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Northern Ireland: Political Situation

Volume 599: debated on Tuesday 8 September 2015

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the political situation in Northern Ireland. Over recent days, I have been involved in a series of discussions with the Prime Minister, the five largest parties in Northern Ireland and the Irish Government. On Thursday, we announced a fresh round of intensive cross-party talks. Those talks will begin in Stormont this evening and they will be conducted in accordance with the established three-stranded approach.

The Government’s objectives are clear. We are committed to working with Northern Ireland’s political leaders to ensure that we have a fully functioning Assembly, able to deliver for the whole community; a Northern Ireland where a stronger economy brings greater prosperity for all; and a Northern Ireland that is no longer defined by its divided past, but by its shared future. But to achieve this we need urgently to tackle the two main sources of current political instability. These are, first, the issues arising from continued paramilitary activity and, secondly, the implementation of the Stormont House agreement.

Turning to the first of these, on 12 August a prominent republican, Kevin McGuigan, was brutally murdered in the Short Strand area of east Belfast. This followed the gunning down of another senior republican, Gerard Davison, in the Markets area of Belfast in May. While it is not yet possible to know with certainty who was responsible for these murders, on 22 August the Chief Constable set out the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s assessment of the McGuigan case. This was the Chief Constable’s estimate at that date, but we should recognise that we do not yet know where the investigation will ultimately lead.

The Chief Constable confirmed that the police were following a line of inquiry that indicated that members of the Provisional IRA were involved in the crime. He said that the PSNI did not at that stage have information to indicate that this involvement was sanctioned or directed at a senior or organisational level in the Provisional IRA. On the status of the Provisional IRA, the Chief Constable’s assessment was that some PIRA organisational structures still exist, but for a radically different purpose from before. His view was that the organisation was committed to a political path and was no longer engaged in terrorism, although some current and former PIRA members continued to engage in criminal activities for personal gain and for personal agendas.

I do not intend to comment further on what is a live police investigation. The PSNI must be allowed to pursue its lines of inquiry wherever the evidence leads. The police assessment I have outlined may change over time, but I want to make this clear: there was never a justification for politically motivated violence in Northern Ireland, from whichever side of the community it came. During the troubles, paramilitary organisations inflicted huge suffering on thousands of ordinary people. These organisations should never have existed in the first place; they should not exist today, and they should disband.

For our part, the Government believe fundamentally in the rule of law. We will not compromise it. We stand fully behind the Mitchell principles of democracy and non-violence. Only parties committed to exclusively democratic and peaceful means can or should be eligible to participate in Northern Ireland’s political institutions.

I believe that all the parties in the Northern Ireland Executive are committed to those principles, but I am fully aware that the fallout from the murder of Kevin McGuigan and continued existence of PIRA structures is a cause of grave concern, as is the continued existence of other paramilitary groups. So we have moved swiftly to convene talks to address these matters and to consider how best we can make progress towards the day when paramilitary groupings are consigned once and for all to Northern Ireland’s history.

The second matter for consideration in the talks is the implementation of the Stormont House agreement. The Government believe that the agreement is the best hope of building a brighter, more secure future for Northern Ireland, but for that to happen, it is essential that the agreement is implemented in full by all those who participated in the negotiations last autumn. We are delivering on our side of the deal.

In March, we passed legislation to open the way for the devolution of corporation tax powers. In line with the Queen’s Speech, we are on course to introduce a Bill in October to set up important new institutions to help deal with the painful legacy of the past, and we are now releasing funding to enable the planned voluntary exit scheme to proceed in order to take forward much-needed public sector reform.

The manifesto on which we were elected commits us to working with each of the other participants to ensure that all aspects of the agreement are implemented. That has to include the financial provisions of the agreement—including welfare reform. Without welfare reform and measures to deal with in-year pressures, the budget passed by the Executive in June simply does not add up. This raises the real prospect that the Executive will start running out of money, with resulting damage to front-line public services such as hospitals, schools and policing.

In those circumstances, the Government cannot stand by and let this situation drag on indefinitely, with Stormont less and less able to deliver key public services. As a last resort, we would be prepared to legislate here at Westminster for welfare reform in Northern Ireland, but I must emphasise that we would do so reluctantly and only after we had exhausted all the realistic alternatives. By far the better outcome would be for the Northern Ireland parties to reach agreement to resolve this blockage themselves without the need for Westminster intervention. I still believe that is possible, and that is why we will press ahead with talks this evening, determined to see the implementation of all aspects of the agreement.

We are a one nation Government and we want to build a Northern Ireland where politics works, the economy grows, and society is stronger and more united. We strongly support the power-sharing devolved institutions established under the Belfast agreement. The future of these institutions is in jeopardy if the two very serious matters I have outlined here today are not resolved.

