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Northern Ireland: Recent Events

Volume 741: debated on Tuesday 11 December 2012


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat the Statement made earlier today in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on events in Northern Ireland.

“I would like to make a Statement about events in Northern Ireland over recent days. Over the past week, a series of protests has taken place relating to the decision taken by Belfast City Council on the flying of the union flag. A number of these have witnessed violence, rioting and attacks on police officers. Yesterday evening a masked gang threw a petrol bomb inside an unmarked police car; a young policewoman narrowly escaped very serious injury. This is now being treated by police as attempted murder.

As I made clear in the House last Wednesday, there can be absolutely no excuse or justification for this kind of thuggish and lawless behaviour. It is despicable. We condemn it unreservedly and it must stop immediately.

I welcome the Motion passed unanimously yesterday in the Northern Ireland Assembly, which unequivocally condemned,

‘rioting and the campaign of intimidation, harassment and violent attacks on elected representatives’,

and reaffirmed,

‘the absolute and unconditional commitment of all its Members to respecting and upholding the rule of law and the pursuit of their political objectives by purely legal and political means’.

Let us be very clear. No one can be in any doubt about the Government’s support for the Union and its flag, but the people engaged in the kind of violence that we have seen in the past few days are not defending the Union flag. There is nothing remotely British about what they are doing; they are dishonouring and shaming the flag of our country with this lawless and violent activity. They discredit the cause that they claim to support. They are also doing untold damage to hard-pressed traders in the run-up to Christmas, and they undermine those who are working tirelessly, day in and day out, to promote Northern Ireland to bring about investment, jobs and prosperity.

In addition to outbreaks of violence, appalling threats have been made against elected politicians, including a death threat to the honourable Member for East Belfast. I know that the whole House will join me in expressing our complete solidarity with the honourable lady, her colleagues in the Alliance Party and all the people who have been threatened and intimidated over the past week by this disgraceful conduct. The right of elected representatives to go about their daily business without the threat or fear of intimidation is one of the hallmarks of our democracy, and these threats are nothing less than an attack on democracy in this country.

Throughout this crisis I have stayed in close contact with the chief constable of Northern Ireland. Thirty-two police officers have been injured in the line of duty during the past week, and I take this opportunity to pay the warmest tribute to the brave men and women of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, who once again find themselves in the front line encountering and tackling violence. They have shown themselves again to be fearless guardians of the rule of law, whenever and from wherever it comes under attack.

I received another update from the chief constable this morning. He informed me that around 38 people have now been charged in relation to this disorder. Those who are engaged in violence should be in no doubt of the determination of the chief constable and the PSNI to apply the full force of the law. Those engaged in violence should be well aware of that fact.

I have also discussed with the chief constable the threats to elected politicians. Again, I am in no doubt as to the extreme seriousness that Matt Baggott, like the rest of us, attaches to those unacceptable threats. I assure the House that the PSNI is doing all that it can to enable elected politicians to carry out their duties and serve their constituents.

For our part, the UK Government will continue to give our fullest backing to the PSNI. That is why, in the face of the deteriorating security situation that we inherited, the Government secured an exceptional additional £200 million from the Treasury reserve. We will continue to do all that we can to assist the chief constable in keeping the people of Northern Ireland safe and secure, whether from so-called dissidents or from those responsible for this week’s events.

Yet responsibility for solving the underlying issues that have led to the violence does not rest solely with the police or the UK Government. It is right that local politicians in Northern Ireland take the lead in trying to reach agreement on a way forward. In tackling these issues, I believe that everybody has a responsibility to consider very carefully the impact of their words and deeds on wider community relations.

Once again, the trouble that we have seen in Belfast and elsewhere underlines the urgent necessity of working towards a genuinely shared future for all the people of Northern Ireland. We have made it clear that, where the Executive take the difficult decisions needed to deliver that, they will have the Government’s full backing. It would be a huge lost opportunity if Northern Ireland politics were to continue to be defined by questions of identity. There is a pressing need to focus on the wider issues of the economy, jobs and delivery. The scenes of the past few days have been deplorable, but we should not let them detract from the positive progress that Northern Ireland has made in recent years.

