Question for Short Debate
My Lords, the intent of my Question is to ensure that we do not forget about Northern Ireland and to remind the House that this is still a work in progress. We have a responsibility to ensure that a politically devolved Northern Ireland remains committed to transformation of its society. We spend a great deal of money—£14,000 million, or £14 billion—to help it through this process and it is important that we keep ourselves informed about progress. Since the 26th and final report from the Independent Monitoring Commission for Northern Ireland was presented to the House in July last year, a number of extremely violent incidents have occurred there. Although everyone must be relieved that the appalling terrorist activity has apparently come to an end, it has not completely disappeared and we must be vigilant about any recurrence.
I believe that the IMC has done a fantastic job. It was set up five years after the signing of the Belfast agreement, at a time of great turmoil in Northern Ireland. There was no real political agreement on a way forward and there was a continuing atmosphere of mistrust between political parties. As the report recognises, at the time that the IMC was set up paramilitary groups had not decommissioned their weapons and, although generally not attacking the organs of state, they were still engaged in illegal and often violent activity. Some also had strong links to political parties. Article 3 of the terms of the agreement stated that the IMC was set up,
“to carry out its functions … with a view to promoting the transition to a peaceful society and stable and inclusive devolved Government in Northern Ireland".
It had a very difficult task to perform. During its time it reported on abductions, murders, violence of a terrible nature, robberies on a grand scale—most notably that of the Northern Bank in Belfast—and ongoing feuds between paramilitary organisations.
As well as its six-monthly paramilitary reports, the IMC produced a number of ad hoc reports on various initiatives that it had undertaken, either on its own or at the behest of the Irish and British Governments, and the progress evident through these reports is remarkable. They chart the steady progression towards a normalised society. All those concerned with the IMC over the years are to be warmly congratulated on their work, bravery, dedication and commitment to the building of the very different Northern Ireland that we see today, some seven and a half years since they began their task. I pay particular tribute to my noble friend Lord Alderdice, who is unable to be with us tonight and who was a member of the IMC throughout its term of office.
The IMC’s work must, at times, have been utterly gruesome. Covering a land area not much bigger than that of my home county of North Yorkshire, Northern Ireland had four paramilitary murders and more than 200 brutal paramilitary shootings or assaults in 2005, a year after the IMC started its work. In the seven years since, there have been 21 murders and more than 800 reported casualties of paramilitary violence and a resurgence of serious violence by dissident republicans. Can the Minister tell me how many paramilitary-related incidents have taken place since the IMC's last report was published? How many incidents classed as violence have occurred in Northern Ireland in the past six months, and how does that compare with the preceding six months?
I was privileged last year to meet some of the victims of these crimes. They were cared for and supported by an extraordinary organisation called WAVE, led by a young man called Alan McBride. The organisation offers support to people bereaved of a spouse as a result of violence in Northern Ireland. I met many other truly inspirational people who are doing a marvellous job helping those afflicted as a consequence of the Troubles. My programme was organised by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Consortium, to which I owe a huge debt of gratitude for showing me the magnificent work done by these groups. They all work tremendously hard in desperately deprived areas of Belfast, which we must visit if we are to understand the difficulties that organisations face in their efforts to support those in most need.
Northern Ireland is different. Paragraph 5.6 of the report states:
“Members and former members of all paramilitary groups remain very active in non-terrorist types of crime—a bequest from the Troubles which will dog Northern Ireland for years and will require a substantial continuing effort from law enforcement agencies”.
Perhaps I may ask the Minister how many PSNI officers there are now compared with six months ago, and whether it is the Government's assessment that these numbers are sufficient to ensure the safety of the people of Northern Ireland.
We should never forget how far we have come since 2004, when there were still more than 14,000 British troops in Northern Ireland, occupying 24 bases in an area—I remind your Lordships—not much greater than that of North Yorkshire. Army personnel were based in 13 police stations, and nine sites were used for observation and communications. For 38 years there had been a regular military role in law enforcement—the largest in British military history so far—and the IMC clearly had a huge role in helping Northern Ireland overcome the terrible years of mayhem, when it seemed to many that there would never be peace. However, much still needs to be done and the Secretary of State has promised regular six-monthly reports to the House about progress towards a shared future. Is the Minister able to confirm that a report will be presented shortly?