I do not underestimate the challenges we face, but I believe that a way through can be found. That is what we will be striving to achieve as we embark on this new talks process with urgency, focus and determination. Northern Ireland political leaders have shown remarkable courage over the last 20 years and have achieved truly great things by working together. We need to show that same spirit over the next few short weeks. I commend this statement to the House.

I sincerely thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of her statement, and I would like to apologise to the Secretary of State and the House for the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis),the shadow Secretary of State, who has asked me to relay his apologies for not being in attendance today. He has to be in Belfast for the launch of the Heenan-Anderson commission report.

The official Opposition strongly support the UK and Irish Governments’ decision to convene all-party talks this week in an attempt to secure a positive way forward on the challenging issues raised by the murder of Kevin McGuigan Sr and its aftermath, together with implementation of the Stormont House agreement. There is no doubt that a combination of real concerns following the Chief Constable’s assessment in relation to the status of the Provisional IRA and the failure to agree a sustainable budget pose the biggest threat to political stability in Northern Ireland for many years.

We urge all parties to seek the necessary compromises and confidence-building measures that can avert the collapse of the institutions. The people of Northern Ireland have had their faith in politicians and political institutions badly damaged by the perpetual crises of the past few years. There should be no doubt that the vast majority want to see progress, and a return to a focus on issues such as jobs, education, health and opportunities for young people. It is also the case that business confidence, and therefore investment, are now being put at risk by political uncertainty. All parties in Northern Ireland must take responsibility for stepping back from the brink, and for finding a way forward.

I have some questions for the Secretary of State. In the aftermath of Kevin McGuigan’s murder, she said that the Government had always been aware of the continued existence of the Provisional IRA. Will she make clear exactly what she meant by that statement? Some have proposed the reintroduction of the Independent Monitoring Commission. What is the Secretary of State’s assessment of the feasibility, or the desirability, of such a measure? At what precise stage of the current financial year will the Northern Ireland budget cease to be sustainable? Are the Government now actively considering introducing emergency legislation to suspend the political institutions and return to direct rule if the current round of talks should fail? Finally, what further detail can the Secretary of State provide following her statement yesterday that the Government would now consider legislating for welfare reform and releasing funds for the civil service voluntary redundancy scheme, and what will the timeline be?

Having asked those questions, I want to place on the record the support of Opposition Members for the talks that will take place this evening, and stress our continuing and undiluted endorsement of the bipartisan approach in which we both believe.

The Secretary of State has rightly listed the challenges that face the people and the politicians of Northern Ireland, but we must never ignore the progress that has been made. These may be dark and dangerous times, but I profoundly hope, and I believe, that the good sense of all in Northern Ireland will prevail. It may be too late to hope that Kyle Lafferty’s last-minute goal in the match against Hungary last night has imbued Northern Ireland with a feelgood factor that will permeate every aspect, but surely this must be the time to reroute the march to the cliff edge and head back to sanity—and forward to the peaceful and prosperous future that we all know Northern Ireland deserves.

I thank the shadow Minister for his support. Let me deal with his questions.

In relation to the existence of the provisional IRA, my assessment is the same as that of the Chief Constable, and the assessment that I have been given by security advisers during my time as Secretary of State is broadly in line with the summary given by the Chief Constable that I outlined earlier: the continued existence of some organisational structures, with no involvement in paramilitarism or terrorism, but with individual members pursuing criminality for personal gain to pursue personal agendas.

As for the IMC, it is an important issue to consider, and I think that we would want to consider it as part of the talks. It may well be the case that if an IMC-type body were set up, we would want to ask it different questions from those that were asked by the IMC; but it is, of course, a model that we should consider when proceeding with the important process of dealing with the issues related to continuing and wholly unacceptable paramilitary activities.

The hon. Gentleman asked at what point the Northern Ireland Executive would become unsustainable. I am afraid that it is already unsustainable. There are already Ministers who feel that they cannot sign off projects because of the uncertainty surrounding the future availability of funds. I think that those matters are very urgent.

I am conscious that the issue of suspension is very sensitive. I have received representations on it from the Democratic Unionist party. I understand the DUP’s concerns, but the Government do not feel that it would be right to suspend the institutions at this stage and in these circumstances. If the circumstances were to change in the future, we would of course need to look at all our options.

As for the welfare reform matters, I said that we would be prepared to legislate as a last resort, but we are not at that stage yet. My priority will be working with the parties to find a way to ensure that the welfare package in the Stormont House resolution is implemented, because it is a good deal for Northern Ireland. The voluntary redundancy scheme is expected to start its operation with the first participants leaving their roles at the end of this month.