That was highlighted last Friday by the visit to Belfast of the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. She rightly pointed to the many difficult decisions taken by local politicians and the leadership that they have shown in bringing us to where we are today. I am sure that those politicians will not allow the achievements that have been made to be undermined by lawless violence of the kind that we have seen over the past week. I am also sure that this House will remain united in support of their efforts to move the peace process further forward towards a genuinely shared future for all in Northern Ireland”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Secretary of State’s Statement in the House of Commons and I also thank my honourable friend Vernon Coaker for initiating this Statement. I shall now repeat the response made by Vernon Coaker in the other place.

“Mr Speaker, can I thank the Secretary of State for coming to the House to make this Statement and for advance sight of it? Let me say why I and the Opposition called on her to do so. There have been eight consecutive nights of violence in Northern Ireland. A Member of this House has had her life threatened and her Alliance Party has seen its representatives intimidated and subjected to violence, and its property attacked.

Violence against the police has escalated, to the extent that an attempt was made to murder a female officer last night by breaking the window of a police car and throwing a petrol bomb inside while she was still in the vehicle. Dozens of officers have been injured after coming under sustained attack over the course of the week. Another murderous attack on the police was only narrowly avoided when a vehicle carrying a rocket was apprehended outside Derry. It cannot go on and Westminster’s voice must be heard. This violence would not be tolerated in London, Cardiff or Edinburgh, and it should not be tolerated in Belfast. A clear and strong message must be sent from this place today that says that this violence is wrong, unacceptable and without justification.

Once again I pay tribute to the Police Service of Northern Ireland for its dedication and bravery. I spoke earlier to the Justice Minister, whom I also met a few days ago in Belfast. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with him and the chief constable about resources and the police’s capacity to deal with this disorder and the continuing national security threat? What is the latest security assessment?

The homes of public representatives have been vandalised and attacked. Local councillors, who are doing their best on behalf of the communities that they serve, and their families have seen their homes targeted and vandalised. I am sure that I speak for the whole House when I say that whether we are talking about a DUP councillor in Dungannon, two Alliance councillors and their families in Bangor, or the husband of a Sinn Fein councillor in Armagh, such violence is wrong and must stop. I stand shoulder to shoulder with public representatives in Northern Ireland for democracy and against violence. When a Member of Parliament is threatened and attacked, I view it as a threat and an attack on all of us and everything we stand for.

Will the Secretary of State tell me what assessment she has made of the involvement of loyalist paramilitaries in the rioting? Does she view their actions as a threat to national security? What discussions has she had with the Prime Minister about this? Has he discussed the ongoing violence with the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister or the Justice Minister?

I know that there are underlying issues, and I am realistic about the challenges we face. I have been with unionist and loyalist political representatives to visit areas in Belfast and other parts of Northern Ireland, and I want to say this: honourable Members and others from Northern Ireland are doing a really difficult job in these communities, and I do not doubt their sincerity, integrity or hard work. They are dealing with frustration and anger, and they need support in helping to channel that away from violence and towards politics. I will do what I can to help, and I make that offer in republican and nationalist communities, too, but violence is never justified and it is wrong. It is damaging those communities and, until the violence stops, we cannot even begin to discuss or do anything about the longer-term issues that need to be resolved. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with political representatives about supporting work in these communities? Will she bring political leaders together to see what can be done together?

I care deeply about Northern Ireland and its people, and I know the Secretary of State and all other honourable Members do too. I think it was important today that we came together as the United Kingdom House of Commons and said that. Northern Ireland matters; it is important. I hope that we see this awful violence ended and that we can look forward to a 2013 in which Northern Ireland is showcased on the world stage as the great place it is”.

I thank the noble Lord for his response. The key point he made, which was also made in the other place, was that we would not tolerate this kind of behaviour and violence in Cardiff, London or Edinburgh and therefore we must not tolerate it in Belfast. We must condemn it strongly and insist that any issues of frustration or differences of opinion have to be dealt with and aired through freedom of expression and opinion, not through violence. There is no place for violence in a modern democracy. Northern Ireland has travelled a very long way in the past 10 to 15 years. When one looks back at the issues that the country faced 15 years ago, the progress that has been made is astonishing. It is important that we do not allow it to slip back, particularly, as the noble Lord pointed out, when 2013 offers the opportunity to bring the world spotlight on to Northern Ireland and to give it a real opportunity for economic progress.

The noble Lord referred to a number of issues. The first was the resources that have been provided. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State has had discussions with the chief constable, who regards himself as having sufficient resources. In the Statement, I referred to the extra £200 million that was given to take the PSNI through to 2015. However, there are now further discussions about any need for additional resources after that. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State is very willing to consider additional resources if it is felt that they are needed.

