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House of Commons

Wednesday 8 November 2000

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


Private Bills [Lords] (Suspension)


That so much of the Lords Message [6th November] as relates to the Colchester Borough Council Bill [Lords] be now considered.


That this House concurs with the Lords in their Resolution.--[The Chairman of Ways and Means.]

Message to the Lords to acquaint them therewith.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked--

Peace Process (International Support)

1. Gillian Merron (Lincoln): If he will make a statement on the level of international support for developments in the peace process in Northern Ireland. [135594]

8. Mr. David Stewart (Inverness, East, Nairn and Lochaber): If he will make a statement on international support for developments in the peace process in Northern Ireland. [135604]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Peter Mandelson): We have enjoyed worldwide support for our attempts to secure a lasting peace in Northern Ireland. This has been particularly strong from the European Union, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Finland, South Africa and the United States. I hope that the whole House will join me in thanking President Clinton for his unstinting support over the past eight years, and especially for the part that he has played in bringing about, and sustaining, the Good Friday agreement.

Gillian Merron: While we wait with bated breath for the name of the next President of the United States, does my right hon. Friend share my hope that the next occupant of

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the White House will show the same dedication and commitment that President Clinton has shown over the past eight years in bringing about a successful peace process?

Mr. Mandelson: I should certainly like to be the first from the Dispatch Box to congratulate the President- Elect--[Hon. Members: "Who is he?"]--whoever he turns out to be. I am sure that the next President will ensure the continuation of America's support for the peace process in Northern Ireland. I should add that, during his electoral campaign, Mr. Bush said that the new Assembly and institutions represented the best hope for peace in Northern Ireland and, during his electoral campaign, Mr. Gore undertook to support, among other things, decommissioning of illegally held paramilitary arms. Both would-be Presidents seem to have a good grasp of all the essentials.

Mr. Stewart: Does my right hon. Friend acknowledge the recent positive announcements by two American firms--Teletech and Caterpillar--to create 1,400 new jobs in Northern Ireland? Does he share my view that, notwithstanding the political difficulties in Northern Ireland, foreign investors have strong underlying confidence in the long-term prospects for peace?

Mr. Mandelson: Yes, I strongly echo my hon. Friend's remarks and welcome the investment that has come from those two companies, among others. However, it behoves us all to bear in mind that this strengthening investment performance by Northern Ireland has come as a result of the peace process strengthening and politics working in Northern Ireland. I believe that continued investment in Northern Ireland depends on continued stability and peace. I hope, and I trust, that all parties in Northern Ireland will be mindful of that in the coming weeks.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann): While endorsing the Secretary of State's comments on President Clinton and his successor, whoever that might be, can I urge him to make the strongest possible representations to the present and future incumbents of the White House on the failure of the State Department to list the so-called Real IRA as a terrorist organisation? In a week in which we have received a police warning that more Omaghs may be committed by that organisation, can he say to the American Administration that people throughout the British isles cannot understand why the State Department is not classifying that organisation in the way that it should?

Mr. Mandelson: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising that issue. We need constantly to bear down on the Real IRA and other dissident paramilitary groups, by all available means. When I was in the United States in September, I expressed the hope that the United States authorities would add the Real IRA to their list of designated terrorist organisations. I believe that that would frustrate the funding that the group receives from America and, crucially, assist us in carrying out any necessary prosecutions of that organisation in the United States. I am continuing to discuss that issue with my Irish opposite numbers because, clearly, the prospects

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of securing that outcome will be much enhanced if the British and Irish Governments act together in making a joint submission.

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): Does the Secretary of State agree that there will be international support for the decision by representatives of the Ulster Defence Association to come here--officially--for the first time yesterday, to try and establish political links between themselves and this Parliament? Does he also agree that, if that is a serious step forward in trying to create a peaceful dialogue between loyalist paramilitaries and our Parliament, there is a good chance that we will replicate the good news that we had when the IRA did something very similar a few years ago?

Mr. Mandelson: I think that it is important to encourage dialogue among and between all the parties, especially at a time when reserves of confidence and good will in Northern Ireland are dangerously low. In the coming weeks, I shall discuss with the parties a set of measures to implement all aspects of the Good Friday agreement, so as to bolster confidence on both sides of the community. Those measures must include, among other things, progress on decommissioning and fully functioning political institutions. Both are essential and neither should be frustrated by the hardliners found on both sides. The Government will never give up on the Good Friday agreement and nor should anyone else who has Northern Ireland's best interests at heart.