One of the worrying aspects of this whole situation is the lack of respect and lack of confidence that people in Northern Ireland now have for the institutions, and that makes it very important that we move those institutions towards becoming efficient decision-making bodies so they can enjoy some successes. Does the Secretary of State agree that that evolution is best carried out with the institutions up and running, rather than attempting to do it from a standing start?

I agree that it is hugely important that we keep the devolved institutions up and running. I know the situation is difficult and that there are tensions between the participants in the institutions. There is no doubt that sharing power comes with real tensions and real challenges, but it would be a huge setback if the institutions were to collapse. There can be no guarantees about when it would be possible to set them up again, so it remains the Government’s top priority to ensure we do all we can to support these institutions and the parties in finding a way through these current very serious difficulties.

I thank the Secretary of State for her statement.

No one in this Chamber will wish to see the end of the progress made in Northern Ireland and no one will wish to see the Stormont House agreement fall. SNP Members stand ready to offer whatever assistance we can to all sides in finding a way forward. We believe that power should be exercised as close to the people affected as possible, and Stormont’s continued success will enhance that.

The withdrawal of parties from the Executive was a worrying development, and their re-engagement would be welcome. It would be a great blunder if the austerity cuts Northern Ireland is facing became the catalyst for the breakdown of the democratic institutions that have helped to hold the peace, notwithstanding the recent violence, and I urge the UK Government to redouble their efforts to find a resolution to this problem.

The parties in Northern Ireland have faced down greater problems than this and found ways forward. I think their perseverance and desire to serve their constituents well can be relied upon to provide a basis for a resolution, provided they have adequate support from Whitehall and this place.

The Government will want to see progress made, and I can assure them they will have the support of the SNP at all levels in helping Stormont build for the future. A fully functioning cross-party institution there seems, at the moment, to be the best option for all of us in these islands. I reiterate that if there is anything the Secretary of State feels we can assist with, we stand ready and willing to help in any way we can.

I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s support. It is of course a worrying development that the UUP felt the need to withdraw from the Executive, but the priority now is for all parties to work together to try to find a way through this impasse.

The hon. Lady refers to austerity. We feel it is very important for the Northern Ireland Executive to have sustainable public finances. To do that, they need to deal with in-year pressures in their budget and to implement the Stormont House agreement provisions on welfare reform. These would give Northern Ireland the most generous welfare system in the United Kingdom, and overall public spending per head in Northern Ireland remains well ahead of the rest of the UK, rightly reflecting the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland, but I am afraid that none of us in the developed world is immune to the difficult decisions that have had to be taken to deal with the deficit we inherited.

I thank the Secretary of State for her statement and the measured manner in which she has conducted herself in recent weeks. I was in Northern Ireland recently, and there is complete exasperation that local politicians, having come to an agreement with the Stormont agreement, have not delivered it. Every day that passes we see the ability to reduce corporation tax in Northern Ireland missed. We see projects missed and going instead to the Republic of Ireland, bringing jobs and investment there. There is real exasperation on the ground. What the Secretary of State has said has huge local support, and I encourage her to take an extremely robust line in talks. She will have the support of the people of Northern Ireland. Will she confirm that to impose welfare reform from here would be a cop-out, and now is the time for local politicians to deliver on their responsibilities to the local people who voted for them?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. I agree that the devolution of corporation tax could have a transformational effect in Northern Ireland. It is understandable that it has been the key ask of Northern Ireland’s leaders over many years. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for his role in taking forward the campaign for corporation tax devolution. The opportunities provided by that are one more reason why it is so essential to find a way through here, because it is frustrating to see this great change—this potential economic game-changer—receding into the distance. It will never be possible to implement corporation tax devolution without a resolution on sustainable public finances, and that is one of the reasons why I will be working hard in the talks to resolve those questions.

As a result of the Chief Constable’s assessment arising out of the recent events in Northern Ireland, does the Secretary of State agree that it cannot be business as usual as far as the Northern Ireland political institutions are concerned? The Democratic Unionist party, speaking on behalf of many thousands of people who actually elect us in Northern Ireland, is very clear that this matter cannot be swept under the carpet, fudged or ignored. We are not prepared to continue as though nothing has happened. Murder has happened, carried out by those who are linked to a party of Government. Just imagine if that were to happen here—that a party in Government was linked to a paramilitary organisation still in existence whose members carried out murder on the streets of the United Kingdom. It is an intolerable situation and it must be sorted out at the talks. Serious consequences will flow from failure, striking at the very existence of devolution.

Does the Secretary of State accept the need to deal also with the criminality of the provisional republican movement and the paramilitaries? Does she also accept that one of the options—she has hinted at this already—that she may be forced to consider is to suspend the Assembly and the political institutions in order in the long run to restore and maintain any hope of the long-term viability of devolution and the Assembly?

