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House of Commons

Wednesday 9 May 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--

Organised Crime

1. Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside): If he will make a statement on further measures being taken to fight organised crime in Northern Ireland. [159615]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Adam Ingram): The Government and the operational agencies in Northern Ireland are committed to tackling the problem of organised crime. Since September last year, I have led a multi-agency taskforce involving the Royal Ulster Constabulary, Customs and other Government agencies. Our remit is to confront the malign influence of organised crime wherever it raises its ugly head. The taskforce has already published an analysis of the problem and a strategy for tackling it. A copy of those documents can be found in the Library.

Mrs. Ellman: Does my right hon. Friend consider that the new Criminal Assets Recovery Agency has sufficient power to fight organised crime? When does he expect it to show that it has made a difference?

Mr. Ingram: My hon. Friend raises an interesting point. The Government's proposals are set out in the recently published Proceeds of Crime Bill. When enacted, it will go a long way towards dealing with the twin evils of racketeering and drug pushing. As experience here, in the United States, the Republic of Ireland and elsewhere has shown, the seizure of illegal assets can help to destroy or to undermine the hold that organised crime has on many parts of society. The legislation will help to achieve all those objectives.

Mr. Cecil Walker (Belfast, North): The Minister must be aware that the RUC is now seriously under strength in terms of both experience and manpower. Given the high level of interest in the recruitment programme, will he consider increasing the number of people to be recruited, which is 240 at present?

Mr. Ingram: That is an interesting point. Although I do not accept the premise on which the question is based, all of us have been surprised by the level of interest that

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has been shown in the new Police Service of Northern Ireland--there have been just under 8,000 applicants to date, all of whom are being assessed. Clearly, we must look at ways in which we can, if it is possible and practical, improve policing numbers in Northern Ireland as a result of that recruitment. The initial tranche of 240 is being considered. Of course, that will be increased in subsequent years.

Mr. John Hume (Foyle): Does the Minister agree that there are organisations in Northern Ireland engaging in Mafia-style activity which want the absence of law and order to continue in order that they can develop their trade, particularly that in drugs, threatening our young people? Does not that underline the fact that all of us should do everything in our power as soon as possible after the elections to ensure that we have a police service on our streets that has the loyalty and support of all sections of our people in order to deal with such situations?

Mr. Ingram: The point raised by my hon. Friend goes to the heart of the issue. Some of what we have to deal with is a consequence of moving out of a terrorist-driven society to, I hope, a more normalised society. The taskforce that I mentioned earlier has reported that there are 78 organised criminal gangs in Northern Ireland, involving about 400 individuals. The strategy that the Government have put in place with the RUC and other law-enforcement agencies will tackle that with great vigour, but they cannot do it on their own. As my hon. Friend has said, they need the support of the wider community. The best approach is when everyone joins the police service and the law-enforcement agencies, not only in tackling organised crime but in helping to bring in normalised policing in Northern Ireland. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. The House should consider that many hon. Members are here to listen to Northern Ireland questions.

Mr. John M. Taylor (Solihull): Does not the Minister agree that the fight against organised crime is hardly helped by the European Court of Human Rights awarding in favour of people who set out to blow up a police station? Is it not demoralising to our security forces?

Mr. Ingram: I should have thought that even in their current state the Opposition would recognise that that was a judgment of a court of law, which the Government have to take into account and study very carefully. That is what we are doing. The case is not related to organised crime. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will help the Government to tackle that insidious and evil aspect of society in Northern Ireland.

Good Friday Agreement

2. Mr. Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough): If he will make a statement on progress in implementing the Good Friday agreement. [159616]

3. Ms Helen Southworth (Warrington, South): If he will make a statement on progress of the peace process. [159617]

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The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Dr. John Reid): Over the past three years, the agreement has helped to improve overall the lives of the people of Northern Ireland. Further progress will depend on their continued active support for that agreement.

Mr. Ennis: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Good Friday agreement belongs not to the politicians or to the Government, but to the people of Northern Ireland? Is it not important that all sides involved in the agreement ensure that the will of the people prevails?

Dr. Reid: I congratulate the politicians who have had the moral courage to support the agreement, sometimes in very difficult circumstances. I also agree with my hon. Friend that, ultimately, the beneficiaries and owners of the agreement are the people of Northern Ireland as a whole. It is they who would be the victims of the failure of the agreement. We are approaching a general election that will be very important for people in Northern Ireland, and they will make their choice in that election. However, I think that an overwhelming number of objective observers would recognise that, for all its difficulties, Northern Ireland today is a safer, fairer, better and more prosperous place than it was before the previous general election.

