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Terrorism (Northern Ireland) Act 2006 (Transitional Provisions and Savings) Order 2007

Volume 694: debated on Tuesday 17 July 2007

rose to move, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Terrorism (Northern Ireland) Act 2006 (Transitional Provisions and Savings) Order 2007.

The noble Lord said: On 1 August 2005, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland announced a programme of security normalisation, including the repeal of all counterterrorist legislation particular to Northern Ireland by 31 July 2007, subject to an enabling environment. As is well known, the security situation in Northern Ireland is markedly different from that of a few years ago. The normalisation programme is on target and in its final stages. Bessbrook Mill military base, in south Armagh, was vacated by troops as recently as 25 June. This is the second consecutive year when troops were not needed on the streets of Belfast on 12 July. In this context, the time is right to repeal Part VII of the Terrorism Act 2000.

However, it is sensible to put in place some transitional and saving provisions to ensure an effective and smooth change from one regime to another. There are some transitional provisions in Section 113 of the 2000 Act, but these are temporary and will expire on 31 July 2007 without this order. We also think that these provisions are not sufficient by themselves to deal properly with these important issues; the more detailed provision in this orders are believed necessary. It may help if I explain some of the main elements of the order and why they are believed to be necessary.

The order preserves the arrangements for scheduled bail in respect of defendants who are granted bail for a scheduled offence under Section 67 of the Terrorism Act 2000 on or before 31 July. This will ensure that a defendant will still be under a continuing duty to surrender to the custody of the court and comply with any bail conditions. It will also ensure that the provisions relating to absconding and the power to arrest without warrant for breach of bail conditions will continue to apply.

The order preserves the existing transitional provisions in the 2000 Act relating to Diplock trials in progress. If the indictment has been presented in a case—this normally happens a day or two before the defendant enters his plea at the arraignment hearing—the trial can continue under the Diplock arrangements. Without this, double jeopardy rules could apply, potentially preventing any conviction at all of an individual. The order maintains the unfettered right of appeal from a Diplock court, where it is not necessary to seek leave to appeal first. This means that individuals convicted by a Diplock court will still benefit from this provision, even if they lodge their appeal after the repeal of Part VII. That is an important safeguard.

The order also preserves police and military powers in relation to operations which may be in progress at the end of 31 July 2007. For example, if a search is in progress when Part VII is repealed, the police will be able to continue that search until it is completed. If evidence has been seized under Part VII, it can be kept to support any prosecution. The order preserves obligations on the police and military to make records of actions taken under Part VII. The compensation scheme is also preserved, so that claims relating to things done up to the end of 31 July 2007 can be made and compensation paid. The order enables the Independent Assessor of Military Complaints Procedures to make a final report covering the period up to the end of 31 July 2007. The military will remain under a duty to provide him with information necessary for his reports. Sections 107 to 111 of the 2000 Act can continue to apply in respect of Diplock trials in progress or individuals convicted before 31 July 2007.

Finally, the order makes savings for physical security measures in Northern Ireland, road closures and land requisitions. An audit has been conducted so that only those that are necessary on security grounds will remain, and those that are retained will be kept under review. Several security measures have been able to be removed. Much of the land requisitioned for Crossmaglen police station has been handed back to the landowners, Shore Road at Ballykinler army base has been opened, and there are plans to open lower Chichester Street, in front of the Royal Courts of Justice, to buses.

We are all looking forward to the day when there will be no need for barriers between the communities, and physical security measures will be authorised only as a last resort, where it is necessary to protect life and property. I am sure that the political leadership shown by the Executive is bringing that closer each day.

Each measure will be examined individually and fresh authorisations made for any that need to remain. This will be done on the basis of new security advice from the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the new powers in the Justice and Security (Northern Ireland) Act 2007. This work will be done in the autumn and the measures kept under regular review thereafter. I am sure that noble Lords will agree, as elected colleagues in the other House did, that these transitional provisions and savings are both proportionate and necessary for the effective repeal of Part XII. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Terrorism (Northern Ireland) Act 2006 (Transitional Provisions and Savings) Order 2007. 22nd report from the Statutory Instruments Committee.—(Lord Rooker.)