Mr. John M. Taylor (Solihull): In the context not least of international support, will the Secretary of State confirm that he has every sympathy for the Omagh victims? In the absence so far of criminal charges, does he agree that attempts to pursue a civil action against the suspects deserve the fullest support?

Mr. Mandelson: One only has to visit Omagh, as I did again last week, to feel the hurt surrounding the absence of a conviction; it is a hurt that is felt by all the victims' families and by the wider community in Omagh. That is why, as I said in Omagh, I fully understand the motives behind the campaign. We need to continue to exert maximum pressure on those who want to destroy the peace process. I also want to place on record my admiration for the investigation team in Omagh: I know how hard its members have worked and how desperate they are to find that last piece of evidence that they can put in place to secure the conviction of those who carried out that disgusting atrocity.

Mr. Speaker: Order. Before I call the next question, I ask for quiet in the Chamber.

Royal Ulster Constabulary

2. Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): What discussions he has had since the end of July with the Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary about recruitment and retention of personnel for the RUC. [135595]

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The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Adam Ingram): There have been numerous and regular meetings with the Chief Constable or his representatives at ministerial and official level on recruitment and retention of RUC personnel and other subjects since July.

Mr. Wilkinson: Does the Minister not believe that the record of the RUC in standing between the law-abiding people of Northern Ireland and the spectres of anarchy and bloody civil war, under the proud name and cap badge of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, is one that inspires citizens who are committed to the maintenance of law and order to join the force, and those who have served so well to stay in it; but that, if the force became subject to local partnerships or a policing board that contained released terrorists and apologists for those who maintain dumps of illegal arms, that confidence would be gravely undermined?

Mr. Ingram: Again, I place on record the Government's fulsome tribute to the RUC, which has been recognised in many different ways, not least by Her Majesty awarding the force the George Cross. Yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced a substantial package for RUC widows and disabled officers, which will go some way towards dealing with difficult issues, including the deep pain felt within the organisation for many years.

As for district partnerships, they were included in the Patten report as a means of ensuring that policing would, as far as possible, be based in the local community. The hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) is probably wholly opposed to that report, but we are confident that its provisions, once they have been given full effect through the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill, will be warmly received within the wider community in Northern Ireland.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde): May I point out that cap badges have been altered elsewhere with no loss of morale; and that sensible people now accept reform of the police force? Does my right hon. Friend believe that the interim target of 30.5 per cent. Catholic representation in the police force by March 2004 is an attainable objective, given that many Jeremiahs, especially those on the other side of the House, believe that it is not a realistic goal?

Mr. Ingram: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's comments. Everyone who has read the Patten report will know how difficult it is for police services throughout the world to change in terms of representation. The Patten report cites the New York experience. With the provisions that we have set out in the Bill, we have sought to ensure that there is equitable representation. I think that that is an achievable target.

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim): With reference to the Minister's mention of compensation for RUC widows, I welcome the move that has been made. However, there is great concern among these widows that even what is on offer is far different from what later widows have received thorough the courts. Would it not be better to have an equitable settlement so that there is no distinction between

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these widows? Some of them received compensation of only a few hundred pounds after years of suffering before the Government made a decision.

Mr. Ingram: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has had the opportunity of reading John Steele's review, which is a comprehensive analysis of what is undoubtedly a difficult problem. The Government have supported his conclusions. We believe that we are dealing equitably with the issue. We recognise the pain and the hurt that exists for RUC widows who pre-date the 25 November 1982 change in legislation. I am sure that those widows will benefit greatly from the Government's response.

Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton): Does the Minister agree that the population want every street in Northern Ireland to be policed? To achieve that community police force, we must recognise that the Patten report is a cornerstone of the Good Friday agreement, as agreed by the political parties in Northern Ireland. Like me, does my right hon. Friend deprecate some political parties that are trying to make a political issue out of policing?

Mr. Ingram: The Patten report was based on the premise of trying to take politics out of policing. It was a detailed analysis of the issue raised by my hon. Friend and of other issues. As we move forward from the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill to the Act, and then to implementation of the various elements of the legislation, it will take time for all the changes to bed down. The driving force is our wish to achieve a police service that is acceptable at all levels of Northern Ireland society. It is a big objective, but I think that it can be reached.

