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Legacy Issues

Volume 602: debated on Wednesday 25 November 2015

The recent political talks established significant common ground between the parties on dealing with the past, but, sadly, not enough to allow us to legislate at this point. We will keep working to achieve the necessary consensus to allow new structures for dealing with the past to be established.

Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the key ways of moving away from the past, and from the lure of paramilitary activity, is to improve the economy of Northern Ireland, which currently has a higher level of working-age inactivity than any other region in the United Kingdom? What measures are the UK Government taking to help the Assembly to improve employment opportunities for young people in particular?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that a strong economy is key to more or less every other goal in government. Unless we have a strong economy, we cannot deliver the effective mechanisms for dealing with the past. The Government will continue to pursue their long-term economic plan to deliver opportunities for people young and old in Northern Ireland by creating new jobs: 33,000 more people are in work in Northern Ireland than in 2010. [Interruption.]

Order. I understand the sense of anticipation in the Chamber at this time on a Wednesday, but I point out that we are talking about the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past. Out of respect for the people of Northern Ireland, if for no other reason, a seemly atmosphere would be appreciated. Let us hear Mr David Simpson and the Minister’s reply.

I am sure the Secretary of State will agree that, whatever settlement is agreed on the legacy of Northern Ireland, the victims are paramount in this, as has already been mentioned. Does she agree that no one, but no one, should be allowed to rewrite the history of Northern Ireland when we make that settlement?

I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. It would be unacceptable to set up institutions that facilitated attempts to rewrite history. That is why the Stormont House agreement has written very clearly into it that new bodies must be objective, fair and impartial in all the work they do.

My right hon. Friend was not here in the House last week when I pressed my urgent question about the arrest of Soldier J, formerly of the Parachute Regiment. In answer, her excellent and gallant Friend, the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, said that the Secretary of State and the Irish Government had decided, on legacy issues, that the best future is to move forward and not back. Does she agree that to prosecute, nearly 50 years later, former British soldiers now in their late 60s and 70s who have done their best to serve their country would be an injustice?

I am of course very much aware of my hon. Friend’s long-standing concern about that case. He will appreciate that decisions on policing and prosecution are rightly matters for the police and prosecuting authorities entirely independent of Ministers, but I reassure him that I am absolutely confident that the Police Service of Northern Ireland will approach that sensitive case with all the principles of objectivity, fairness, impartiality and respect for human rights that it displays in all its work.

Does the Secretary of State recognise not just that dealing with the past is what we owe to victims, but that people want to know that we have not simply replaced the years of dirty war with a dirty peace? Does she recognise that, in the light of the serious questions raised by the “Spotlight” programme last night, the strictures she is placing on national security could suppress the truth not just about what state forces and state actors did, but about what paramilitary forces and paramilitary actors did during the troubles?

The UK Government are committed to the Stormont House agreement provisions on the past. We do think that they need to be set up, that it is important to give clearer answers to victims who suffered as a result of the troubles and to do all we can to pursue evidence of wrong-doing. However, I emphasise that I believe the vast majority of the police and armed forces in Northern Ireland during the troubles carried out their duties with exceptional courage, bravery, integrity and professionalism, so I wholly dissociate myself from the hon. Gentleman’s characterisation of this as a “dirty war”.