The talks must also be about the implementation of the Stormont House agreement, not a renegotiation. I am referring to the remarks of the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson). Instead of issuing a blanket condemnation of all Northern Ireland politicians, he and other Members of this House should realise there are parties in Northern Ireland who are prepared to move forward, make the difficult decisions and implement welfare reform, and that it is Sinn Féin and, sad to say, the SDLP that have blocked those decisions.

Let us be very clear about where the blame lies. It does not lie with all the politicians and political parties of Northern Ireland. This is now about getting on with implementing the Stormont House agreement, which all the parties, including Sinn Féin, signed up to. That is what must happen in these talks, or else we are going to have a very serious situation indeed.

I do recognise that it cannot be business as usual. That is why the Prime Minister has moved swiftly to establish this fresh talks process, to address with urgency precisely the questions the right hon. Gentleman has outlined. Of course, overshadowing all this is the fact that two individuals have been brutally gunned down on the streets of Belfast.

The right hon. Gentleman raises the matter of criminality among members of the Provisional IRA. Any criminality is to be condemned, whether or not it is committed by a member of a paramilitary organisation. Whatever label these people choose to give themselves they are criminals, and the PSNI has the Government’s full support in pursuing them and bringing them to justice and putting them in prison where they deserve to be.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned suspension. As I said in response to the shadow Minister, we do not feel it would be right to do that in the current circumstances. If those circumstances change dramatically in the future, we will of course keep all options open and consider them all.

I fully agree with the right hon. Gentleman’s statement about the subject matter of the talks and the Stormont House agreement. We are not renegotiating; we are simply finding a way to relieve the blockage of implementation and make sure that the agreement is implemented in full.

I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend on the calm and measured way in which she has dealt with this difficult situation. Having served in Northern Ireland three times, I am fully aware of the difficulties that she and many others face. I should also like to congratulate the police on the good work that they do. We all know that the Provisional IRA exists and that it is involved in criminal activities. Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that the fear of reigniting a conflict will not in any way prevent the police from chasing thugs on both sides of the political divide?

Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. The PSNI will pursue criminality and criminal offences wherever they find them, and it is right that they should do so without fear or favour, uninfluenced by the political climate.

On behalf of the Liberal Democrats, I wish the Secretary of State well in her endeavours in convening the talks. We very much share her aspiration to see a fully functioning Assembly in Northern Ireland, although I have to say to her in all candour that I think the answer lies not in her hands but in those of the Northern Ireland parties themselves. She speaks of the possibility of suspension, but my understanding is that that would be next to impossible politically and that there would be significant legal impediments to its happening as well. What assessment has been made of those legal impediments?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his support. I agree that resolving these questions lies primarily in the hands of the Northern Ireland parties and their elected leaders. There is no power on the statute book relating to suspension. If any future Government were to consider suspension, it would require primary legislation. That is not part of our current plans.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the work that she is doing, but may I press her further on the timetable? The Executive appear to be suspended in regard to meetings, but the budget and the Stormont House agreement need to be implemented. If the talks are unsuccessful, at what stage would my right hon. Friend come back with further legislation in this place to implement that budget and the legislation that is required?

The next four to five weeks are going to be absolutely crucial. These matters are very urgent, as we have heard from a number of hon. Members around the House. The Stormont House talks took 150 hours over 11 weeks, and it was Christmas eve before we nailed down that deal, but we do not have the luxury of that timetable this time round. We need a much shorter, sharper, more focused and more intensive process, and that is what I shall be seeking.

Will the Secretary of State tell us how this new round of intensive cross-party talks will be different from previous rounds of intensive cross-party talks, the last of which led to the Stormont House agreement? What has changed that makes her feel that these talks will be successful? Does she not feel that it is time to be planning for a properly working Assembly with an Opposition and a Government?

On that last question, the Conservatives have a commitment to supporting an official Opposition, and moves were made in that direction in the Stormont House agreement, which is one of the reasons that we want to see it go ahead. The hon. Lady asks whether these talks will be different from previous talks. In many ways, they will be very similar to previous ones, some of which succeeded while others did not. Another thing that they will have in common with previous cross-party talks is that even if we have a successful outcome culminating in an agreement, that will be just one step along the much longer road of getting implementation properly effected.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement and the Government’s continuing commitment to the peace process. Does she agree that peace will be dependent on having a stable devolved Government with a stable Executive and based on stable finances? Does she also agree that all the parties involved should be prepared to take the decisions necessary to deliver this, and not just some of them?

My hon. Friend is right to suggest that success in Northern Ireland is inextricably linked to a stable, devolved, power-sharing Government. It is also hugely important for those who are part of that Government to take responsible decisions on the public finances. As we all know, they are often painful decisions, but the alternatives are far worse, as we have seen from the melancholy experiences of Governments around Europe who have lost control of their spending.

