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4.27 pm

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North): It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell). I endorse entirely his remarks on the quality of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. As someone

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who has witnessed at first hand in my constituency the vilest attacks on members of the police force, made as part of an orchestrated plan of violence by republicans, as the Chief Constable himself admitted last week, I believe that everyone in the House should pay tribute to the gallantry and bravery of members of the RUC and the work that they attempt to do protecting decent law-abiding people on all sides of the community.

One thing that has undermined morale at all levels of the RUC is the prospect that the Northern Ireland Policing Board, established under the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000, will, according to the Patten report and the Belfast agreement, comprise members of Sinn Fein-IRA. Many members of the RUC tell me and other elected representatives that when they stand on the front line trying to protect the community, they see members of the republican movement orchestrating violence, yet, in a short while, they could face the prospect of political representatives of that organisation serving on the Policing Board. For them, that is another reason for lack of confidence about the future and a growing concern about morale in the force.

I note that this is the second time that we have had to deal in the House with legislation relating to the fact that there are problems with the Belfast agreement. Last Monday, we debated elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly. We are approaching 12 August and the six-week period for the election of a First Minister and Deputy First Minister is about to run out, so the Government had to come to the House to rush legislation through to deal with that. We are now dealing with another problem, to do with policing.

If the House were sitting after tomorrow, we would probably deal with other aspects of the agreement too, but all this proves that the agreement is not working as far as the people in Northern Ireland are concerned. Why is it not working? It is because—hon. Members may not like to hear it—the agreement has the support of virtually 100 per cent. of nationalists and republicans, but not of a majority of the Unionist community. That applies to the broad thrust of the agreement and policing reforms, which are a major part of the Belfast agreement and Patten report.

The Patten report flows inexorably and inevitably from the Belfast agreement. There are attempts among some people inside and outside the House to say that the Patten report took those who supported the agreement by surprise. The reality is that the terms and remit of Patten were set out in the Belfast agreement. Those of us who predicted that the commission set up to look at policing under the agreement would come up with the sort of proposals that Patten did, indeed, come up with were pooh-poohed and told that we were scaremongering. Our position has been vindicated.

Lembit Öpik: I understand that the Democratic Unionist party is not happy with the agreement as it stands. I should be grateful if the hon. Gentleman could briefly summarise the alternative agreement that he believes would command the support of all sides of the community.

Mr. Dodds: I am grateful that someone from one of the major parties in the House is prepared to ask that question. It seems that the Government are not interested

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in asking what the alternative is. They were not even prepared to invite the Democratic Unionist party and like-minded Unionists who represent the majority of Unionists in the Province to come to discuss an alternative, so I am glad that the hon. Gentleman is showing an openness of mind and a willingness to listen.

We are saying clearly that we must find a way forward in Northern Ireland, based on the consent and agreement of both communities in Northern Ireland—not just nationalists but Unionists. We are prepared to sit down and play our part in trying to find a way forward, but it is clear from the remarks of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland that at present he has a closed mind on that. That was witnessed by the fact that other parties were invited to the talks at Weston Park. The Democratic Unionist party has not been invited to take part in any discussions about an alternative way forward in Northern Ireland—so much for democracy.

To return to the order, as hon. Members have said, there is a crisis of morale among the membership of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. The order adds to the uncertainty about the future of the force and what will happen. There is a question mark about what will happen to the name, the emblems and badges of the RUC.

What will happen come 1 September? What will happen over the coming months if the agreement is suspended? What will happen to the name of the Royal Ulster Constabulary? What will happen on the issues of the emblems, badges and so on? It would be useful to hear from the Minister what the position is in relation to that particular aspect of the police legislation.

Lembit Öpik: I am sorry to detain the House further. I am pleased that the hon. Member feels that I am listening. I am receptive to views from all parties. Having accepted that, can he briefly summarise which proposals would have been put forward by the DUP to prevent us having to discuss the order today?

