The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Adam Ingram): The main paramilitary groups are maintaining their ceasefires; however, there remains a continued threat from dissident paramilitaries, as evidenced by recent attacks on the security forces at Cookstown, the recent bombs discovered in South Armagh and Claudy, and yesterday's mortar attack on Ebrington. These are serious developments. However, the security forces are ready and capable of dealing with these threats, and they deserve our highest praise for all their brave efforts.
Mr. O'Brien: In the light of those two incidents, and in the absence of any real decommissioning in Northern Ireland, is it not wholly inappropriate and undesirable for so-called demilitarisation even to be considered at this stage, let alone progress?
Mr. Ingram: I think that I recounted more than two incidents. The hon. Gentleman should look at my answer. There have been too many incidents in recent days and recent weeks. This is a very serious development, but the security forces are ready to tackle it. It is not a case of demilitarisation, as the hon. Gentleman avers; it is a question of seeking normalisation within Northern Ireland. It must be part of a sequenced process. It is what all of the talks have been about, and it is what our current efforts in seeking a resolution of this very difficult impasse are about.
Mr. Andy King (Rugby and Kenilworth): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the recent incidents in north Belfast, Coleraine, Cookstown and Armagh prove yet again that certain individuals in Northern Ireland are intent on wrecking the peace process and are by their very actions undermining the best wishes of the overwhelming majority of the people of Northern Ireland; that their actions are a threat to democracy itself; and that we in this House must give the Ministers in Northern Ireland every possible support in achieving a lasting peace for Northern Ireland?
Mr. Ingram: I agree wholeheartedly with that assessment. What those dissident factions are doing, and what the so-called loyalist paramilitary groups are doing by carrying out their sectarian attacks on innocent Catholics, is to make a serious attempt to undermine the peace process. That is their objective. We are determined that they will not succeed, and I hope that the whole House will support every effort that is being made at present by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and others, including the security forces, which are showing their determination, to achieve the objective set out in the Good Friday agreement.
Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): Does the Minister agree that there can be no satisfactory security situation until there is a meaningful handing in of weapons and explosives? Is not decommissioning the longest-running political soap of all time? Does the right
Mr. Ingram: It would be too nice to call that a rant. There was not one word of a solution in that question. The hon. Gentleman has been a Member of this House for many long years. He will know that this issue is not easily resolved. Decommissioning is a voluntary process, and it must be done on the basis of reaching agreement. The Good Friday agreement itself is very clear on what the objective is: it is the removal of all illegally held weapons. That is what the present Government seek, and it is what previous Governments sought. Hopefully, we shall achieve it.
Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington): Has not the Secretary of State's regrettable and impending resignation indicated how vulnerable we all are when the press decide that they a want a politician's head on a platter? [Interruption.] Can I express the hope that those same editors who have called for my right hon. Friend's resignation will now turn their attention to writing articles congratulating him on the work that he did in Northern Ireland to resolve the problems of conflict?
Mr. Ingram: I do not know whether my hon. Friend takes time to read The Irish News, the Belfast Telegraph or the News Letter, but if he has had the opportunity to do so over recent days, he will have seen the balanced and constructive way in which those newspapers have approached the issue of police reform with regard to the current talks. I hope that other parts of our media will respond to the very positive, constructive approach adopted by the newspapers in Northern Ireland.
Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): May I record our appreciation for the contribution that the Secretary of State has made to the Province? In sometimes difficult times, we believe that his work has brought peace closer and for that, the House and the Province are in his debt.
What is the likely impact of the impending general election on normalisation and the peace process, given that Northern Ireland parties are evidently beginning to gear up for it? It could be predicted that that might cause some obstacles in the momentum of the process.
Mr. Ingram: The important thing is to focus on the task at hand and not to be distracted by extraneous influences. That is the way in which the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State have been approaching this in recent days as well as over a longer period. The hon. Gentleman will be only too conscious of the sterling efforts made by the political parties in Northern Ireland in those discussions. I think that they are focused on what they are seeking to achieve, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will support them in that.
Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry): Will the right hon. Gentleman join me in condemning the atrocious pipe-bomb attacks that have been taking place with such frequency throughout Northern Ireland? Will he confirm the degree of sophistication in the recent major bomb attacks that were launched on the security forces? Will he also confirm that the security forces were so able to deal with the situation in Claudy, that while they found the
Mr. Ingram: The Chief Constable has, in recent days, indicated through attribution who planted those devices, and has also said that they are very sophisticated. We are dealing with a very determined, nasty and evil force that knows what its objectives are. With regard to the latter part of the hon. Gentleman's question about removal of intelligence-gathering means and the security profile, we have said that that must always be part of the discussions between the parties and those who have illegally held weapons. It is about seeking the removal of all illegally held weapons in Northern Ireland, and normalisation can proceed apace on the back of that.
Mr. John M. Taylor (Solihull): How can anyone claim that the security situation or the peace process are holding when so-called "punishment beatings" are on the increase and becoming more severe? Are there not some parts of the Province that are practically unpoliced, despite the valour of the RUC?
Mr. Ingram: I would not say that parts of Northern Ireland are "unpoliced", but parts are difficult to police because of an unwillingness by certain parts of the community, for whatever reason, to co-operate with the police. That is one reason why the Good Friday agreement highlighted the importance of a different policing approach for Northern Ireland, on the back of all the other things in that agreement. Reform of the RUC is about achieving that type of acceptable policing service throughout Northern Ireland. That requires the co-operation of the community just as much as other changes mentioned in the Patten report that the Government put forward in the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000 and are now seeking to implement.
Dr. William McCrea (South Antrim): In the light of the serious attacks mentioned by the Minister--multiple murder bids on members of the security forces--and while it has been claimed that dissident members of the republican movement are responsible, no one can hide behind the reality that such actions could not have been taken without at least the compliance of the Provisional IRA. The weaponry of the Provos--Semtex, bombs and guns--have been used in the hands of republicans. Is it not time for a proactive security initiative against those dissidents and republicans, to allow a real peace process that all the people of Northern Ireland can enjoy?
Mr. Ingram: The assertions at the heart of the hon. Gentleman's question are not borne out by the assessments of the Chief Constable and our security advisers. I would rather trust their judgment than that of the hon. Gentleman.