I am most grateful to the Minister for his comprehensive explanation of the order. It marks the continuing normalisation process in Northern Ireland, which is very welcome and must be maintained. I also welcome the fact that such a move is now possible. How many cases are in progress and will be affected by the order?

We recognise that the exceptional security situation in Northern Ireland still warrants the continuation of non-jury trials. During the passage of the Justice and Security (Northern Ireland) Act 2007, my party raised issues regarding the role of the Director of Public Prosecutions in deciding whether a trial can take place without a jury and the possibility of giving this role to the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland. Can the Minister tell us the position on that? Otherwise, we have no objections to the order.

I, too, thank the Minister for his elucidation of the order, which he did with characteristic aplomb. I also endorse what the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, has said. It is clearly necessary to have transitional provisions. All dates are arbitrary; there is nothing special about the end of July. I echo the words of the noble Viscount: it is very good news that we are at this stage, which signals yet a further step towards the normalisation of life in Northern Ireland. We support the order.

I, too, thank the Minister for the clarity with which he has brought the order before us. Along with other noble Lords, I welcome the order in so far as it is further evidence of a move towards normalisation in Northern Ireland. I choose my words wisely when I talk about a move towards normalisation. The Minister and other noble Lords who know Northern Ireland will understand that a threat, albeit at a very low level, still remains from dissidents, probably within both traditions. Many areas of normalisation have still to be completed, not least loyalist decommissioning. I am not up to date and do not know the extent to which the Real IRA and Continuity IRA are able to increase their current level of activity.

One carry-over from terrorism in Northern Ireland is the extent to which organised criminality exists and to which organised criminals are still able to dominate certain areas. There is always a problem in bringing a big player within the criminal world before a jury trial; there is always the possibility of intimidation of juries.

I hope that the normal—if I can call it that—law to which we are all subject will be implemented speedily, not something we are not used to in Northern Ireland, where the law moves so slowly that its effect is not properly felt or appreciated. The ordinary, law-abiding citizen may see something wrong happening today but the process ends somewhere in the distant future. If we are going to discourage those who may be tempted to continue to disrupt the life of ordinary people in Northern Ireland, then, together with normalisation, the law that serves our community must be implemented much more speedily. I hope the Minister can give an assurance on that.

I also welcome the statement made by the Minister. It gives me an opportunity to place on record my sincere belief that the terrorist situation in Northern Ireland has indeed changed. It is both fitting and proper that provisions that were once necessary to combat terrorism and the onslaught of violence in my province should be amended and brought into line with those in the rest of the United Kingdom.

I am sorry to interrupt the noble Lord, but there is a Division in the Chamber. The Grand Committee is adjourned for 10 minutes.

[The Sitting was suspended for a Division in the House from 4.12 to 4.22 pm.]

I think that the Division Bell indicated that I should be brief—I shall be. We need legislation that is fit for purpose in dealing with the renewed international threat that we now face, and I believe that the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005, the Justice and Security (Northern Ireland) Act 2007 and this order will do just that.

I was encouraged yesterday, following a meeting at Stormont of the British-Irish Council, by a statement made by the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness. He commented on a recent dissident republican attack on Strabane PSNI station and likened the terrorists involved to those estranged Japanese fighters who continued their struggle for 15 years after the end of the Second World War, not realising that the war was over. I welcome the statement that the war in Northern Ireland is, I hope, over. However, following the removal of the Army presence in south Armagh, there has appeared to be an upturn in sectarian violence in that region, with Orange halls attacked and so on. But while it appears that the threat from dissident republicans remains genuine, there has to be wide acceptance of the emerging optimism that has gripped Northern Ireland and the hopes for a stable, peaceful future for my province. There is optimism that we are coming to the end of this period of violence.