Ms Southworth: My right hon. Friend knows that my constituents in Warrington have good reason to understand the desire of ordinary people in Northern Ireland to be free from terrorism, and that we have been working to support ordinary people in Northern Ireland in their struggle for peace. Does he believe that, in the coming weeks, it is the responsibility of every politician in every party to commit to the peace process and to work to ensure its success?

Dr. Reid: I agree with every word that my hon. Friend said. Not only is the situation in Northern Ireland one of the longest-running problems in British history, but it is quite literally a matter of life and death for so many people. More than 3,600 families have tragically suffered a loss over the period of the troubles. I commend my hon. Friend on the role that she has played in Warrington following the tragic deaths there of Tim Parry and Jonathan Ball, as I do the centre that has been established. I think that we would all do well to emulate her example and those of many people in Northern Ireland who have overcome past enmities to build a better future.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): The Secretary of State will be aware that on 2 May, in reply to a question, the Minister of State said that the decommissioning body had issued a statement on 22 March, stating that it believed that there had been progress towards decommissioning. However, in that statement, the decommissioning body also set an eight-week deadline. We are now within that eight-week period, which gives us until the end of June to try to make up ground. Is the Secretary of State in a better position today to tell us whether there has been real movement, or whether we are still being fobbed off?

Dr. Reid: I am afraid that I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman that I have received any further reports from General de Chastelain or his commission. Last year,

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at Hillsborough, it was made plain by both Governments and by all the parties that we hoped and expected that we would be able to move towards substantial implementation of all aspects of the agreement by June. That remains our goal and our objective.

I think that there should be a clear recognition not only by every Member in this place but by everyone outside it that, if we are to move forwards in this peace process, we all have to move forward together. Progress cannot be made by one side or another side attempting to win a victory. Defeat for one side means defeat for the process. We all have to move forwards together, or, quite frankly, we will all fall back into the abyss together.

Mr. Robert McCartney (North Down): Does the Secretary of State accept that, although we talk about the progress of the peace process for the people of Northern Ireland, large sections of working-class people in public housing estates in Northern Ireland are daily subjected to paramilitary terror from paramilitaries who are inextricably linked to the parties within the agreement and alleged to be supporting that peace process?

Dr. Reid: I utterly condemn any violence, whether it comes from individuals, organised crime or those who would inflict damage, violence and misery upon their neighbours under the greater name of some alleged cause on either side of the communities there. As regards the vast majority of people, including those in the working-class areas to which the hon. and learned Gentleman referred, I put it to him that, despite all the difficulties, the current situation is immeasurably better than it was a few years ago. He shakes his head, so perhaps he does not recognise that there has been a cut of almost 20 per cent. in unemployment and a 29 per cent. cut in long-term unemployment in Northern Ireland, and that we have had £2 billion in new investment. We have almost quadrupled our tourism, too, and we have a sense of security that, although imperfect, is far better than it was.

I am the last to pretend that we have a perfect situation in Northern Ireland, but the choice is not between a perfect Northern Ireland and what we have; it is between what we have today and what we had a few short years ago. The situation now is a vast improvement for the vast majority of people.

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down): I agree with the Secretary of State that there has been an enormous change in Northern Ireland over the past few years as a result of the Good Friday agreement and the peace process. Does he agree, however, that there are several major issues yet to be resolved--decommissioning to put weapons beyond use, policing and the review of the legal system? The most important of those is that weapons be seen to be beyond paramilitary use.

Will the Secretary of State also join me in regretting the tendering, albeit provisional, of his resignation by the First Minister, from 1 July, predicated on that issue? Does he agree that the whole delicate edifice built up over the years is in danger of collapsing because of that action?

Dr. Reid: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that, despite the progress that we have made, there are some difficult and important issues that we still have to address.

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Those include bridging the gap on policing to create a police service that is accepted by and participated in by both sides of the community, the full working of the institutions and the Executive, normalisation on the part of the Government, and decommissioning. I can think of no aspect of the agreement that would reassure the Unionist community more than some progress on decommissioning.

As for the hon. Gentleman's remarks about the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), the right hon. Gentleman has made his own decision. It is one for him to make, but I would regret it very much if he removed himself from the process at any stage. I believe that his contribution has been enormous, and that not only his personal contribution but that of the Executive of which he is First Minister are a central part of the progress that we have made.

