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House of Commons

Wednesday 19 July 2000

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Madam Speaker in the Chair]


City of London (Ward Elections) Bill (By Order)

Order for further consideration, as amended, read.

To be further considered on Wednesday 26 July.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked--

Peace Process

1. Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): If he will make a statement on developments in the peace process. [129859]

5. Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): If he will make a statement on the peace process in Northern Ireland. [129864]

7. Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton): If he will make a statement on the current state of the peace process. [129866]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Peter Mandelson): Considerable progress has been made in recent weeks. Devolution has been restored, the IRA confidence-building measure is in place, and good progress is being made to implement the Good Friday agreement in full.

I am not complacent: dissident republicans still pose a threat, and decommissioning remains a high priority. Nevertheless, the vision contained in the agreement is now becoming the reality--a better future for Northern Ireland, based on democratic ideals and guided by the principles of non-violence, parity of esteem and consent.

Mr. Winnick: If today's security alert in central London turns out to have been caused by breakaway IRA groups, should not they learn that we did not give in during 25 years of sustained terror and that we are hardly likely to do so now? Does not my right hon. Friend agree that dissident IRA elements and the loyalist factions that have caused so much trouble with hooliganism and violence recently have something in common? They

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loathe each other and want to commit murder, but is not what they have in common a desire to destroy the Good Friday agreement?

Mr. Mandelson: I strongly echo my hon. Friend's sentiments, and I deeply regret the inconvenience to rail and underground travellers today. The main paramilitary groups are maintaining their ceasefires. However, a threat remains from dissident paramilitaries opposed to the Good Friday agreement. I utterly condemn that threat, and the disruption caused by the incidents today.

The Government's policy of resolute action against terrorism, combined with the search for a just and enduring settlement has led to a marked reduction in terrorist activity in the past few years. The threat remains, however, and as long as it does the police will continue to combat it with whatever resources they need to do their job effectively.

Mr. Corbyn: In the context of the process of peace and reconciliation, will my right hon. Friend comment on the death of Robert Hamill in Portadown? Is he prepared to authorise or instruct a judicial inquiry, under section 44 of the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 1998, into the circumstances surrounding his murder?

Mr. Mandelson: I do not rule out such an inquiry, or one of a similar kind. However, while investigations into that tragic and brutal killing are continuing, I shall maintain the option without giving any further commitment to undertaking such an inquiry.

Mrs. Winterton: The Secretary of State is a master of the oleaginous reply. Will he break the habit of a lifetime and answer this question directly: what is the estimate of the percentage of IRA weapons that have been inspected by Mr. Ahtisaari and Mr. Ramaphosa? Will he give an indication when decommissioning, the key feature of the Belfast agreement, will be complete?

Mr. Mandelson: A substantial quantity of armaments in a number of dumps was inspected by the two international inspectors. That included weapons, explosives and detonators. I am sure that the hon. Lady will join me in welcoming the fulfilment of that commitment by the Provisional IRA--assuming that further inspections by the two international inspectors can take place in due course.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann): The Secretary of State will know that today's incidents in London are being attributed to dissident republicans. Does the right hon. Gentleman recall that dissident republicans were responsible for the Omagh atrocity, and that the House was recalled to enact emergency legislation that we were told would be used against those elements? In the two years since, that legislation has not been used at all. Will it be used? Will the Secretary of State press the Irish Government to use the equivalent legislation on their side of the border?

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Over the past two years, the Irish Prime Minister has given assurance after assurance that the law in the Republic will be used against dissident republicans. When will that happen? Has the right hon. Gentleman pressed the Irish Government to fulfil those promises?

Mr. Mandelson: The legislation to which the right hon. Gentleman refers remains on the statute book. Where the police and the prosecuting authorities believe that it is possible and desirable to invoke it, they will do so without hesitation.

The right hon. Gentleman is right that combating dissident republicans depends on close co-operation between the Government and the Irish Government. That co-operation is proceeding, and I can tell the House that I will be holding a telephone conversation with the Irish Minister of Justice at 5 pm, in order to discuss with him what further action both Governments can take.

Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North): Following the point raised by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), I can tell my right hon. Friend that normal life came to a halt in my part of west London this morning because of what we are now told was a "viable" explosive device in Ealing. A coded warning was given from what we assume to be a dissident republican group. Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying public tribute to the emergency services, and to the operators of the overground trains and of the London underground, who kept disruption and misery to a minimum?

Will my right hon. Friend also accept assurances from me, my constituents and all decent people in the kingdom that his work becomes ever more vital? We are talking not about some faraway country, but about life and death for us, on our own doorsteps.

Mr. Mandelson: I am sure that the whole House will want to join my hon. Friend in expressing gratitude to the emergency services, who reacted so promptly and efficiently today in response to the coded warnings that were received, and in coping with the disruption that ensued. The device that has been exploded at Ealing was an improvised explosive device. Further details are awaited, but the code word used in connection with the incident was the same as that used for the attack on the railway line at Newry and in other incidents and hoaxes on the mainland. The device at Ealing may have been of a size similar to that of the Hammersmith bomb. It certainly appears that this attack was carried out by dissidents, but we shall pursue the matter and pin down exactly who was responsible.