May I reassure the Secretary of State that the Social Democratic and Labour party has always taken responsibility, unlike others who have upset themselves and boycotted—[Interruption.] In spite of the hecklers behind me here, who have little constructive to offer, I should like to say that the SDLP still supports the Stormont House agreement, but that we reserve the right to amend the gaps and repair the flaws in it. The difficulty was that when my heckling friends produced a Bill, it was a flawed Bill. We tried to help them repair those flaws, but they would not tolerate those repairs. They refused even to consider constructive amendments to their flawed and inadequate Bill.

It is important to set the record straight. The SDLP will always uphold its responsibilities on every occasion, not just on the few occasions that suit party political purpose. Does the Secretary of State accept that it is not the existence of the Provisional IRA—God knows, we in the SDLP have reminded her and her predecessor time and again that it continues to exist—but the activities and functions of that organisation that cause the problems? One person’s radically different purpose is another person’s mafia programme extending to a financial empire that undermines attempts to rebuild our economy. Does she also accept that withdrawal, abstentionism, suspension, adjournment and all these other gimmicks that are used, with threats and preconditions, make it difficult to arrive at a constructive and honest solution? We all want positivity, but we must all put our shoulder to the wheel and be positive all the time.

I must emphasise that these talks are not about a renegotiation of the agreement. We need to get the agreement implemented, and that is the priority. The hon. Gentleman mentions the forthcoming Bill, which will be on its way in October. We have been working hard on that and we have had helpful input from the Northern Ireland Executive. He is right to raise concern about the activities of members of the Provisional IRA. His party, along with others, has been forthright in criticising members of all paramilitary organisations. Recent events have brought into sharp focus the pressing need to see all paramilitary organisations disbanded. There is no place for them in Northern Ireland, and that subject will be an important part of the talks. On the question of funding for the Executive, I urge him and his party to be flexible and pragmatic. The deal in the Stormont House agreement was a generous one, and the welfare package would give Northern Ireland the most generous welfare system in the country and put the finances of the Executive on a sustainable basis. I hope that hon. Members will bear that in mind.

I commend the Secretary of State for her statement. Will additional police resources be made available, should they be required, to ensure that the criminal matters to which she refers can be properly investigated?

The allocation of resources between different operations will be a matter for the PSNI; it is not a matter for me to interfere with. I emphasise, however, that the Government provide additional resources to the PSNI to counter the terrorist threat, and the fact of those resources’ presence means that the PSNI can release resources to pursue other activities, including this case.

Will the Secretary of State address the issue of criminality? Murder is wrong, and we abhor it. The reality is that the Chief Constable has clearly indicated that the Provisional IRA and other paramilitary groups are now effectively organised criminal gangs. This is not just a question of resourcing the PSNI. There have been no arrests in south Armagh in the past few years, despite the fact that a multimillion-pound criminal empire is being operated there by the Provisional IRA. Is it not time for HMRC to be given not only the necessary resources but the power to start arresting people?

On criminality, I have set out the Chief Constable’s position, which I share: individual members of the Provisional IRA are involved in criminality for personal gain and to pursue personal agendas. I have discussed this matter with the Chief Constable on a number of occasions, and his view is not that there is organisational involvement in criminality, save of course for the fact that existence involves criminal conduct, because it is a proscribed organisation.

On arrests, the Chief Constable has indicated that he wants a better clear-up rate on paramilitary beatings. They cause huge concern and often have fatal consequences, and it is utterly unacceptable for organisations to seek to take the law into their own hands. On arrests in South Armagh, I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that the PSNI, HMRC and their various security partners are working very hard to bring to justice anyone responsible for criminality, be it in South Armagh or in the rest of Northern Ireland. Indeed they are working with their partners to tackle those who seek to exploit the border and engage in criminal conduct south of the border, too.

The politicians from Northern Ireland are some of the most courageous politicians we have, and they have worked hard for years. It is good to see the Secretary of State at the Dispatch Box, but it is even better when she is not at the Dispatch Box, because that means things are going well. Having a boring Secretary of State is rather useful, so it is sad that she has had to come to make this statement today. I wish to ask about the specific issue of welfare reform. Judging by the timetable she mentioned earlier, we could expect, if it is necessary, that this legislation will come back almost in the first week after the next recess. May I ask that we have enough time to scrutinise it, if it does come back, because there has been a tendency in the past to rush Northern Ireland legislation through quickly?