Mr. Dodds: Again, I am delighted. Our party will be happy to discuss with the hon. Gentleman and other constitutional democratic politicians at any time our proposals on those and a range of other issues, but there is widespread support within the community in Northern Ireland for the Royal Ulster Constabulary as it stands at present. Surveys that have been independently carried out show that the main reason why members of the minority community, the Roman Catholic community, were not joining the RUC was not concern about emblems, badges, names or anything else but fear of intimidation, threats and violence against them and their families. In the last year before the first ceasefire was called by the IRA, almost 25 per cent. of all applicants to the RUC were Roman Catholics. That is an indication of the widespread acceptance of the force.

The reality is that Patten has got it wrong. The police legislation is not endorsed by the vast majority of the people in Northern Ireland. People look, for example, at the issue of police numbers. As has been pointed out, the police are on the streets virtually every night in Belfast and other parts of the Province keeping the peace and maintaining law and order. What is Patten proposing on police numbers? He is proposing that numbers should be

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reduced from 13,000 to 7,500. That proposal has been accepted by Her Majesty's Government and is being implemented, even though we still have a crisis in terms of security, even though we have had some of the worst community violence for many years, even though so-called dissidents still pose a grave threat, in the words of the Chief Constable, to security and peace in Northern Ireland and even though the provisional IRA is still fully armed and intact. The proposal, however, is to reduce the number of police in Northern Ireland.

Rightly, in England, Scotland and Wales, both the major parties are vying with each other as to who can be the most macho in terms of the police and put more policemen and women on the beat. People in Northern Ireland are simply saying, "Why is it that in Northern Ireland for political expediency police numbers will be reduced?" I plead with the Minister and with hon. Members to have a bit of common sense on policing issues and to respond to what ordinary people on the ground are saying. Keep our police force, keep the Royal Ulster Constabulary and let us move forward, increasing the operational capacity of the police to deal with the problems that we have. The Government should not continue with political tinkering for the sake of appeasing IRA-Sinn Fein.

As the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) rightly said, many of us believe that Sinn Fein republicans will never be satisfied on the issue anyway. No matter what is done to reform the police, they will still come back for more. It is a disgrace that the police should be used as part of a bartering process.

Some told us that decommissioning would be the only issue on the agenda at Weston Park. Far from it—it is clear that policing, so-called demilitarisation and keeping the institutions in place were very much part of the agenda. People in Northern Ireland are already deeply concerned about the concessions that have been given on policing. If the Government come back and tell the people of Northern Ireland as part of their package of proposals—incidentally, they have told us that we are not even going to see that, even though we have five hon. Members in the House—that in exchange for another fudge on decommissioning more concessions will be given on policing, that will be resisted very strongly indeed.

4.38 pm

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington): I will be brief, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I know that you have given us a great deal of leeway in the debate on this narrow order and I understand why. Some pertinent points have been made beyond the scope of the order, including the point that was made by the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) about pensions and compensation, which needs to be dealt with urgently.

The order represents further acceptance, I suppose, that the political process is failing again. The process started with the Good Friday agreement. We had a lengthy debate on the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000, but we failed to reach 75 per cent. of the amendments that were tabled to it. A thorough debate on them might have led to greater understanding and could perhaps have obviated the need for today's predicament.

The order has been presented almost as an emergency measure because of the failure of the political process to resolve matters. It suggests a slide into crisis for the

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six counties. I fear that our last hope is the package that the Taoiseach and the Prime Minister will produce. It is important that all hon. Members, representing all perspectives, receive information on it. Although the House will be in recess, members of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs and other hon. Members who have consistently taken an interest in Northern Ireland would readily be brought together to discuss the package in detail, use our best offices in the dialogue about it, and perhaps pursue some of its measures to resolve the problems that arise from the gradual erosion of some of the principles of the Belfast agreement.

We face a three-month recess, and the position could become very dangerous in August and September. We could almost drift into war-like circumstances. If that happens, the House should be recalled for a full debate on the matter. The general populace on this side of the Irish sea do not understand the seriousness of the situation, and it behoves us to come together in August and September to discuss the matter if the package proposed by the Taoiseach and the Prime Minister does not resolve the problem of implementing and furthering the Belfast agreement and if the political dispensation that the Good Friday agreement created breaks down. My hon. Friend the Minister should consider that and raise it with the Leader of the House to ascertain the measures that can be put in place to effect that.

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