My Lords, the Government are carefully following developments since Ireland’s general election last month, which did not result in any of the contesting parties securing an outright majority. The UK and Ireland are the nearest of neighbours and we look forward to continuing to work closely with any new Government in Ireland once it is formed.
My Lords, following that election, Drew Harris, head of the Garda, told the world what many people have known for a very long time: that the political party, Sinn Féin, answers to the Provisional Army Council—the IRA. Will Her Majesty’s Government therefore stop pandering to or placating Sinn Féin by allowing vexatious prosecutions of soldiers and policemen for alleged crimes during the Troubles? Instead of pursuing public servants who are doing their duty of protecting the people of the United Kingdom, will the Government focus on the terrorists and instigate an inquiry into, for instance, the involvement of Gerry Adams in the torture and murder of Jean McConville, a widow who was dragged from her home—squealing, according to her daughter—in front of her 10 children in 1972 and was never seen again?
My noble friend speaks with considerable experience, not only as a former Minister in the Northern Ireland Office but also through his service in the Army, when he and his colleagues served at considerable personal risk to protect people from all parts of the community in Northern Ireland. I am sure that he will join me and the rest of the Government in strongly welcoming the “new decade, new approach” deal, which has seen the restoration of an Executive and Assembly in Northern Ireland. As part of that, the Government have committed to introduce within 100 days legislation to implement the Stormont House Agreement, which will deal with some of the issues he raised. We will also appoint a Northern Ireland veterans commissioner to support and enhance the work already being done for veterans in Northern Ireland.
My Lords, given that Sinn Féin will now be in government fairly permanently in Northern Ireland—it looks like it will be either a party of government or a leading party of opposition in the Republic of Ireland—what conversations have Her Majesty’s Government had with Sinn Féin about how we address the land frontier in Ireland, which is now, of course, a frontier with the EU, as well as the border arrangements that will be required between the Republic of Ireland and England and Wales? These are not issues that we can avoid, particularly with the party potentially being in government on both sides of the border there.
I thank the noble Lord for his question. Her Majesty’s Government have had extensive discussions with Sinn Féin and all the parties leading to the agreement, which has seen the restoration of the Executive in Northern Ireland. On Brexit-related issues and the border, we are discussing with the EU and not with any individual member state, but we look forward to discussing these issues more with any new Government in Ireland once they have been formed.
My Lords, the comments of the Garda commissioner, to which my noble friend referred, were based on an assessment carried out in 2015 by the Police Service of Northern Ireland and MI5, which was published by the then Government. The assessment made very clear that the IRA still exists, and that
“the Provisional Army Council oversees both PIRA and Sinn Féin with an overarching strategy.”
As somebody who has spent many hours in meetings with Sinn Féin, I acknowledge the moves that it has made away from violence to politics, but does my noble friend agree that too many ambiguities still exist, as evidenced at the recent Irish election with the chanting of pro-IRA slogans by a number of their candidates? Is it not the case that if Sinn Féin is finally to convince many people across these islands that the journey to exclusively peaceful and democratic means is complete, the structures of the IRA for which there was never any justification must finally go for good?
My noble friend speaks with considerable authority and experience, having spent more time than any Conservative in political history in meetings with Sinn Féin and the other parties in Northern Ireland. He referred to the report that the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland—his old boss, Theresa Villiers—commissioned in 2015. As she said in the other place when that assessment was published,
“paramilitary organisations have no place in a democratic society. They were never justified in the past, they are not justified today and they should disband.”—[Official Report, Commons, 20/10/15; col. 829.]
I wholeheartedly agree.
My Lords, can the Minister tell the House why he believes that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael both feel that Sinn Féin is unfit to be in government in the Irish Republic, while our Government—in cahoots with those same two parties in the Republic—tell the people of Northern Ireland that they cannot have a Government except with Sinn Féin in it?
The noble Lord tempts me to speculate on discussions that are happening in Ireland at the moment about the formation of a Government there. Her Majesty’s Government look forward to working with any Government that are formed and, as I said previously, strongly welcome the restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive with the support of all the parties of Northern Ireland.
My Lords, given that it is clear that Sinn Féin—whether in or out of government—will have enormously increased influence inside the Irish Parliament, is it time for the British Government to make clear their attitude to the demand of the Sinn Féin leader in the last few weeks that Britain cannot get away scot-free and must pay for the process of establishing a united Ireland and provide several billions for that process? Are there any plans for Her Majesty’s Government to provide several billions to establish a united Ireland?
I welcome my noble friend to the Front Bench and congratulate him on his appointment. Does he accept that, whatever is done, these are delicate matters, that the Good Friday agreement should remain and be honoured by everyone, and that nothing should be done to put it in jeopardy?
I thank my noble friend for his words of welcome. I agree: we all appreciate and want to stick by the progress made since the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and the great benefits that it has delivered for peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland.
Is it not important to remember that the election in Northern Ireland in December represented not progress for Sinn Féin but a setback? Will the Government continue to resist strenuously calls from Sinn Féin and other quarters for a referendum on Northern Ireland’s constitutional position? Is it not clear that a majority of our fellow country men and women in Northern Ireland continue to desire to remain within our country?
My noble friend speaks with, again, considerable experience on these issues and is right to draw the distinction between the results of the general election that we had in December and the general election that Ireland had last month. He is right, and it remains the view of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland that a majority of people in Northern Ireland continue to support Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom and that that is unlikely to change for the foreseeable future.