My sincere hope is that there will be much more integrated education to enable the young people of Northern Ireland to live together, respecting each other’s cultures, instead of being separated as they have been for too long. I pay tribute to the tireless work of the noble Baroness, Lady Blood, who has been an indefatigable promoter of integrated education, as has the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. Neither of them is in their place this evening.
Finally, I will quote again from this excellent report. On page 55, in the section “Looking Ahead”, it states:
“In our view, Northern Ireland should now address its continuing issues by conferring full responsibility on its own political and other institutions. … Paramilitary violence is still a real issue. Dissident republicans are an active and serious threat, especially at the moment against members of the PSNI. … Loyalists … have yet to inspire confidence that they are capable of finally going away as paramilitary organisations, as PIRA has. Some members and former members of all groups remain heavily involved in a wide range of serious crime … presenting a challenge to law enforcement which is significantly more serious than it would otherwise have been. … Northern Ireland's political and other institutions, and the UK Government in respect of national security, therefore have a heavy continuing responsibility to complete the process whereby paramilitary groups finally cease to play a part in society. That responsibility goes wider, to the communities in which paramilitary groups still play a role. … There are some in those communities who have to learn that paramilitary groups hold back their social and economic development and that only by rejecting them and whole-heartedly supporting public and voluntary institutions and the rule of law can they fully throw off the bequest of the Troubles. … The main responsibility for dealing with these challenges rests with the Assembly, the Executive and local politicians, working in conjunction with community leaders, churches, the law enforcement and other public institutions, and ultimately with the people of Northern Ireland as a whole. … It is this inclusive leadership which must now jointly guide Northern Ireland along the rest of the road”.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Harris of Richmond, on securing the debate. I also congratulate the four persons who have been commissioners of the Independent Monitoring Commission over the past seven years, and thank them for the excellent job they have done.
Perhaps I may be permitted some purely personal reflections. It was my colleagues and I, during my time as First Minister of Northern Ireland, who suggested to the Government that such a body should be created. We did this in more specific terms, saying that as we had an oversight commissioner for the police and one for the justice system, we should have one for paramilitarism. The proposal evolved somewhat after it was originally made. I am sorry to say that when we put it to the Government we encountered fierce resistance from the Northern Ireland Office. Indeed, I remember a very senior member of the Northern Ireland Office saying to me that he was not going to have some other person overseeing what he did. He was quite right to have that concern because, while one put the proposal in terms of having independent reportage and oversight of what paramilitaries were doing, the whole object of the proposal was to try to curb the behaviour of the Northern Ireland Office, which unfortunately at times was not satisfactory. Respect for the Northern Ireland Office hit bottom when a Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, after a paramilitary murder, dismissed it as merely “internal housekeeping” by a paramilitary organisation. That sort of licence to murder was something that no government Minister should have been issuing. We were worried about the way in which the Northern Ireland Office would allow expediency and other political considerations to affect what should have been the administration of justice.
It took quite some time before the concept was formally announced in, I think, July 2002. A few months before, there was a crisis that resulted in the suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly, and I have always felt that if we had had this body in existence before then, we might very well have avoided that collapse and the consequent nearly five-year hiatus in the institutions in Northern Ireland. But it came, and it had a very positive effect.
I do not want to try to go over all the detail, but I must say that my eye was caught by a sentence on page 45. The Independent Monitoring Commission says that one of the tasks it set itself right at the outset was to deal with the ceasefire mentality, which in its view had,
“for too long been used to obscure and avoid the challenging implications of the Belfast Agreement: that there had to be a complete severance between politics and paramilitary activity, and that this could come about only if those paramilitaries ceased to act as such”.
I have to say that it was not just the ceasefire mentality that was used to obscure those implications; there were political parties working overtime trying to obscure them. I am thinking primarily of Sinn Fein and its allies, but it was quite shameful at the time that there were some unionists who supported that activity by Sinn Fein by assuring it that the republican paramilitaries were not under any obligation to decommission or to cease to exist at that time. Thankfully, they have changed their opinion, but it took some time before that happened.
