We were given assurances by Ministers that this matter would be resolved by last October or November. Will the Minister tell me, 14 months later, when he intends to ensure that the National Crime Agency operates in Northern Ireland?

If I may digress slightly, I pay tribute to the retiring Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, Matt Baggott, who was previously chief constable of Leicestershire, and wish him well in his retirement. I also wish his successor, George Hamilton, well in his post.

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the matter is complicated. I do not think that we disagree about it at all. There are political parties in Northern Ireland—Sinn Fein and the Social Democratic and Labour party—that refuse to sign up to the National Crime Agency. We want the National Crime Agency to move forward in Northern Ireland and the serious gaps that are emerging in crime prevention and pursuit to be closed, but he will understand from his past that we have devolved policing and justice and that, unless we wish to break the Sewel convention, we will have to work with the parties in Northern Ireland to get some agreement.

The Minister will be aware that there have been numerous incidents in Northern Ireland in the past two or three years involving organised criminal gangs on the border, particularly fuel smuggling, fuel laundering, and money laundering, and that has escalated over the past two years. Will he outline the consequences of a failure to have the National Crime Agency fully operational in Northern Ireland?

It has been said that serious gaps are emerging. As the hon. Gentleman will understand, these are devolved matters, but we are keen that the National Crime Agency should be able to pursue organised and serious crime in Northern Ireland, and there is no difference between us on that at all. Two parties in the Executive are holding things up, however, and I ask why they are doing that and why we do not all want to pursue serious criminality in the Province.

On-the-runs: Inquiry

3. When she plans to report to the House on her Department’s inquiry into the administrative scheme for on-the-runs. (904130)

While Lady Justice Hallett is making progress on her report, she has informed me that it will not be ready for publication until shortly after the 30 June deadline.

The Secretary of State will be aware of deep concern in Northern Ireland about revelations that a number of terrorist suspects were granted the royal prerogative of mercy—in other words, pardons— for serious terrorist crimes. Will the report on the on-the-runs include information about those who have been granted such so-called pardons?

It is an independent report so I do not know what it will contain, but given the concerns raised about the use of the royal prerogative of mercy, I expect that aspects of that issue will be covered in Lady Justice Hallett’s report. I emphasise that this Government have not used the RPM in Northern Ireland, and it was used by the previous Government on only 18 occasions. Sixteen of those involved terrorism, but in all cases it was used to shorten sentences, not to cancel the offence.

The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has spent two days in Belfast taking evidence for our on-the-runs inquiry, including from victims and relatives of victims who gave the most harrowing accounts of what had happened to their loved ones. Does the Secretary of State agree that whenever we decide about writing letters to suspects or issuing royal pardons, the views and needs of victims should be at the heart of those considerations? Does she further agree that that has not always been the case?

I agree on both those points. I know that many victims of terrorism would have been deeply hurt by the OTR issue, which is why I apologise to them on behalf of the Government. Future reports and investigations on such matters should put victims at their centre, as should any broader solution looking at the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past.

In the past, security forces have used informers to help defeat terrorists. Does my right hon. Friend agree that issuing royal pardons to on-the-runs is a world apart from using royal pardons as a way of encouraging and using informers? Will she give an undertaking that the Government will not do anything to put at risk the use of informers in Northern Ireland?

It is not generally Government practice to comment on sensitive operational matters such as those, but I acknowledge that the use of informers is an important means of combating crime and terrorism.

Film Industry

4. What steps she has taken in conjunction with the Northern Ireland Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to attract jobs to Northern Ireland by promoting its film industry. (904131)

Economic rebalancing is essential and we fully support it through our economic pact with the Executive. Creative industries are an essential element worth half a billion pounds annually, and Invest NI and UKTI both strongly promote them. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has met HBO—Home Box Office—at Hillsborough and in America to promote Northern Ireland as a destination of choice.

The popular TV series “Game of Thrones” was filmed in my constituency and is watched by more than 2 million people—there is no better place to have a film made than Strangford. The Northern Ireland screen budget has recently been raised by £43 million, which will raise a further £194 million for the local economy. What steps has the Minister taken to ensure that the local South Eastern Regional College, based in Newtownards, will have the skills and training to increase the economy even more?