My right honourable friend the Secretary of State has kept the Prime Minister closely informed. The Prime Minister is extremely concerned and is in close touch on what is happening in Northern Ireland at this moment. She has also had a number of meetings and telephone discussions. She has spoken with David Ford, the Justice Minister in Northern Ireland, three times over the past week. She has spoken with the chief constable three times and has spoken to the MP for East Belfast, Naomi Long. I know that she—and, indeed, I—would be happy to do more if it were needed in order to ensure that people are brought together and that we bring an end to the appalling violence that we have seen in recent days.

My Lords, the whole House would benefit from short questions to the Minister so that she can answer as many as possible.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for repeating the Statement made in another place. I would like to add our appreciation on these Benches for the dangerous and courageous work of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. We add our support for Naomi Long, whose life has been threatened as an elected representative, and for other elected representatives whose homes and offices have been attacked and whose families have been terrified and frightened by mobs that have been roaming about. Not only have elected representatives suffered, but many other people have been discomfited as well. A doctor told me today that cancer patients were not able to get to hospital because of what was going on.

There is the question of the violence, but it did not come about just with this issue of flags. It has been developing over the last number of months, with issues about Catholic churches and parades. This is clearly a mounting process with paramilitary organisations. What is most concerning is that instead of some political leaders trying not just to condemn but to contain this, it is actually being spread out to other circumstances. While the Assembly in Stormont has flown the flag only on designated days, now the whole question of the flag being flown on all sorts of other days is being raised and creating difficulties which were never there before in more than a decade of the Assembly functioning.

I am disappointed that it has taken some time for any clear guidance to come out of 10 Downing Street and the Prime Minister. I ask my noble friend why that is so. There have been no clear statements saying not just how wrong this is but how important it is for politicians not to spread the problem but to seize the problem and control it. I ask my noble friend if she could give me some reassurance that the Prime Minister and his colleagues will not merely sit at Number 10 Downing Street and be concerned, but that they will start putting pressure on political colleagues in Belfast, who are picking up on this and spreading the problem rather than containing it and closing it down. Of course, there are other issues that need to be dealt with, including difficulties for Protestant young men and their educational status in some loyalist areas. But this is not the way to deal with them. I plead with my noble friend to make a case to the Prime Minister to be more engaged.

There have recently been complaints by the Deputy First Minister that he can see the President of the United States more easily than he can see the Prime Minister of our United Kingdom. This is not a help in a situation which is beginning to spin out of control.

I thank my noble friend for that powerful response. He speaks with a great deal of experience of the situation. He was a prime force in the early days of the Northern Ireland Assembly. He knows only too well how difficult it is on occasion to make progress. I also thank him for his tribute to the bravery of the PSNI and to the elected representatives. I have always thought that politics in general is not for the faint-hearted, but in Northern Ireland it is certainly not for the faint-hearted. Given the progress that has been made in Northern Ireland, we almost began to take for granted that progress would carry on there. The past few days have shocked us in relation to the threats to elected representatives. The blocking of the road to the hospital was totally inexcusable.

My noble friend referred to the gradual increasing violence, which has been a general trend in recent years. As he knows so well, the flying of the flag is an issue of great sensitivity. However, the flag has been flown over Stormont on designated days, which has been accepted up to now. Indeed, the union flag has been flown over a number of council buildings throughout Northern Ireland on designated days. I have to emphasise to the House that the decision on flying the flag is a local, democratic decision. It is a matter for the councillors in Belfast and for the MLAs.

My noble friend referred to a possible delay in response from the UK Government to this situation. It is important to bear in mind that so many of these things, including the PSNI, are devolved issues. It is also important that we allow the devolved Government in Northern Ireland to make decisions and to take leadership when it is needed. Finally, it is truly important that leadership is exercised strongly and responsibly by politicians in Northern Ireland.

My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. Has she noticed that the Ulster Unionist Party has condemned in the strongest possible terms the harassment of and violence towards police officers and elected representatives? Anyone who engages in this illegal activity on our streets fails to understand the values that are encapsulated in the union flag. In doing what they did, they lose the very argument that they want to promote.