In opening, the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, said that we still have a responsibility with regard to these matters, and that is right. She also mentioned the expenditure that we engaged in. I notice that the expenditure of the Independent Monitoring Commission averaged out at less than £1 million a year. I venture to suggest that very few million pounds have been spent in Northern Ireland so usefully and to such good purpose, and I do not think it would have caused any great difficulty for government expenditure if that had continued. It was—as I read this report, and obviously this is a matter of interpretation—largely at the instance of the British and Irish Governments that the commission was wound up. I regret that. I think there is still a valuable role that it could have taken. If we are now without that, it increases the responsibility on us to see that this matter is not forgotten. Speaking to me earlier, the noble Baroness said that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said that he was going to make regular reports to Parliament on these matters. I hope that happens and that we in this House get an opportunity to receive and to repeat such reports and to scrutinise them effectively.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Harris of Richmond, for tabling this Question and thus facilitating what I am sure will be a fair and balanced discussion of the role and nature of the Independent Monitoring Commission. Over the past seven years, the IMC has had a challenging and onerous task, one that I believe it carried out with scrupulous independence. During that period, the commission published 26 separate reports. In many instances, they were strongly criticised by commentators in the media and by politicians of all parties. However, it is now generally accepted that the IMC’s conclusions were fair, unbiased and based on the best available evidence derived from careful and meticulous investigations. I did not envy its task. When the facts or circumstances that it presented rebutted a publicly accepted assumption, the commission members were often pilloried by politicians and in the press. The task of publicly presenting uncomfortable truths, often when the peace process in Northern Ireland was known more for its fragility than for its stability, was as controversial as it was unpalatable, but without the IMC we would not have attained the necessary levels of public trust and confidence to allow the restoration of the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland in 2007. Without the IMC, the two communities in Northern Ireland could not have been convinced that their political enemies would make a positive contribution towards the creation of a better society for all. For that, I am very thankful.
In conclusion, I should mention the IMC’s final report, which focused, unfortunately, on civil disturbances of a sectarian nature in east Belfast, the constituency that I represented for 25 years at council and assembly level. I had very much hoped that events of this nature had been relegated to history, and the report was indeed disturbing and depressing to me. Nevertheless, I take comfort from the fact that both communities continued to co-operate, the men of violence were sidelined and a descent into a spiral of sectarian violence was avoided. Perhaps we may conclude therefore that the fair and balanced final report of the IMC contributed in no small measure to achieving reconciliation between the two communities in Northern Ireland. Perhaps the Minister will agree that the greatest achievement of the commission is the general agreement in Northern Ireland that it is no longer required.
My Lords, I would like to express my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, for securing this debate. I would also like to pay tribute to the members of the commission, who have done a wonderful job in securing the trust of the people by the way in which they went about their work.
The commission's 26th and final report includes three important issues. The first is that a “culture of lawfulness” is,
“evidently lacking in communities dominated by paramilitaries”.
The second is that,
“Dissident republicans are an active and serious threat ... Some members and former members of all groups remain heavily involved in a wide range of serious crime”.
The third is that,
“The fundamental principle of the Northern Irish peace process … is that politics is the way to address communal challenges and to draw the whole society into full acceptance of the institutions of democracy”.
Our troubled past still impacts on our perception of the rule of law. The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, did valiant work as co-chair with Denis Bradley on the Consultative Group on the Past. They identified areas in which action was necessary, from memorials to storytelling to victims. There has been no real movement since the publication of that report three years ago. We currently have a perception that there are people who have committed crimes for which they have not been made amenable, so the two issues are the application of the rule of law and the responsibility of politicians. The systems currently established for dealing with the past involve three institutions, each of which may be involved in one case: the Historical Enquiries Team, the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and the Police Service of Northern Ireland. This is a cumbersome set of arrangements and is beset by legal difficulties for all parties, which inevitably result in significant cost.
So how do we manage the past? The difficulties are perhaps best explained by reference to two recent developments. The first is the publication under the 30-year rule of papers relating to the hunger strike in 1981. IRA spokespersons have consistently insisted that no concessions were made by the Thatcher Government which were sufficient for the hunger strikers to bring an end to the hunger strike. The published material contradicts that assertion. It appears to indicate that lives could have been saved. Despite the facts that some of those involved are still alive, there is no threat of prosecution and that no amnesty is required, we do not have an agreed version of what happened. The second involves the recent controversy surrounding the British application for the tapes recorded by former IRA member Dolores Price and stored in an archive at Boston College in the United States. Since making that tape, Ms Price has indicated that she drove a number of the disappeared to their deaths at the hands of the IRA. Police investigating the abduction and murder of Jean McConville, a mother of 10, require access to the tapes for investigative purposes. The Boston project was predicated upon assurances that the tapes would not be disclosed until after a period of 30 years, or the death of the individual. It is obvious that such assurances could not lawfully be given. Journalists and academics are subject to the rule of law as the rest of us are, and material can and will be recovered by the police according to the law for investigation purposes.