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): I want to return to matters in the Province. Will the Secretary of State say what we must do to prevent a recurrence, in the run-up to 12 July 2001, of the recent civil unrest, which involved illegal roadblocks?

Mr. Mandelson: It is slightly pessimistic to assume already that there will be continued deadlock at Drumcree next year. The determination by the Parades Commission has set out a clear, thoughtful and considered route map to enable all sides in the dispute to reach a local agreement. That will ensure that what took place in the past couple of weeks will not happen again next year.

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The Parades Commission's proposals deserve careful consideration. I urge Portadown Orangemen to engage in the process. If that happens, I hope that local residents will make a reciprocal gesture and commitment.

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down): I am sure that the Secretary of State is aware that, as we in Northern Ireland move painfully and slowly towards peace and normality, there has been an enormous increase in drugs trafficking, which has penetrated our communities and led to beatings, petrol bombings and shootings. Will he urgently examine that new cancer in our society, which is often promoted by erstwhile or so-called erstwhile paramilitaries, review the resources that he and the police have at their disposal, enhance those resources, and start an all-out war on those parasites on our society, who are destroying our young people?

Mr. Mandelson: It is true that the spread of drugs, their supply, their use and their sale, behind which stand many members of paramilitary organisations, is now at the heart of the programme of activities undertaken by the RUC. Wherever I go in Northern Ireland, the story is the same: the cancer is spreading into every community. I assure the House that the RUC will utilise every resource it has at its disposal to combat that illegal and unacceptable activity, and that the RUC will have the Government's full support in doing so.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell): Will the Secretary of State confirm that on or before 28 July, he will release all the remaining terrorist prisoners who committed crimes before the signing of the Belfast agreement? Will he confirm that one of the most notorious terrorists, Michael Stone, will be released this Friday? Will he also confirm that there has, as yet, been no decommissioning of illegally held arms and explosives--not one gun, nor one ounce of Semtex?

Mr. Mandelson: The right hon. Gentleman is right about the forthcoming prisoner releases, but I should emphasise that they depend on the maintenance by the organisations to which the prisoners belong of the ceasefires to which they are committed. Evidence of the involvement or engagement of any paramilitary group now on ceasefire in violent or terrorist activity would, of course, have a direct impact on my assessment of their ceasefire and potentially on further prisoner releases. I should point out that all the prisoners due to be released will be released on licence, which provides a mechanism to return them to prison, if necessary--an important point that both the House and the prisoners should bear in mind.

Mr. MacKay: The Secretary of State will recall that the Prime Minister, rightly, referred to a parallel process when he was persuading the people of Northern Ireland to vote yes in the referendum. However, the process is not parallel when terrorist prisoners are given early release but no decommissioning takes place. At this late hour, I plead with the right hon. Gentleman, on behalf of the great majority of people in Northern Ireland and on the mainland, not to release the remaining terrorist prisoners until, at the very least, all the paramilitary groups that signed up to the Belfast agreement have opened their arms dumps to international inspection and decommissioning starts to proceed.

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Mr. Mandelson: I shall not introduce that fresh condition at this stage, as I do not think that it would be a constructive step in the peace process. However, I remind the right hon. Gentleman that the Provisional IRA has undertaken its confidence-building measure, which is the first step in a process that the IRA itself says will end in the complete and verifiable putting beyond use of its weapons; in addition, contact has been resumed between the IRA and the decommissioning body. Those are welcome and important confidence-building moves. I should like to see other measures undertaken on the same basis by loyalist paramilitary organisations, and I take this opportunity to urge them to do so.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North): My right hon. Friend will recall that among the confidence-building measures was the Patten report and the new Police (Northern Ireland) Bill. In his speech at Coleraine yesterday, he said that he had introduced 66 changes into the Bill at the behest of the nationalists. At best, those changes only partially restore the Patten provisions, and in only one or two instances do they fulfil the provisions of Patten. Will he give an undertaking that, when the Lords consider the Bill, Patten will be restored to the Bill in full, and that there will be no more withdrawing or alteration of Government amendments at the behest of the Unionists?

Mr. Mandelson: I strongly contend that the original Bill reflected entirely and faithfully the Patten commission recommendations. In addition, the improvements and changes that have since been made to the Bill have strengthened it. I did not make a speech in Coleraine yesterday--[Interruption.] I did not leak a memo either; however, I did make the point that we need to make a distinction between those parts of the Bill that can and have been, quite legitimately, improved and those claims made by a minority who deliberately misrepresent the Bill's contents. I shall continue to refute those false claims about the Bill, just as I shall continue to consider constructively amendments proposed to improve the Bill's contents.

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