The skills are best dealt with by the people of Northern Ireland and the college. I visited “Game of Thrones” in Paint Hall in Belfast and was very impressed. Carla Stronge, of Extras NI, is quoted in the Belfast Telegraph today:

“When I started up in 2007 there were just two people working in my company. Since Game of Thrones started, I have had to take on more people and now there are 11 people working for me”.

We fully support that. I saw the castle in Strangford that is used in “Game of Thrones” only last week.

I find myself, oddly enough, in complete agreement with the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). That may disturb him more than it disturbs me. The Northern Irish film and television industry now has a global reputation for excellence. He referred to “Game of Thrones”. There is also Ridley Scott’s “Halo”, “The Fall” and many other productions. However, they tend to utilise talent from within the Belfast area. With youth unemployment still far higher outside Belfast than in the rest of Great Britain, what is the Minister doing to work with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and other agencies to extend the benefits throughout the north?

I do not accept what the hon. Gentleman says. At its height, “Game of Thrones” has employed up to 800 people. As we heard from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), it employs people from around the Province—Antrim, Strangford and elsewhere. The Government have introduced high-end television tax relief that has brought very real benefits to the creative industries in Northern Ireland and elsewhere. We are bringing down unemployment and strengthening the economy. Frankly, the hon. Gentleman would be well advised to remember the state of the economy when he left office in 2010.

The Past

5. What role she plans to play in advancing a comprehensive process for dealing with the past and its legacy. (904132)

The Prime Minister and I have been engaged with Northern Ireland’s political leaders in recent weeks to urge them to make progress on finding an agreed way forward on the past. The Prime Minister’s article in the Belfast Telegraph made the case strongly for an agreement on all three Haass issues. We both welcome the fact that party leaders are meeting again and are planning to step up their engagement on these matters with a more intensive process. [Interruption.]

Order. The House can scarcely hear the Secretary of State. That is not her fault, but the fault of Members. We are discussing extremely serious matters. Let us have a bit of order.

At the evidence sessions for the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, we heard directly from victims sector individuals who expressed their disappointment and distrust—indeed, their profound upset—at what had happened with the on-the-runs, and their need to see closure on this issue. What can the UK Government bring to the table as part of the talks that are about to start to ensure a fully comprehensive deal on the past that is transparent and respects the sensitivities of victims?

As I have said already, I believe that a way forward on the past has to put victims at its heart. I also agree with the hon. Lady that a new process needs to be transparent, balanced and accountable. As the OTRs issue has demonstrated, it is vital that we put any side deals behind us and that the way we approach the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past is balanced, transparent and accountable. We have said that we will work with the kind of institutions set out in Haass 7 if they are formally agreed by the parties.

11. The Secretary of State will be aware that many people in Northern Ireland are living in dread of the potential for another summer of disruption and distress. So that people are not held to ransom through another summer of protests, intimidation and violence, does the Secretary of State agree that there is now a compelling need for both the British and Irish Governments to become fully engaged in bringing the Haass discussions, and the discussions that have flowed from them, to a productive conclusion? (904138)

Both the UK and Irish Governments will continue to support the efforts of party leaders to reach a conclusion on the Haass issues. Like the hon. Gentleman, I urge everyone, as we approach the height of the parading season, to comply with the rule of law to ensure that all protests and all parades are both peaceful and lawful, and that the Parades Commission’s determinations are complied with.

Does the Secretary of State agree that getting Sinn Fein to tell the truth about the past is like hoping that Nick Clegg will be the Deputy Prime Minister after the 2015 election? Does she agree that the best way to deal with the past at this precise time is for her Government to annul the letters to the on-the-runs?

As I have said many times in relation to those letters, they did not confer an amnesty; they were merely a statement of fact about an individual’s status with regard to the police and prosecuting authorities at a particular point in time, and that was confirmed by the Director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland in the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee yesterday.

There should be no amnesty or “get out of jail free” card for troubles-related crimes, but does the Secretary of State agree that in 90% of cases, according to experts, victims will not get justice by pursuing prosecutions alone, because the evidence is simply not available to bring those cases to trial and get a conclusion?