It is now being suggested that the only way to deal with the past would be a truth commission, with an amnesty for all individuals who appear before it. To suggest this is to ignore international law, which provides that you can have no amnesty for gross violations of human rights. The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which is often held up as a model, would not satisfy the requirements of international law. If we did what it did, we would have to establish an amnesty committee that would sit in public, before which people would have to appear to seek amnesty, and in the course of which they could be cross-examined by victims and their families. In South Africa 7,000 people applied; 849 were granted amnesty. Such hearings in Belfast could hardly be expected to consolidate the peace process. The consequential truth commission would hear testimony from individuals who chose to appear. Experience to date suggests there would be a very low participation rate.
Let us go back to the investigations. A number of impediments exist. Offences committed before 1998 can only carry a maximum sentence of two years. The Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act provides that you cannot use anything recovered from the process of decommissioning. The Northern Ireland (Location of Victims’ Remains) Act provides that you cannot recover anything that may be found in the process of recovering the body. A number of people have also been dealt with under the Royal Prerogative of Mercy, and a variety of pardons have been granted to an unknown number of people. Our situation is as complex as that of most post-conflict societies. We need to establish the rule of law in order to limit the ongoing prospect of further recruitment by the dissidents, and further recruitment and criminality by loyalist paramilitaries.
If we accept that we cannot just allow people to tell their stories to journalists with impunity and without challenge, because the law does not permit that; if we accept that a truth commission is unlikely to be able to provide blanket amnesties, because the law does not permit that; if we accept that the hands of investigators have been tied, what is left? There is the normal activity of storytelling; and there is a single independent unit to investigate all the unsolved murders of the past in an attempt to pick up from where we are now and to carry forward the investigation of individual cases in a coherent manner—accepting that few of them may lead to prosecutions but that the families will be told what can be told.
We still face a significant challenge in Northern Ireland. The warnings of the IMC are very clear. Our politicians and our people have a duty to act. What positive action can the Government take to encourage this?
My Lords, as I read this clear, calm, measured report, one thought above all kept coming back to me: that the commission which produced it was a remarkable body to which not just Northern Ireland but the whole country owes a considerable debt. It is deeply satisfying that the House has been given this opportunity to pay tribute to it, thanks to my noble friend Lady Harris of Richmond.
The commission had no precedent, no previous example of similar work to guide it. Nothing like it had been seen in these islands before. Drawn from three different countries and from diverse backgrounds, those who served on the commission were clearly people of great honour and probity and not a little ingenuity. The report shows that they worked closely and successfully together, despite—or perhaps because of—the absence of a formal chairman, an interesting aspect of the commission’s operations that should be noted.
The commission was independent in name, and in every deed and action it performed. Its independence was the secret of its success—combined of course with the care and impartiality with which it examined the vast amount of material drawn from both official and private sources that was placed before it. As a result, its statements and views commanded widespread respect—the more so since they were delivered crisply and frankly.
The commission’s final service was to provide a lucid summary of its own seven-year career. It is surely invaluable to have this record of unprecedented experience. Other countries afflicted by division and politically motivated violence may wish to consult and learn from it. The IMC model may not be transferred wholesale elsewhere, but it could prove immensely helpful to others facing circumstances of civil strife. The commission itself declared that:
“We are least well placed to judge our impact and future historians will have most to say about it”.
Speaking as a current historian, I am sure that these future historians too will feel gratitude for this report when they come to form considered historical judgments on the violence that racked Northern Ireland for so long. It would be surprising if they did not accord a position of some prominence to the IMC when tracing the factors that finally brought about the diminution of Ulster’s agony.
The commission had other important functions, but it is likely to be remembered chiefly for the thoroughness and rigour with which it monitored the paramilitary violence that continued after the formal declaration of ceasefires by terrorist organisations. As its report states,
“we sought to bring out the human cost of paramilitary groups, in terms of both the immediate victims of their crimes and the way in which they held back the economic and social progress of the communities they claimed to represent”.
The completely impartial way in which it did this enabled the commission to give positive assistance to Northern Ireland’s progress towards greater normality, particularly in the years 2004-05, when the evidence it produced of continuing links between the IRA and Sinn Fein intensified pressure on the latter to commit itself more firmly to the democratic path. The commission also put the loyalist paramilitaries under significant pressure, exposing the details of the violence in which they remained involved while at the same time, as the report puts it, they sought to play,
“a continuing role in community development and wanted public funds for the purpose”.