I agree that Northern Ireland’s elected leaders have achieved great things over the past 20 years and that in many ways it is better for Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland not to be at the Dispatch Box, because sometimes their being here means bad news, but there is much to celebrate in Northern Ireland. I have been at this Dispatch Box talking about economic prosperity in Northern Ireland, the great events that have been run there in recent years and the high quality of its education. We should not forget, even at this difficult time, that Northern Ireland is a great place to live—it has so much going for it. We just need to sort out these political impasses in order to let the place flourish as it should. On welfare reform, I assure my hon. Friend that this legislation will not be coming to the House in October. It is a last resort and we will be working with the parties to try to find a way through before we consider whether, in the end, we have no choice but to legislate at Westminster.

The Secretary of State has taken a two-strand approach. She clearly has a view on the welfare reform: if all else fails, she will have the nuclear option of legislating in this House. Has she a similar view on the issue of paramilitaries? How exactly does she see things moving forward in dealing with that? Does she have the resources in the Northern Ireland Office to help her to do the job that we all want her to do? By that I mean not just numbers, but the people with the capability, capacity and understanding to make it work.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his questions, which raise what will be one of the most urgent issues to address when the talks are held over the coming days: how we deal with this situation in relation to paramilitaries. We have heard one suggestion about whether we need a revival of the Independent Monitoring Commission—some form of re-verification and assessment so that people can have a clearer understanding of the facts around the continued existence and activities of the paramilitary organisations which persist in Northern Ireland. We also need to consider how we can work together as a society to do more to reach a place where these organisations disband once and for all.

I have the NIO resources I need. I have good people working with me in the NIO, but of course of crucial importance will be the determination, the resources put in and the efforts made by Northern Ireland’s political leaders. On matters where they are responsible, we will be working with the Irish Government, too.

The Secretary of State will have heard the comments from Members from all parts of the House about the frustration, the lack of confidence and so on. She has said that whatever resources are required to resolve a number of the issues to do with the murders or the criminality will be given, but the general public’s attitude is that these are words and we are not getting results. The criminality is costing the economy of Northern Ireland and the British Exchequer hundreds of millions of pounds a year—the price of a new hospital. The frustration is there, so what more can she do to help the PSNI to resolve cases of fuel smuggling in South Armagh?

Various organised crime taskforces operate in the Northern Ireland context, and in a UK-Ireland context too, and they are determined to tackle those who seek to exploit the border for criminal gain in places such as South Armagh. We will continue to support those organisations. Obviously, much of that responsibility is devolved. I am afraid that is another reason why we need to settle the welfare reform question, because the longer it goes on, the greater the payments the Northern Ireland Executive are paying out in running the old system which is more expensive. That means less and less money is available for policing, hospitals and schools. That makes it very urgent that we get these questions resolved, because without a sustainable budget, no Government are able to deliver on their priorities, and those of course include law enforcement.

The Secretary of State has said that the Government recognise that it cannot be business as usual. Did she and the Prime Minister agree to the DUP’s plan for there to be no meetings of the Northern Ireland Executive over the next number of weeks as part of that “no business as usual”? Does she recognise that that could be perceived as, or could be a breach of, the ministerial code for Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive?

I am anxious to see the devolved institutions continue and operate parallel to the talks. I encourage all parties to continue to work constructively. There is an important job to be done in the talks, both within the Executive and beyond, and I will be encouraging all parties to work together to keep the institutions going and to reach a successful conclusion to the talks.

Rather than share the shadow Secretary of State’s belief that some political Kyle Lafferty will pull a match-saver out of the bag, I believe it is more likely, given the attitude of some of the parties in Northern Ireland, that more own goals will be scored during the talks. Will the Secretary of State give us an assurance today that if the rumours circulating at the moment in Belfast are true—that senior people associated with Sinn Féin are likely to be arrested for serious crimes—she will not hesitate to show the red card to those Sinn Féin associates and put them back behind bars, where they should be and from where they have been released under licence?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I do not think it would be appropriate for me to comment on specific matters relating to what future arrests might take place, but I reiterate that this Government believe firmly in the rule of law. Therefore, if the police have reason to believe that criminal offences have been committed by individuals, they must be allowed to pursue those individuals and bring them to justice, regardless of their political background or political status.

The Secretary of State knows that I have raised the issue of PSNI resources a number of times and, in particular, the Chief Constable’s view that he does not have the resources to do the whole of the job we are asking him to do. Does she believe there is any link between the increase in confidence and activity of the paramilitaries, and the cuts in funding and strength of the PSNI?

I believe the PSNI is still appropriately resourced to deal with the dissident republican threat. Like all other aspects of the public sector, the PSNI is needing to undertake a process of reform to ensure that it can continue to deliver its functions within reduced resources. As I said, one reason we need this question resolved is that the Northern Ireland Executive have a choice: do they spend ever more money on a more expensive and discredited welfare system, or can they release some of that money to support policing and justice? I believe that diverting that money to front-line public services is by far the better outcome, and that the welfare reforms we have introduced in Great Britain improve the system and reward work. As I have said, with the top-ups agreed at Stormont Castle, Northern Ireland would have the most generous welfare system in the country and would have resources to spare for the important priorities such as policing, which the hon. Lady is right to raise.