Mr. William Thompson (West Tyrone): Does the Minister accept that, as a result of the Government's policies, the morale of the Royal Ulster Constabulary is at an all-time low and absenteeism, sickness levels, disillusionment and disenchantment are at an all-time high? What will the right hon. Gentleman do to address these disastrous policies?

Mr. Ingram: Any programme of change brings with it difficult issues with which we must deal. The Chief Constable carried out a fundamental review of the RUC. It has been judged that about 85 per cent. of its contents are set out in the Bill. Had that review been implemented, we would have had to deal with the same difficulties of change. Clearly, change brings forward difficulties. With the Bill, we are trying to take away uncertainty and to move forward into a different type of society in Northern Ireland--that is, a more normal civic society. Changes within the police service are a concomitant part of that.

Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North): It would be excessively obsequious of me to suggest that where my right hon. Friend leads, the nation follows. However, does he agree that many of the proposed changes for policing in Northern Ireland have the potential to provide a blueprint for even better policing in the rest of the United Kingdom?

Mr. Ingram: I agree entirely with those sentiments. We are saying that the way in which we have sought to interpret the Patten report takes best practices from

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international experience of what should constitute an effective, efficient and acceptable police service. I have no doubt that, as we move forward and implement the measures set out in the Bill, internationally people will take positive note of the changes that are taking place in Northern Ireland and draw positive responses from them.

Mr. Robert McCartney (North Down): On the issue of morale, does the Minister agree that one of the most deleterious effects of Patten and, indeed, of the Belfast agreement has been for the RUC to see those whom it risked life and limb to put behind bars let loose on the street? Does he agree that the presence yesterday of Michael Stone, a murderous terrorist, in the precincts of the House has done nothing to give confidence either to the police or to law-abiding citizens in both communities in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Ingram: The hon. and learned Gentleman is an implacable opponent of the Good Friday agreement. I do not know what change he wishes to see in Northern Ireland that he could encourage others to find acceptable as we try to deal with that matter in a structured way, building from the ground up. On the question of released prisoners, we have made it clear--I will make it clear again--that, if any of them break their licences, they will be back in prison. We say that time and again. The Secretary of State has shown his willingness to act firmly.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North): Does my right hon. Friend recall that, during the previous Administration, prisoners were released even when the ceasefire had broken down? Does he agree that what we are seeking to do, when men such as Mr. Stone visit the precincts of the House, is to demonstrate that democracy is a better way than violence, and that there are opportunities for people to enter into dialogue and for there to be inclusive solutions to the problems, recognising the differences in traditions and in attitudes, but accepting democratic methods?

Mr. Ingram: Again, I agree with those sentiments. My hon. Friend presents his arguments more eloquently than I could. He makes a valid point. Democratic dialogue is better than destruction through the barrel of a gun. That is what we seek to do as we move towards a more normalised and a more civic society in Northern Ireland. If people are engaged--no matter what their past is--in that democratic dialogue, we should welcome them into the fold of democratic change in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell): Does the Minister accept that the proposed abolition of the name of the Royal Ulster Constabulary is causing huge hurt among the families of officers who have been murdered or mutilated in fighting terrorism during the recent troubles, and that that can hardly help him to retain and to recruit new officers?

Mr. Ingram: We have recognised the hurt. We understand the deep angst within the RUC family and the community, too, but what part of the Good Friday agreement does the right hon. Gentleman now support? The Patten Commission--the need to look at the whole question of policing in Northern Ireland--was an important element of the agreement. If he is now saying

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that he does not support that aspect, and he does not support the release of prisoners, what does he support in the agreement? Perhaps he could help me to understand the direction that he is now coming from.

Mr. MacKay: If the right hon. Gentleman really accepts the sensitivities of the families, surely he will agree with us that, at this late stage in the Session, the Government should accept our amendments--which might be voted on in another place today--to have a joint name for the police force that incorporates both the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Northern Ireland police force and which, therefore, takes into account the genuine sensitivities in both communities in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Ingram: The right hon. Gentleman is offering a recipe for uncertainty, confusion and continued division. That issue has been debated in the House. I, as the Minister responsible, and the Secretary of State have set out why we believe there should be a very clear approach. It is why we say that the name will be the Police Service for Northern Ireland.

I ask the right hon. Gentleman again to reflect on what parts of the Good Friday agreement he now supports. He has rejected most of the key elements that the Government must bravely take forward. I would have hoped that he could understand the need for bipartisanship on those difficult issues.

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