That said, the attacks on Glasgow airport show just how the threat from extremists is easily transferable. As a nation, right across our regions we must be up to the task of thwarting those who seek to cause maximum disruption, mayhem and misery. I hope that the experiences of Northern Ireland will help to shape the provisions necessary to deal with such risks and that the legislative provisions that were once necessary to combat local threats will be used equally and appropriately to deal with those who seek to disrupt the way of life that we enjoy and wish to preserve here in the United Kingdom.

On a more localised front, I welcome the removal of barriers, particularly in Belfast, where the economy, I am glad to say, is growing. The removal of the barrier at the end of Chichester Street, in particular, which will open the thoroughfare to the Laganside development, where many things are happening, will be beneficial to the economy of Northern Ireland. I welcome the order. I hope that we will not need any such orders in the years to come and that we will have a peaceful, democratic society.

I thank noble Lords for their wholly positive approach to the order, reflecting the debate in the other place yesterday. I realise that occasionally we have had debates where the message that I have given was not accepted; today, it has been wholly accepted. I am grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Browne and Lord Maginnis, for making a huge contribution to public life in Northern Ireland as well as to this debate. I am deeply grateful for that. I am grateful also to the noble Lord, Lord Smith.

I was asked a couple of specific questions which I shall do my best to answer. The noble Viscount asked how many cases were ongoing. As we speak—the new situation will be triggered at the end of the month, so I do not know how long these cases will last—26 Diplock cases are ongoing, involving 53 defendants. As the figures show, there has been a massive drop in the number of Diplock cases in recent years. There were only 61 in 2006, 49 in 2005 and 65 in 2004, involving some 90, 91 and 77 defendants respectively, which is about par for the course. I do not know how many of those will be ongoing when the new situation is triggered.

The Act that replaced the Diplock courts with the powers of the Director of Public Prosecutions provided for the DPP to take the decision for a non-jury trial. We debated the matter at some length. I understand that my noble and learned friend the former Attorney-General dealt with a good deal of it. We explained that we thought that the decision should be with the DPP because it would be based largely on sensitive material. Time will tell whether we have got it right, but I understand that there are no outstanding issues in terms of the legislation. Therefore, we will see how the replacement courts progress.

It is true that there are dissident republicans, as the noble Lords, Lord Smith, Lord Maginnis and Lord Browne, said. They are unquestionably isolated in number but nevertheless a threat to the security situation. We believe that the Police Service of Northern Ireland is more than up to coping with the threat. People can always do more. In this case, as I have said on other occasions, I hope that if everyone can come to the table and walk away with a gain, however great or small, it can be seen that that is the way to operate. That is the reason why not only the war is over but the peace is well on the way. There is no question that the economy is booming, although there are substantial changes to make to it.

As the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, said, the police service has to be on the case with organised criminals; we must not allow vacuums to arise in our communities. I wholly agree with him about the speed of implementation of the law but with one caveat: it is now July 2007; noble Lords should think where we were when I was in this Room in July 2005, having just gone to Northern Ireland—that is about four pieces of primary legislation ago and more orders than I care to remember. We were optimistic but mindful of the territory we were in. Therefore, I ask noble Lords to judge the situation. We are now in July; by spring and summer of next year, we will have a better idea. But slow law is bad law, and people will not respect it; the noble Lord is quite right on that. I am sure that the authorities will do everything they can, because it is in their interests to bring about a normal civic society in Northern Ireland—if we call everything in England, Wales and Scotland normal for most of us—where the rules of law are followed. There may be delays, but there will be no undue ones. We have to take that point on board.

If I discover that I have missed something, I will write a note.

I thank the Minister for the explanation of the decision on trials, which was wholly satisfactory. I am most grateful.

On Question, Motion agreed to.