In its characteristically restrained and modest prose, the commission declared last year as it took its leave that:
“The position as we close is very far from ideal”.
The shadow of the gunman still falls too darkly and heavily over the people, particularly those in poorer communities, in Northern Ireland. The so-called peace walls, those potent emblems of division, have increased, not diminished. The Police Service of Northern Ireland continues to have a formidable duty of community protection before it, and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is providing an extra £200 million over four years to assist it in this task during this time of national austerity.
What our fellow countrymen and women in the Province need above all is a cross-community political strategy for a shared future. The Independent Monitoring Commission’s report welcomes the establishment of an inclusive devolved Government. With it now rests the main duty of creating,
“a genuinely shared future; not a shared out future”,
as my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has put it. Sadly, the Northern Ireland Executive has so far shown insufficient resolve in rising to this challenge. It must take some serious decisions if the people of Northern Ireland are to enjoy to the full the legacy of the work done by the Independent Monitoring Commission.
Parliament must itself keep abreast of the activities of the Executive to help it secure progress. We must not repeat the error made after 1920 under the Province’s first system of devolved government, when Parliament closed its eyes to the internal affairs of this part of our country. As the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, said at the outset, we must never forget Northern Ireland.
My Lords, I join with others in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, for securing this debate.
The inception of the IMC was primarily a confidence-building measure. It was negotiated at great length, and one person who deserves some mention for it, as I hope the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, will know, is her right honourable colleague, Paul Murphy, who played a significant role as Secretary of State and Minister of State in Northern Ireland. As my noble friend Lord Trimble said earlier, during the negotiations we found there were those who did not want it to shine a light on some of those people who were conducting very unsatisfactory activities right across the Province.
The reality was that when eventually it did come on the scene, late in the day as it was, the IMC was derided and criticised. It was referred to as a paper or toothless tiger that would never gain the confidence of people in the community. However, as all noble Lords who have spoken so far have conceded, it made a very significant contribution to the progress that has been made.
As I have said to the Minister—and I hope that he will respond to this when he answers—I feel that it was premature to wind the commission up at this stage. I suspect that it was never intended to last for seven and a half years but, nevertheless, it successfully shone a light consistently and independently on all paramilitary organisations. It held their feet to the fire, despite the fact that some of them were negotiating for money to keep organisations that they particularly sponsored going, whether it was from a community point of view or otherwise. Someone was there always to look, to see, to point out and to report on what was going on. That is missing at present.
Some months ago, the Secretary of State called a meeting to which a number of us were invited and attended. Will the Minister confirm that the Secretary of State will follow that up with another meeting and that they will be held regularly so that members can be briefed on the details as the Government see them? My noble friend Lord Lexden made a very valid point. In the 1920s, once the devolution had settled and the Parliament for Northern Ireland was established, it was effectively the end of the story and people turned their minds to other things. We must not allow that mistake to be made again.
We all understand that money is tight and that £800,000 or whatever a year is still a lot of money. I accept that. But set that sum against the colossal financial and other costs that were borne by this entire community and the very many victims in Northern Ireland, in my view it was money well spent and a small price to pay for an independent guarantee. Because governmental and other material had been put into the public domain, people did not believe that there were some people—and I pay tribute to all of them—who were not afraid to say that a particular group or organisation was doing what it was doing.
I have to say to noble Lords that the paramilitaries still are the role models for many young males, particularly in deprived areas, because there are no others. They fall into the trap and even the dissident republicans are now recruiting among teenagers. Indeed, some of them have already been arrested and charged.
I believe that the commission deserves to be congratulated. I am glad that we got it going and I am sorry that it did not come earlier. I am also glad that those who derided it found, ultimately, confidence in its decisions. It is a good thing and, while this chapter has now closed, at least it is something in which those who participated can take pride in the work that they have done.
My Lords, like other noble Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Harris of Richmond, for securing this debate. She is well known to be a good friend of Northern Ireland and her work in bringing about this debate is yet another example of what a good friend she is to the Province. I, too, should like to recall briefly the struggle to set up the IMC. I very much agree with the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Trimble. The truth of the matter is that the IMC was not enthusiastically received in the early days of debate by the Northern Ireland Office or the Irish Government. It is hard to recall that now because it has been so successful.
