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Terrorism: Northern Ireland

Volume 715: debated on Thursday 26 November 2009

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the threat presented by dissident terrorists in Northern Ireland.

My Lords, the threat posed by dissident republicans remains severe. The most recent report from the Independent Monitoring Commission confirms that the level of activity by dissident republicans is more serious than at any time since it started to report in April 2004. Dissident loyalist activity is largely criminal and sectarian in nature.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for that Answer. Can we expect continued intelligence and information to come from the Republic of Ireland?

Yes, my Lords, there was a fine example of co-operation in what happened very recently. Indeed, I am sure that the House would join me in commending both the PSNI and An Garda Siochana for their professionalism, courage and bravery in thwarting the terrorist attack at Garrison, County Fermanagh last weekend. The investigation is continuing and two men have already been charged in connection with that attack.

My Lords, would the Minister agree that intelligence gathering and surveillance of terrorists has been greatly reduced, caused by the reduction in numbers of Special Branch officers in Northern Ireland?

My Lords, it would not be entirely appropriate for me to comment on all issues in respect of that question. I merely say that it is an operational issue and therefore for the chief constable of Northern Ireland to determine. I do not agree with the ethos behind the noble Lord’s question.

Would my noble friend agree that, while the threat is of course serious, it should not be used as a reason for delaying the devolution of policing and criminal justice powers to Stormont, but rather as a reason for expediting that process?

I entirely agree with my noble friend. The only way forward is indeed to devolve policing and justice. While that has not been devolved, there is a vacuum. Where there is a vacuum there tend to be more dissident operations.

My Lords, would the noble Baroness accept that there is certainly a recognition that this is a serious situation? With the current level of unemployment rising in Northern Ireland, there are rather more idle hands around, which might give added resources to those wishing to cause trouble. Will she confirm that the strongest efforts are being made, as in the past, to ensure that there is no outside source of munitions or equipment? Problems in Northern Ireland have in the past been bedevilled by overseas supplies being made available to terrorists. Will the Minister also confirm the vital importance of the Republic making its fullest contribution, as appears to be the case at the moment? This is an attack not only on Northern Ireland but on the prosperity of the whole island of Ireland.

My Lords, I can certainly confirm that the strongest efforts are being made to ensure that weapons do not come from third-party countries. Employment is of course a devolved issue but I am delighted that Declan Kelly has recently been appointed by the US Government as an economic envoy to Northern Ireland. That should improve the investment opportunities in Northern Ireland. Yes, the relationship with the Republic is very strong, as it is between the two police forces. It is important that we move forward together.

Would the noble Baroness agree that it is important to get dissident republican activity into perspective, and that the overwhelming majority of Roman Catholics and Protestants totally condemn dissident republican activity? Would she also agree that in Northern Ireland we are now enjoying one of the lowest levels of unemployment for 40 years; continuing inward investment; a growing population which is now over 1.7 million; and that the dissident republicans must not be allowed to damage this progress in Northern Ireland?

My Lords, the noble Lord is entirely right in everything that he says. It is absolutely clear that the vast majority of both communities in Northern Ireland have entirely rejected this sort of criminal activity. They are thriving and they want their country to thrive, as it must and should do.

My Lords, I was glad that the noble Baroness the Leader of the House agreed with the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, that transferring justice and police powers to Northern Ireland is the best way to produce a mature democracy, which we all want and which would deal with the dissidents most effectively. What efforts are being made by the Secretary of State to get the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to do their business, deal with any disputes that they have on this matter, and then devolve policing and justice to Northern Ireland as quickly as possible?

My Lords, not only the Secretary of State but the Prime Minister, personally, has been very engaged in this whole issue. They work regularly with the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to ensure that the very small number of issues that are still outstanding and which prevent the devolution of policing and justice can be addressed, so that we see speedy devolution of policing and justice.

Is the noble Baroness confident that there is no danger at the margin that any members of Ulster unionist groups will use these incidents as reasons to weaken or undermine the power-sharing deal?

My Lords, it is clear that people from both communities on both sides of the political divide want to move forward. They are both being very constructive in wishing to move forward.

My Lords, while joining in the admiration for the co-operation in the case of the Fermanagh incident to which the Leader of the House referred, does she wish to comment on the fact that other events have occurred without the security forces having any early warning that they might occur?

My Lords, it is not appropriate for me to comment. It is good when good co-operation exists. Co-operation is increasing and we can expect that in future more and more operations such as the one at Garrison will be thwarted.

Will the noble Baroness reassure the House that the chief constable, who is responsible for all operations within the Province, has adequate resources, and explain what is available to him?

My Lords, we should all congratulate the chief constable, Matt Baggott, on what he is doing. He is an excellent new chief constable appointed at a very difficult time. He has adequate police resources. Indeed, with the devolution of policing and justice, the adequacy of the resources will continue.