Does the Minister agree that it is not sufficient to condemn the violence? One must look at the underlying causes which triggered this violence. It is not just the removal of the union flag from Belfast City Hall where it had flown continuously since 1906. It is about a people who feel that bit by bit they are having their Britishness stripped away from them. It is also about a people who perceive themselves as becoming second-class citizens in their country. These are deeply held beliefs, whether they are real or imaginary. The Government must recognise them and begin to address them.

Police officers who were simply doing their duty of protecting the community under extremely difficult conditions have been subjected to outrageous attacks. Rather than being attacked, these officers deserve our thanks and support for standing between us and anarchy.

I thank the noble Lord for his comments. He refers to the underlying causes. I would point out that culture changes and identity develops over a period of time. Indeed, the people of Northern Ireland have seen considerable development in their political culture in the past few years. I would also like to point out the association between the violence and the areas where there is social deprivation in Belfast in particular. That is why it is so tragic. Every time a picture on television of rioting in Northern Ireland crosses the world it does economic harm to Northern Ireland and hits its opportunity to develop a better world, particularly for its young people.

My Lords, does my noble friend recognise that she was right to point out that that what is happening is an attack on democracy? I am sure she carries the whole House with her when she says that. Although we are all shocked, we ought to be mildly encouraged that there have been previous attacks on democracy in Northern Ireland, and the people stood firm and good people prevailed—and, if I may say so, Ministers stood firm, and progress was made. We need to remember that in these difficult days. Does my noble friend also recognise the truth of part of what the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, said? Those who participate in this violence, or at least some of them, think that by doing that they can force their political agenda. Will the Government make it clear that violence will never force a political agenda and that the political agendas that have already been discussed and need to be addressed, including questions of ongoing identity, cannot be addressed in the context of a response to, or as a consequence of, the threat to democracy that this violence constitutes?

My noble friend makes some important points. It is important that we make it absolutely clear that the leadership in Northern Ireland and the Government in the UK will stand firm and show the appropriate leadership. Of course, there are always issues to be addressed, and the way in which the Northern Ireland Executive have attempted very successfully to work together to overcome huge divides on occasions has always been a great example to us. It is important that political leadership at every level in Northern Ireland shows that.

My Lords, those of us who had some involvement with Northern Ireland over the years must feel particularly dismayed and disappointed by the events of the past little while. By chance, on the day when the troubles began in Belfast City Hall, I was attending a small meeting with Naomi Long when she predicted what was going to happen—and it was a very depressing occasion. She is a remarkably brave woman, given all the threats to her. It is particularly disappointing that it is a month ago that the Irish Prime Minister went to Enniskillen on Remembrance Day and the Deputy Prime Minister went to a similar ceremony in Belfast. These were very important and positive gestures, which did not get much publicity at all in Britain—but they were very significant in terms of the Irish Government trying to play their part. That is a long way away from these very disappointing events.

I do not want to excuse violence, and it is not excused under any circumstances. If it was direct rule, I would ask the Minister this very positively. I am a member of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, and some years ago we produced a report on the life chances for young people in some of the most disadvantaged parts of Belfast. One could see something of this sort coming, with young people, particularly from the Protestant areas, being prey to loyalist paramilitaries because they had no other future in life at all. I am afraid that that report was ignored. I urge the Government to talk to Northern Ireland Ministers and say that they must not neglect things like poor life chances for young people. In those poor life chances, we see the seeds of some of the events that have happened. It does not excuse them for one second—it does not excuse them at all. But we have to understand that and see what can be done in the longer term.

The noble Lord makes some important points and draws our attention to what are sometimes stunning symbolic examples and positive gestures by political leaders in the island of Ireland as a whole. When I was in Belfast last week, I was very impressed by the determination of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to develop the economy of Northern Ireland. I also had a meeting with Invest NI, which is doing excellent work on inward investment. It is key that that investment trickles down to those socially deprived areas where problems such as we have seen in the past week particularly occur.

My Lords, I declare an interest arising from two appointments connected with security in Northern Ireland. Will my noble friend join me in respecting the dignified way in which David Ford has conducted a very difficult job—as difficult as any ministerial appointment on this side of the water—as Minister of Justice in Northern Ireland? Secondly, does she agree that the evidence is that what has happened is a threat to public order but not a threat to national security? The vast majority of the public in Northern Ireland, whichever religion or part of the community they come from, are absolutely hostile to the sort of public disorder that has occurred in recent days and wish strongly that the hooligans who have been committing the acts that have been described would simply go home and stop.