I should like to pay tribute in particular to Michael McDowell, a former Nieman fellow at Harvard and recently an official at the World Bank, who from his position in a Washington think tank kept No. 10 Downing Street under siege with regular e-mails arguing vigorously for the establishment of the IMC in the months leading up to its appointment. Today, I was talking to Jonathan Powell, Mr Blair’s chief of staff at that time, who recalled honestly the weight and significance of Michael McDowell’s constant advocacy. It is important to pay tribute to the work that he put in on that absolutely crucial issue.
Turning to the report itself, I should like it to be understood in your Lordships’ House that the report is not an answer to questions about where Northern Ireland is now and how we move it forward. It is instead an answer to the different question: what was the modus operandi of this body? As the IMC was a unique body, it may be important to describe how it worked. The report is an attempt to answer that question, rather than being in any real sense prescriptive about the future of Northern Ireland, and it is entirely right that that should be and is so. There are a number of conclusions to the report where members of the commission outline what they think are the key lessons.
Perhaps slightly impertinently, I should like to add a further lesson, which one should draw from the experience of the IMC—that is, a willingness to take it on the chin. The degree of criticism and abuse that the IMC received, particularly in the earlier years, was quite remarkable, as well as the strong refusal of many people in Northern Irish society to accept that it could perform a viable role or could be considered to be, in any sense of the word, independent. One of the remarkable things about the report is the way in which it quotes from some of those testimonies, including an article in the Irish News, the leading nationalist newspaper in Belfast, on 29 November 2008, which stated:
“In reality, British intelligence operates through deceit, dishonesty, murder, blackmail, double-crossing, cheating, conniving and downright thuggery. It may sound harsh but there is simply no other way to run an intelligence service. Their use of loyalist paramilitaries and informers beat the PIRA. So the intelligence agencies will tell the IMC whatever it takes to bolster support for the current political administration. That is what intelligence services do, which means that the IMC, and other opinions based on supplied intelligence are effectively worthless”.
That is a common enough comment from this period. It is a mark of the calibre of the IMC and the people who served on it that it reprinted that quote. They took this kind of thing on the chin because that was what they had to do and then carried on with their work in a steady way.
Finally, I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, would not mind that we should mention the names of the other members of the commission: Joe Brosnan, of the Department of Justice in Dublin; Dick Kerr, an important figure in American intelligence; and John Grieve, who had such a distinguished career in our police service.
My Lords, we owe a debt of gratitude to the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, for the opportunity for an invaluable and very interesting debate on the final report of the IMC. The debate is an opportunity to reflect on the changes tracked by the IMC since it was established in 2004—changes which, despite strong commitment from the British and Irish Governments, and the Northern Irish political parties, some doubted could be made. Indeed, once the process of change began, the pace and degree of change from some of darkest and most frightening of times is quite remarkable. It is remarkable that today a new generation is growing up with no memory of those times or how great the threat of terrorism was across the whole of the UK, both in Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The final report reflects on this and has a wealth of factual information and analysis.
As we have heard, the IMC was established in 2004 following agreement between the British and Irish Governments. Its monitoring activity of paramilitary groups provided 20 of the 26 reports; the remaining five reports on security normalisation culminated with the conclusion that,
“the normalisation programme as a whole has been complied with”.
Despite perhaps understandable cynicism from some quarters, the Government ensured that the IMC had detailed information from the Army so that the IMC could monitor its normalisation plans. It is evident that the independent assessments of the IMC on normalisation and paramilitary activity helped to create the climate for the British and Irish Governments and the Northern Ireland political parties to edge closer to the next stage of meaningful dialogue.
The initial fears from some republicans that the IMC would investigate only republican paramilitary activity were disproved in the very first report, when it concluded that loyalist groups were at that time responsible for higher levels of violence than republican groups. However, despite enormous progress on the political and paramilitary front, we share the IMC’s deep concerns about the attacks and threats to PSNI and its assessment of non-terrorist crime.
I have to say to the Minister that it is disappointing that to date the only response from Government to the report has been the Written Statement from the Secretary of State, Owen Paterson, on 4 July 2011 when the report was published—although it was completed in March. The Secretary of State praised the IMC and expressed his gratitude for its work and, recognising the problems that remain, wrote:
“I am conscious that Parliament and the public will wish to be kept informed of progress on a regular basis. I therefore intend to make statements to Parliament every six months summarising the threat”.—[Official Report, Commons, 4/7/11; col. 76-77WS.]
It is now just over six months since that commitment was given. Can the Minister tell us when we can expect the first of those reports? I appreciate the work that has to be undertaken to prepare such reports, but given the seriousness of this issue, they are essential.