Dr. William McCrea (South Antrim): The Secretary of State will agree that the people of Northern Ireland will make a judgment on the Belfast agreement very shortly, and that this Government, like any other, will have to give heed to the will of the people. By way of guidance to the people of Northern Ireland in their consideration, can he inform the people of what was actually agreed at Hillsborough? Was it agreed that the decommissioning of terrorist arms would be concluded by June 2001, commenced by then, or just talked about by then? Mr. Ahern says that the British Government have now decided to give de Chastelain up to February 2002. What is the Government's position?

Dr. Reid: I hope that I can help to clarify things for the hon. Gentleman, who seems slightly confused over two issues. One is the remit of General de Chastelain, which of course runs until February; the other is the agreement made at Hillsborough last year, which expressed the two Governments' belief and expectation that we could make substantial progress towards implementing all aspects of the agreement by June this year--and that remains our goal. I think that those were, almost literally, the words of the Hillsborough agreement.

As for the premise on which the hon. Gentleman's question was based, it is true that we shall pay attention to the election results and the Assembly results, but it is also true that this process belongs not to the Westminster elections or the Assembly elections, but to the people of Northern Ireland, who agreed it and supported it in a referendum. That is an important point to make.

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): We have had many months of relative peace in Northern Ireland, thanks largely to the fact that individuals who were formerly adversaries are now willing to work together in non-violent ways. Would not this be a good time for those who have been sceptical, or even hostile, towards the Good Friday agreement to recognise that they should now accept that people are walking around today in Northern Ireland who would not have been alive had the agreement not progressed? Would not this also be a good time for those people who have tried to obstruct the agreement to play their part in ensuring a lasting peace?

Dr. Reid: Yes. I do not underestimate the passions or the pain involved in the process for all sides of the community, including Members of Parliament. It is not

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easy to put aside 30 years and the number of deaths there have been. It is not easy either to put aside the enmity and hostility that has stretched back generations. However, I genuinely believe that the vast majority of the people of Northern Ireland and their politicians, including many Members of Parliament, have shown tremendous moral courage. I would encourage all Members to recognise, even at this late stage, that there is no alternative to the Good Friday agreement as a platform.

In so doing, and with your indulgence, Mr. Speaker, I wish to say a sincere thank you on behalf of the House and the people of Northern Ireland to the right hon. Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor) and the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis), who will leave us, at least in this forum. They have made a major contribution to the business of the House to the benefit of the people they represent, as well as all of the people of Northern Ireland. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Once again, I ask the Chamber to be silent while hon. Members are addressing the House.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell): Does the Secretary of State accept that the Belfast agreement was rightly and inevitably a huge compromise on the part of those who took part and that it will take the peace process forward only if the undertakings given at Hillsborough are implemented in full?

Dr. Reid: I entirely accept that. There can be no movement forward unless all the parties to the agreement carry out their part in it. There is much talk of rights in Northern Ireland, and we have met those demands for rights with the equality and human rights legislation and with a raft of other legislation and policies aimed at defending the individual and sections of the community. Along with those rights go responsibilities, and it is the responsibility of all of us involved in the agreement to play our part in ensuring full implementation.

Mr. MacKay: So will the Secretary of State now accept that the only people who have failed to fulfil their obligations under the agreement are the paramilitaries, both so-called loyalists and republicans, who have failed to decommission one single gun or one ounce of Semtex? Is not it therefore inevitable that their political representatives cannot for much longer remain Ministers in the Executive? Will the Secretary of State join me in supporting the First Minister and the signing of his post-dated letter to Lord Alderdice as the right way forward?

Dr. Reid: As far as the First Minister is concerned, I have made my view plain. However, I cannot agree with the sentiments of the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay), because his argument has a flawed logic. First, it is a peace process, not a peace event, and it is therefore natural, in both historical and practical terms, that there will be movement on different issues at different times.

Secondly, I have already said that all of us have responsibilities and not just rights, and it is neither useful nor sensible to point the finger at one group. Having said that, if the right hon. Gentleman's question was a coded message for the question, "Wouldn't it be helpful and useful to the Unionist community to have progress on

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decommissioning?", the answer is yes. However, I also want to see progress on policing, with the two sides coming together, and on demilitarisation and normalisation. There are many better things that the British Army is needed for than patrolling alongside the police in south Armagh and I look forward to the day when that no longer happens. Yes, we want to see decommissioning, but not on its own because we want to see other things. We hope to achieve that goal by June, as the First Minister has made plain.

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