What came across clearly was that many victims wanted the possibility of justice. I think they would accept that in many cases that is going to be difficult to achieve, but it would be unacceptable to introduce an amnesty and deprive victims of any hope of receiving justice.

Security Situation

6. What assessment she has made of the current security situation in Northern Ireland; and if she will make a statement. (904133)

The threat level in Northern Ireland remains severe, with persistent planning and targeting by terrorists. However, action by the PSNI and its partners continues to keep the pressure on these terrorist groups, greatly constraining their ability to carry out their lethal objectives.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that those terrorists who received a royal pardon, including Liam Averill, did so as a reward for giving vital information to the security forces? As well as other, overt activity to defeat the threat of terrorism, will she confirm that the security services have infiltrated, and will infiltrate, dissident republican terrorist cells, as they successfully did to defeat the Provisional IRA, using high-profile informants without royal pardons?

As I said in response to the earlier question on the use of agents and informants, it is not the Government’s practice to comment on such operational matters. However, I can give the hon. Gentleman the reassurance that the PSNI and its partners in the Security Service are working incredibly hard to do everything they can to combat these terrorists and have had a number of successes, not least with recent arrests of leading figures in the dissident republican groupings.

13. Does the Secretary of State recognise that the recent attack in the name of the IRA on a hotel in my constituency was an attack not just on that business, but on the city? Does she support the city in having a strong, resilient response that says, “We are not going to be a place of cold security; we are going to be a place of warmth, welcome and safety”? (904140)

Youth Unemployment

7. What assessment she has made of the social and economic effects of youth unemployment in Northern Ireland. (904134)

Youth unemployment is a critical issue. Specific measures to address it in Northern Ireland are the responsibility of the Executive, but the Government’s efforts to reduce the largest structural deficit in UK peacetime history are now bearing fruit. This, more than anything, will help to deliver a sustainable economic recovery and so directly assist young people to get into employment.

Despite the 2.6% reduction in youth unemployment, it still stands at an alarming 18.6%. Can the Minister say what measures the Government are putting in place to allow young people to access and progress into employment?

It is very kind of the hon. Gentleman to raise the matter of employment today of all days, as we bring the rate of unemployment across the UK down to 6.6%—which is pretty good, I would say—and in the 17th consecutive month in Northern Ireland when the claimant count has been down. Youth unemployment is down over the quarter by 2.4%. All youth unemployment is unfortunate, but we are working at it and achieving our aims, and I hope he would congratulate us on that.

8. Does the Minister of State agree that today’s employment figures prove that the long-term economic plan is working in Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom, demonstrating that the Conservative party has won the economic argument? (904135)

My hon. Friend may not be surprised to know that I do agree with him that the long-term economic plan is indeed working. I hope that Opposition Members will congratulate the Government on reducing the unemployment rate both in Northern Ireland and across the country, to the benefit of all the people of this United Kingdom.

9. Will the Minister update the House on what action UK Trade & Investment has taken with the participants in last year’s economic investment conference to increase much needed inward investment into Northern Ireland? (904136)

The investment conference was a great success, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman would agree. Out of that came further inward investment through Fujitsu and others, and we reckon that some 300 jobs were created just from the investment conference.

10. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Invest NI on an excellent year for attracting investment into Northern Ireland, and does he agree that the Prime Minister’s decision to take the G8 to Northern Ireland in June and to attend the international investment conference in October has played a key role in helping that objective? (904137)

I do of course. I welcome my hon. Friend back from his recent illness; I am delighted to see him and pay tribute to his work on the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs. We can all see that the Government’s and the Prime Minister’s engagement in investment in Northern Ireland has been hugely successful. I hope that everyone in the House would congratulate us on that.

Today’s unemployment statistics show that the work of the Northern Ireland Executive in reducing youth unemployment is succeeding, but what specific measures are there in the Queen’s Speech to indicate a way of reducing youth unemployment at a national level for all regions across the United Kingdom?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Queen’s Speech is dedicated to pursuing this long-term economic plan, and it is working. There are no specific measures that immediately spring to mind for Northern Ireland, but we all wish to see the economy grow and people in Northern Ireland prospering as in the rest of the United Kingdom, and I think that is happening. I am currently visiting a lot of places in Northern Ireland and find people buoyant and optimistic about the future of Northern Ireland and its economy.