Will the Secretary of State explain to the House how she is allowing a clear act of criminality to be linked with the political process?

As I have emphasised, we do not yet know with any certainty who was responsible for the two recent murders. What we do know is that the continued existence of paramilitary organisations is a concern. I say “organisations” because there are still a number in operation. Their existence was never justified. They did huge damage, and took the lives of thousands of people, including Members of this House and many brave members of the armed services and the police. Their time is up and they should all disband. It is an appropriate time for Northern Ireland’s leaders to work together to bring about a complete end to paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland.

When my constituent Kevin McGuigan was murdered over the summer, it not only precipitated the political posturing and cynical positioning of one party, the abject denial of responsibilities by another and the downright delusion of a third, but raised the spectre of paramilitaries on our streets once again. Last Thursday at the Northern Ireland Policing Board, the Chief Constable said that it was not his job to provide an assessment of the paramilitaries or their criminal activity, yet when asked in a written question last year by our colleague, the Reverend William McCrea, the Secretary of State indicated that it was a matter for the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Will the Secretary of State tell us who is right?

The Chief Constable has been clear that he does not propose to give a running commentary on the criminal investigation of his officers. That is not generally helpful to a successful criminal justice outcome. Whatever the political background, we should be understanding of the police for not wanting to share day-to-day details of their investigation. As for looking at the continuing status of paramilitary organisations, there is of course a split in the responsibilities. It is vital that the police pursue anyone who is responsible for criminal acts. Now is an important time to consider whether we need some form of separate process to look again at the question of what these organisations are up to, their status, what they are engaged in and what we can do to see them disband and stop altogether. That is an important part of what we will be addressing over the coming weeks.

I must say that I am very pleased indeed that the Secretary of State has taken this opportunity to confirm that her Government are committed to a fully functioning Assembly. For all its shortcomings, and the Assembly has many, it is infinitely better than direct rule. This House will be well aware that, over the worst of times, our Church leaders in Northern Ireland have provided a very valuable contribution to moving discussions along, and to chivvying people who might not otherwise have been open or easy to chivvy. In light of that, I wonder whether the Secretary of State has made any approaches to our Church leaders. If not, may I encourage her to do so? I should say that I have not forewarned them about volunteering them for this role.

The hon. Lady makes the most important point of the statement. It is hugely important that we support the devolved institutions. Yes, they are difficult. Yes, like any other Government, they have their bad days and their good days. It would be such a big setback to return to direct rule. It is vital that we do all we can to sustain that huge success that is the establishment of the political settlement and the institutions of Northern Ireland. That is why these talks will be so important. I have regular contacts with the Church leaders, but I am happy to get in touch with them now and take their views on these important matters.

The cornerstone of the political settlement reached in Northern Ireland was the three-stranded nature of the Good Friday agreement—relations within Northern Ireland, relations between the north and the south, and indeed east-west relations. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Government are still committed to that approach and rule out taking any action to suspend the Assembly without the agreement and support of her partners in the Irish Government?

We are committed to the three-stranded approach, and I have set out the position on suspension. We do not think that it would be right to suspend in these circumstances. If the circumstances were to change significantly in the future, we would keep all our options open.

Along with colleagues on both sides of the House, I attended the Global Irish Parliamentarians’ Forum in Dublin last week. Will the Secretary of State expand on the role that she thinks the Irish Government could play in trying to unblock the current impasse?

The Irish Government are very enthusiastic about trying to move things forward, not least because they are a party to the Stormont House agreement. Paramilitary involvement has been the source of important discussions in an east-west context over many years, and successive Irish Governments have played a part in trying to find the right solutions in relation to paramilitary activity. I will be working with them and the Northern Ireland parties over the next few days to work out a way forward.

I thank the Secretary of State for her statement. The IRA army council continues to exist; the murder of Kevin McGuigan confirms that. Today, it has been confirmed that Kevin McKee and Seamus Wright, two of the disappeared, have been found in the Republic of Ireland, murdered by the IRA. The past and the present have caught up with the IRA, and therefore Sinn Féin. Confidence has been undermined to the greatest extent for many years and it needs to be restored. What assurance can the Secretary of State give to the people of Northern Ireland—those who are involved in the democratic political process—that the IRA army council will be brought to account for its control of republican terrorism?