My noble friend has introduced two important new topics. One is the excellent way in which the Justice Minister, David Ford, has gone about his work. I met him as well last week and, having met him several times in the past, I was yet again tremendously impressed by his determination and the clear and even-handed way in which he approached his task. On the issue of whether it is a threat to public order or a threat to national security, I would agree with my noble friend that the latter definition has not yet been reached. The important thing is that, however you define it, it is wrong and it must be condemned on all sides.

My Lords, may I also express, from these Benches, our abhorrence at the violence that has been experienced in Northern Ireland, pay tribute to the PSNI for the work that it is doing and encourage the bravery of its officers? I have been involved in Northern Ireland for many years: I have been married to an Irish woman for 45 years and have been engaged in various different aspects of the progress towards peace during those years. One thing that has impressed me, and continues so to do, is the work being done by grass-roots groups in communities. These are very often people who have been involved in acts of violence themselves and have come to a new place in their experience. As we look at this particular situation and circumstance, I encourage the Minister to nurture those grass-roots groups that are endeavouring to form and make peace within the communities and which are, very often, aware of the various participants in these situations and can themselves be the means by which some of the violence is reduced.

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate makes a very important point about the voluntary sector. We all know that the voluntary sector is important to our society throughout the United Kingdom, but nowhere more so than in Northern Ireland. The work of some of the community groups to improve a sense of security and belonging is absolutely astonishing. It is of particular interest how many community leaders have had an association with violence in the past in Northern Ireland and have seen that it is the wrong way to go.

My Lords, I think it is the turn of the Cross-Benchers, and I am a member of the Cross-Bench group. As one who suffered intimidation and was shot 10 times through my body by the IRA, I totally deplore—and have every reason to deplore—attacks on politicians of any party in Northern Ireland. Secondly, the Minister may have given a wrong impression about what is happening in Northern Ireland. We have had more than 50 demonstrations in the last week in Northern Ireland and many of them have been totally peaceful and well organised. That was not said. The impression given was that there were riots at all these demonstrations. We had five demonstrations in my home city of Armagh last night. They were well organised and very civilised.

It was mentioned that the honourable Member for Belfast East foresaw the violence. The reaction was caused when Sinn Fein and the SDLP, joined by their colleagues in the Alliance Party, decided to lower the union jack for 350 out of the 365 days of the year. One of that team said, “We have done a good day’s work”. That really inflamed opinion among the majority community in Northern Ireland and a vast minority within the City of Belfast. Would that group who decided to lower the union jack in Belfast have been better to delay their decision until January and not damage the retail shops in Belfast in the run-up to Christmas?

Finally, I bring the Minister good news. We had our census figures in Northern Ireland today. First, some 45% of the population are Roman Catholic, but now only 25% say they are Irish only—proof that sectarianism is fading. Secondly, 59% now hold a United Kingdom passport, while only 21% hold an Irish passport. In the United Kingdom, the union flag is the flag of Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland; but Scotland, Wales and England also have their own local flags. Would it not be a good idea, given that flags are a divisive issue in Northern Ireland, to put our minds together to get a flag—as well as the union jack—to which Roman Catholics and Protestants, unionists and nationalists, and anyone can give joint loyalty? So far, we have no Northern Ireland flag. Is it not time we started to design a flag that would appeal to everyone?

I thank the noble Lord very much for his comments. I freely and fully acknowledge that there have been a significant number of totally peaceful demonstrations in the past week. Unfortunately those people are overshadowed by those who decided that they wanted to provoke violence. The right to demonstrate peacefully is the core right of our democracy. That is absolutely accepted on all sides.

The timing of the decision on the flag on Belfast City Hall was a matter entirely for Belfast City Council. As for the noble Lord’s point on sectarianism, I join him in the hope that Northern Ireland politics will be less marked by sectarian differences in the future. He makes an interesting point about a new flag for Northern Ireland—one that I am sure will be well aired, now that he has raised the matter here. It is bound to be discussed with interest. I come from Wales and we talk a lot about the Welsh flag and the place of Wales in terms of the union jack. I can therefore understand the significance of a new flag, which could be an interesting option for the future.

My Lords, before we start the Question for Short Debate, I remind noble Lords of the speaking times. Except for the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby, who has 10 minutes, and the Minister, who has 12 minutes, all speeches are limited to four minutes. I will be able to help noble Lords.