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House of Commons

Wednesday 28 March 2001

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked--

Violent Crime

1. Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): What his policies are for reducing the level of violence in Northern Ireland. [154338]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Dr. John Reid): The Government continue to support the efforts of the Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary to reduce violence in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Hughes: Against a background that is generally encouraging for the future of a peaceful Northern Ireland, will the Secretary of State confirm that the reduction of violence among young people will be a priority for him and his colleagues as well as the Chief Constable? I am talking not about paramilitary violence but about burglaries, violence against the person and sexual offences, which show an upward trend. Will he consider favourably organisations such as Regenerate? It has the advantage of providing for former paramilitaries to work with young people to teach them the evil of their ways. Such role models are a way forward for Northern Ireland and may set the crime figures on a downward trend.

Dr. Reid: Yes; like all hon. Members I condemn and abhor crime, especially crimes that inflict damage on human beings. I take the hon. Gentleman's point. We shall continue to bear down on paramilitary and non- paramilitary violent crime and to support the Chief Constable as much as we can.

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down): Does the Secretary of State agree that the people of Northern Ireland wake up to a daily diet of extreme violence, the manner of which is changing from the baseball bat to the gun again? Those crimes may be permitted or committed by paramilitaries, but will he undertake to set up a special

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team in each locality in Northern Ireland to deal with drugs rackets and protection rackets for which organised crime or paramilitaries are responsible?

Dr. Reid: Yes. We should make it clear that the perpetrators of violence have no legitimacy, mandate or support. They are abhorred by the vast majority of the ordinary people of Northern Ireland.

We take seriously paramilitaries' wider crimes, which include racketeering, profiteering and sometimes drugs. We have therefore established a taskforce on organised crime, which the Minister of State oversees. We shall continue to do all in our power to tackle gangsterism and mafia-like activity from the paramilitaries.

Mr. Cecil Walker (Belfast, North): Is the Secretary of State aware of the current unacceptable violence in north Belfast? It reflects a lack of policing on the ground. Does he realise that some of the Patten recommendations have had an adverse effect on police morale, which has resulted in a high incidence of stress-related absenteeism? What are the Government's intentions for redressing the imbalance?

Dr. Reid: I am aware of the activities in north Belfast. That is why the Royal Ulster Constabulary, supplemented by the Army, has put in extra effort with some success.

It is a time of tremendous change for the RUC, and there is a great deal of stress on those who serve in the police service in Northern Ireland. The Chief Constable and the change management team are making every effort to ensure that that stress is alleviated.

The new Police Service of Northern Ireland benefits the whole community, not only the nationalists. I hope that it will be acceptable to the whole community, and that the whole community will participate in it. It will be one of the key points that underpins a peace process that will ultimately reduce violence inside and outside the paramilitary groups.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): I acknowledge what my right hon. Friend has said. Has he estimated how many people are alive today in Northern Ireland and in Britain because of the Good Friday agreement? We should not forget that. If decommissioning immunity is extended beyond May, does he intend June to be the target date for some genuine decommissioning, which we all want to happen?

Dr. Reid: Given the tragic losses for more than 3,600 families in the recent decades of the troubles, the peace process has been enormously beneficial despite our difficulties and challenges. The order that I tabled yesterday is technically necessary to ensure that immunity from prosecution for those involved in decommissioning weapons continues after 19 May, when it would otherwise expire. That does not affect the target date of June this year, which we and the Irish Government set last May for achieving the remaining steps necessary to secure full implementation of the Good Friday agreement.

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim): I am sure that the Minister will want to congratulate the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Walker), who was telling us recently in our newspapers that there was no point in coming here

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because it was a waste of time. It is nice to know that, at the end of this Parliament, he has made his maiden speech. [Interruption.] When one throws a stone among dogs, the one that is hit the hardest barks the loudest.

Will the Minister tell us what his attitude is to the fact that the Irish Republican Army members of staff list has been issued? Is he not alarmed that three Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, Martin McGuinness, Gerard Adams and Patrick Doherty, are mentioned as members of the inner council of the IRA? Mr. Adams has declared that he is talking with Downing street every day. Does not the Minister realise how people who are sorrowing, and will always sorrow, for their loved ones feel about the Government being prepared to hold negotiations with such people? [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. There is far too much noise on this side of the House.

Dr. Reid: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. There was a wee bit of noise on that side of the House as well.

First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Walker) on the continued support that he has given to the peace process, which has been a boon to many families in Northern Ireland. Secondly, I think that the point raised by the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) was based on a newspaper report on an apparently leaked document based on an intelligence source. I think that that is what he was referring to. As I never respond to newspaper reports, leaked documents or intelligence sources, I am sure that he will understand why I shall not respond to him on that point.

I shall say only that if we are to achieve a transition from the terrible tragedies of the past 30--indeed, many more--years and the loss of life involved, a lot of political decisions will have to be taken, and a lot of discussions will have to be entered into. They will be not only complex and challenging, but painful for everyone involved. The prize and the reward for the people of Northern Ireland is great enough for all of us to swallow our prejudices and try to recognise the views and histories of the side across from us. It is ultimately the people of Northern Ireland as a whole who will benefit from that.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North): My right hon. Friend will be well aware that confidence in the new police service will be a prime concern in the coming years. Will he, therefore, make a statement that, once Mrs. O'Loan has finished her inquiries into the Hamill affair, he will set up a public inquiry to look into all the circumstances surrounding that tragic death and its aftermath?

Dr. Reid: Two inquiries are already going on into that case, and prosecutions might arise from either or both of them. Once those inquiries, and any prosecutions, have finished, and if there is still widespread concern, we have not ruled out any course of action.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell): Are the Secretary of State's commendable efforts to reduce violence likely to be helped by giving an amnesty to prisoners on the run? Does he agree that, because the Maze escapees have

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been allowed to walk away free, they have been given the opportunity to benefit from their escape, which is quite wrong in a lawful society?

Dr. Reid: With respect, I must correct the right hon. Gentleman: there is not an amnesty; those people are on licence. Secondly, this is not news; it has been known for some considerable time. Thirdly, it is part of an overall peace process. If he is asking me whether this is a constituent element of a process that will result in the diminution of violence and a better, fairer, more decent, prosperous and secure Northern Ireland, my answer is yes.

Mr. MacKay: Inevitably, most people will consider that to be an amnesty. The Secretary of State is aware that the Prime Minister promised the people of Northern Ireland a parallel process, which we strongly supported, that meant that terrorist prisoners would be released with all illegally held arms and explosives being decommissioned at the same time. The simple truth is that not one gun nor one ounce of Semtex has been handed in, but more than 400 terrorist prisoners are back on the streets. That is a serious breach of the Belfast agreement. Does he agree that it needs rectifying quickly?

Dr. Reid: If the right hon. Gentleman is asking whether we want early decommissioning as part of the peace process, the answer is yes. We made our view known last year: we want to achieve substantial progress on all elements of the Good Friday agreement by June. We continue to press for that because we believe that moving forward with a new political institution in Northern Ireland in which all sides participate and forming a new police service in Northern Ireland will lead to normalisation and demilitarisation from the point of view of the British Government; of course, an additional element of that is decommissioning. We continue to press on it.

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