As I have said, it is very important that the police are allowed to get on with their investigation and to pursue whoever they find evidence against regardless of their background or status. The hon. Gentleman is right to mention the finding of two of the disappeared, which has been confirmed today. It will be a difficult day for those families. I hope that they will derive a degree of comfort in knowing that at last the remains of their loved ones have been found. As for confidence in the institutions, there is no doubt that that has been shaken. Both of the issues in the talks have contributed to that. The concerns felt over the events of recent days and the fall-out from the Kevin McGuigan murder have been intensified by the fact that relations within the Executive were so very severely strained anyway because of the decision to block the welfare reform within the Executive and the inability to deliver financial sustainability. These are difficult times, and it is important that we work together to find a way forward.

I thank the Secretary of State for her statement. I had the pleasure recently of visiting and speaking with members of the International Fund for Ireland, which is an independent organisation that was established with the British and Irish Governments back in 1986. The fund promotes economic and social advance and encourages contact, dialogue and reconciliation between north and south. Reconciliation is the key word for all parties in moving forward. Perhaps it is time to bring organisations such as that around the table. To suspend the Assembly and impose direct rule is not the answer and should be used only as a last resort. I urge all parties to set aside their differences and to get around the table tonight and over the next few weeks to sort this out and move forward for the benefit of all the citizens of that island.

The International Fund for Ireland that the hon. Lady mentions and other such organisations engaged in community-based work in Northern Ireland already play a significant role in trying to bring different parts of the community together to build a shared society. That is part of the challenge of tackling paramilitarism; one of the ways that we tackle it is to persuade people that it is a hugely damaging choice to get involved with the paramilitary organisations. Organisations such as Co-Operation Ireland that are engaged in improving community relations can play a real part in showing people a different path and demonstrating the real risks and damage they can do to their prospects if they find themselves involved in paramilitary organisations.

I thank the Secretary of State for her statement today and assure her that the Ulster Unionist party wants a proper working Government in Northern Ireland, not the dysfunctional Government we have at the moment. The public are fed up with that and with the lack of action on crime. They want to see things happen and happen quickly. As most of my question has been asked by others, I want to focus on this point. Can we please ensure, if we ever have to suspend the institutions—I hope we do not—that there is a plan to get them back in place so that we are not left without them for long?

One reason we do not think that it would be right to move to suspend is the difficulty in getting things up and running at the end of a period of direct rule. As I have said, it is not part of our plan and we hope to see a successful outcome to the talks so that that question goes away.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement today. Obviously, there is a lot of bad faith and bad trust in the entire process in Northern Ireland. Whether through Sinn Féin supporting the Stormont House proposals on welfare reform and then reneging on that agreement some three months later, or as a result of members of the IRA who have murdered people on our streets in Northern Ireland, there is a lot of bad faith. I note that the Secretary of State said that she will initiate the voluntary exit scheme for the Northern Ireland civil service. Is that the start of the Secretary of State’s process of returning powers to Her Majesty’s Government in Westminster, or is that something separate?

That is a separate issue. We have always said that the Stormont House agreement is a package and that if one part of it falls, the rest of it falls. Most of the financial package has not been delivered yet and we would look carefully at the implementation of the rest of the agreement before we could deliver it. For the VES to happen we needed a decision, as people were going through the scheme and expecting to leave their roles from the end of the month. That is why we pressed ahead and will release the funding to enable that to go ahead. Let me make one last point on welfare reform. I want to thank the UUP, the DUP and the Alliance for voting for financial sustainability in the Assembly. I know that it was not an easy choice and I thank them for their responsibility.

I point out to the Secretary of State that some of us find it difficult to conscript our colleagues to vote for something in Stormont having argued and voted against the same measures here. Will she acknowledge that the SDLP has been consistently forthright in our assessment that an ulterior nexus has continued to exist offstage, even when the IRA had purportedly left the stage politically? Those vestigial networks have manifested themselves not just through apparently privatised criminal enterprise but in other ways. Those are among the issues that need to continue to be addressed, but not just by the parties. Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that the British Government do not come to the welfare reform issue with clean hands? The Government adopted a tactic of inducing budget stress, which in turn created a budget crisis and has now contributed to a political crisis. Will the Government rethink their tactics of budget bullying in relation to welfare reform, which has created some of the difficulties we now have?

I reject the allegation that we are bullying over the budget. The Northern Ireland block grant has actually gone up in cash terms over the course of the last spending review and has come down by only about 1% in real terms. The savings asked of the Northern Ireland Executive are considerably less than for many other aspects of the public sector in Great Britain. As for welfare, we inherited a situation in which with 1% of the world’s population and 4% of the world’s GDP we are paying out 7% of the world’s spending on benefits. That is not sustainable in the long term and it had to be dealt with. We have to put welfare on a more sustainable basis and we have sought to do that with a core principle of ensuring that work always pays and that a single household cannot take more in benefits than the average family gets by going out to work. Those are both reasonable approaches to take.