The final section of the report, “Looking Ahead”, provides evidence that encourages but also gives concern. Circumstances, as we have heard, have changed significantly both in paramilitary activity and the stability and responsibilities of the devolved institutions. However, paramilitary activity has not disappeared, but changed. Dissident republicans are active and a serious threat, particularly against the PSNI, as we have seen, with horrendous consequences. Although loyalists have decommissioned, albeit with varying degrees of success, the IMC is not confident that they have finally disbanded as PIRA has, and they remain involved in serious and organised crime. The IMC's conclusion is that the level of serious crime is worse than it would otherwise be, and presumably worse than in other parts of the UK, because those involved learnt their “trade” in the most violent of times. However, it should also be recognised that policing has changed and that there are now unprecedented levels of co-operation between the PSNI and the Garda in the Republic.
The report’s second conclusion is positive and encouraging in recognising that the,
“stable and inclusive devolved Government”,
has now jointly to guide and lead Northern Ireland, along with community leaders. It is also implicit, as indicated by the noble Lords, Lord Empey and Lord Lexden, that co-operation must continue throughout the UK and within the Republic of Ireland. The continuing level of violence means that we cannot be complacent, because an increased level of violence has implications not just for Northern Ireland but also for Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland.
Can I make a final plea to the Minister and his Government? Stability in Northern Ireland is precious. Many people, some in your Lordships' House this evening, have worked very hard for a better, peaceful Northern Ireland and continue to do so. But Northern Ireland is bearing a heavy burden, with £4 billion of cuts and the greatest loss of public sector jobs in the entire UK. I urge the Government to think very hard about the impact of these cuts—the increase in unemployment and the increase in poverty—on a society seeking to deal with these other pressures that we have spoken of. All of us want a stable and inclusive Northern Ireland, but we also need a more prosperous Northern Ireland. To achieve that, the Government need to work with the Executive, not through their economic policies make it harder for them, especially given the backlog of investment that is needed.
I thank the IMC. The House needs to recognise that it did not have an easy task, but the way in which it conducted the responsibilities is to be praised and we should express our appreciation to all who were involved in it.
My Lords, I am grateful to your Lordships for the quality of the contributions made to this debate this evening.
It might be helpful to begin by providing some background to the IMC and its functions. Your Lordships will recall that it was founded as a result of an international agreement between the British and Irish Governments signed in November 2003. This stemmed from the joint declaration of the two Governments in April of that year. The commission was formally established when the agreement came into force on 7 January 2004.
Four commissioners were appointed: the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, and John Grieve were appointed by the British Government; Joe Brosnan was appointed by the Irish Government; and Dick Kerr was appointed by both Governments on the nomination of the United States Government.
The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, cannot be with us this evening to contribute to this debate. I know that he would have relished the opportunity to have detailed his experiences first hand, as we would have relished hearing from him. However, I take this opportunity to thank him for the important work completed by the commission and pay tribute to him for the role that he played alongside his colleagues and for that commitment over the seven-year period of its existence.
The commission’s remit was to monitor and report on paramilitary activities, on security normalisation and on any claims that any Minister or party in the Northern Ireland Assembly was not committed to democratic means. Having completed its remit, the commission was formally dissolved on 31 March 2011.
Tonight’s debate, however, concerns the IMC’s final report. I am sure your Lordships will be aware that it was very different from earlier ones. Rather than addressing the issues of paramilitary activity or security normalisation, the report focused on the changes that had taken place during the seven-year period of the commission’s existence. It also provided its assessment of the factors that helped it to deliver its remit and the lessons learnt.
The report is therefore a valuable document. It will be of interest to those who have been and continue to be involved in the peace and political process in Northern Ireland as well as to those who are involved in conflict transformation around the world. I am grateful to the IMC for this contribution and I am sure that it will be a document that has considerable longevity.
Your Lordships will of course also be interested in the detail of the earlier reports, 20 of which covered paramilitary activity and the other five security normalisation. With the time available to me this evening, it is not possible to go into any great depth, but it is worth highlighting, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, how far the landscape in Northern Ireland has changed since the IMC’s creation in 2003.
The Provisional IRA’s statement in July 2005, which announced the end of its armed conflict was, of course, a defining point. As the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, said, it was a “step of unparalleled magnitude”. In response to that statement, the Government undertook their security normalisation programme. That process was to last two years.
As I mentioned earlier, the IMC was obliged to report on that process. In September 2007, the commission published its 16th report, which confirmed that the Government had honoured their commitments and that the normalisation process was complete.
I am sure you will agree that the IMC played a crucial part in supporting and enabling historic changes in Northern Ireland over the years. It has assisted Northern Ireland's transition to a peaceful, stable and inclusive society, and we should not forget that.
Perhaps I may address the points raised by noble Lords. On paramilitary-related incidents, I can confirm to the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, that during the first six months of 2011, which is the period up to the final report, there were 30 paramilitary-style attacks and in the whole of 2011 there were 73. That compares with 94 in the whole of 2010. On 1 January 2012, 7,136 officers were employed by the PSNI, whereas in the previous July there were 7,197. So there are slightly fewer. However, the Government remain fully committed to ensuring that the PSNI has the necessary resources. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, referred to the fact that an additional £200 million has been put in by the British Government. Matt Baggott, the Chief Constable of the PSNI, has said that the service has,
“the resources, the resilience and … the commitment”,
to meet the threat.
On the Secretary of State’s undertaking to update the House regularly on threat levels, I can confirm that he has already done this in response to Oral Questions and other questions, but he will also make a Statement to Parliament in the coming weeks. I tried to go a little further, as the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, is also interested in this. The word “soon” is a good word and I shall have to stick to that, but I do not think that we will have to wait long for this further information. As she has indicated, work has to be done and this has to be prepared.
The noble Baroness talked about progress towards a shared future. The Government will do all that we can to support the work of the Executive, especially in the key areas of rebalancing the economy and combating sectarianism, but the lead certainly has to come from Northern Ireland.
There was fulsome praise from one or two noble Lords for the work of the IMC. Many noble Lords—the noble Lord, Lord Empey, got closest to this—asked whether the work is really done and whether it should have been kept going a bit longer. If noble Lords refer to the document, they will see that Article 16 states:
“The Agreement shall continue in force until terminated by mutual agreement”—
that is, the British and the Irish Governments’ mutual agreement, which was agreed on 4 November 2010. We must remember that monitoring the British Government’s commitment to a package of security normalisation measures was dealt with and signed off, as it were, under Articles 4, 5 and 6. In addition, no party in the Northern Ireland Assembly has claimed that a Minister or Member has not committed to non-violence, so that has not been a consideration in seven years because no one has said, “This is someone we should be looking at”. We therefore return to what has taken the most time: the continuing activity of paramilitary groups. That is the one area that obviously still causes concern, the other two areas having been dealt with.
I have indicated that the British and Irish Governments have agreed that the agreement must come to an end, but if noble Lords look at page 55 of the 26th report, they will see that it is quite clear that the team at the IMC also takes that view. Article 15.1 states:
“The institutions designed to facilitate transition to normality—of which we are one—are of their nature abnormal and Northern Ireland has reached a point when it is right for them to leave the stage”.
Clearly, the IMC has seen its work as monitoring the paramilitary groups that were linked to political organisations and believes that that has been achieved. The area that has not been achieved is calling a halt to dissident activity. The IMC and the Government are now saying that that is now a role for the law enforcement institutions of Northern Ireland.
I do not know whether I said dissident republican—I think I said just said “dissident”—but if there is dissident activity, whether loyalist or republican, that is embraced in my remarks.
Although it is not really a matter for this particular debate on the IMC, I understand the real concerns of the noble Baroness, Lady O'Loan, about dealing with the past. The Secretary of State intends to meet the political parties in Northern Ireland again to seek views on how consensus can be found. While this Government have a role to play, any successful outcome will be possible only if agreement is found within Northern Ireland.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, that the 26th report is a really impressive document. It was a pleasure to read it in the sense that the team had really considered how the seven years had been spent. It may well be of interest to lots of people to understand how we came to undertake what we have been doing. I see the point that he makes.
I think that I have covered most of the points. I clearly agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, that stability is precious and that the economy is important. Of course, in her initial remarks, my noble friend Lady Harris raised the point about the incredible resources that come from the taxpayer to support Northern Ireland. Noble Lords will be aware of the work of my right honourable friend in the other place who has certainly taken the initiative in rebalancing the economy and on corporation tax. We discussed that on an earlier occasion.
I think I am out of time and that I should conclude on that. If there is anything that I have not covered, I shall endeavour to write to noble Lords. In the words of us all, we thank the IMC for a piece of work well done.