|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Dr. John Reid): As a result of the general lowering of the threat from terrorists, the Chief Constable was able to announce on 22 January a number of further normalisation measures.
Laura Moffatt: Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning the attack on the Magilligan training camp, and extend his sympathy to the civilian victim's family? Will he assure the House and everyone else that that terrible act will not impede the process of normalisation in Northern Ireland?
Clearly, there are those who still wish to inject the poison of the past into Northern Ireland society in an attempt to stop the progress towards the normal, stable, decent, democratic Northern Ireland that the people there deserve. They will not be allowed to achieve that objective; but it is worth making absolutely plain that the abnormal level of troops in Northern Ireland is not a result of any aspiration or ambition on the part of the Government or the House, but a direct result of the abnormal threat to the lives and property of Northern Ireland citizens, and to the police. Of the people who demand the reduction in troop levels the loudest are those who, by their vicious actions, ensure that those levels remain above the normal level for the rest of the United Kingdom.
David Burnside (South Antrim): Does the Secretary of State agree that the best way in which to reduce the regular Army to garrison levels, which all reasonable people want in Northern Ireland, is to maintain a civil police force of such numbers, size and operational ability that it can be the prime force in defending law and order? In two areas of Northern Ireland, north Belfast and Coleraine, the regular Army has been brought in recently to back up the RUC, the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Will the Secretary of State or the Minister come to a meeting that I have called for next Wednesday night at Ballyclare town hall to hear the complaints and concerns of the full-time RUC Reserve? Forty per cent. of the operational police on the ground have an "R" on their shoulder. If they are taken out in March or April, we will have no law and order in Northern Ireland.
Dr. Reid: Of course, the Minister responsible for security and I meet constantly with members of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, including members of the full-time reserve. I would not for a moment underestimate the difficulties in facing up to the challenges that the police service faces.
Decisions on the full-time reserve will depend on an assessment by the Chief Constable, which will be made in April this year. However, I caution the hon. Gentleman against even implicitlyI know that he does not mean to do thislaying the blame for the high level of troops in Northern Ireland on any inadequacy in the policing. The level of troops in Northern Ireland is a direct result of the threats to the lives and to the property of the police and the citizenry in Northern Ireland by dissident republicans
Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh): Does the Secretary of State agree that the primacy of policing and policing decisions is a hallmark and a core element of any normal and stable society? Does he further agree that until there is a reduction in the military presence the primacy of policing decisions will be incomplete? What plans does the Northern Ireland Office have of now to ensure the removal of installations in south Armagh that are manned exclusively by military personnel?
Dr. Reid: As the hon. Gentleman knows, it is our aspiration to achieve a normal level of troops in Northern Ireland. Indeed, partly because of the success of the police service, in co-operation with the Garda from the Republic of Ireland, the threat level has been assessed as lower and, in the past four months alone, from memory, we have reduced two establishments, and announced that another barracks is to close and a battalion and three towers are to be removed.
I repeat that we have no ambition to keep a higher level of troops in Northern Ireland than is absolutely necessary, particularly when British troops, because of their professional expertise, are in demand across the world by the United Nations. However, the main obstacle to that is the fact that there remains a higher than normal threat to the lives of our citizens and to the police service. It is the first duty of any civilised Government to defend the lives of our citizens and to combat the threats against them.
Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon): Given that the Ministry of Defence's liability so far for its part in the Saville inquiry is £14.5 million, will the Secretary of State give an assurance that that will in no way compromise any part of the MOD's operational budget in Northern Ireland?
Dr. Reid: Yes, I can. Our military expenditure in Northern Ireland in the past 30 years has been astronomical. As a result of the progress that we have made in the peace process, part of which addresses very difficult issues of truth about the past, the troop level in Northern Ireland is lower than it has been for 31 years. We have reduced the number of soldiers there from 27,000 to 13,000, with commensurate back-up. The savings from that alone far exceed any costs of the Bloody Sunday inquiry to which the hon. Gentleman refers.
4. Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South): What discussions he has had with authorities in (a) the United States and (b) other countries to identify means of improving police effectiveness in Northern Ireland. 
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Dr. John Reid): I have ongoing contact with a range of authorities on policing matters. I returned this morning from a two-day visit to the United States, which gave me an opportunity to discuss policing and other matters with
Mr. Chapman: Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is an indivisibility about terrorism, and that the assistance provided by the United States will therefore be particularly welcome to the people of Northern Ireland? In so far as there are resource implications of that assistance, will the needs of the Police Service of Northern Ireland be met adequately and in full?
Dr. Reid: I agree with my hon. Friend on both counts. I have no hesitation in saying publicly that we are enormously grateful for the assistance that we have been given by the United States authorities and, most recently, President Bush's agreement to joint training between the FBI and the Police Service of Northern Ireland. As my hon. Friend points out, the Government are committed to providing the resources necessary to supplement assistance from outside. That is why we recently awarded an additional £10 million. As my hon. Friend the Minister responsible for security said today, we are happy to announce that an additional £16 million will go to the Police Service of Northern Ireland.
Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North): I welcome the announcement today in response to my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) of additional money for the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Can I press the Secretary of State further to reassure my constituents in north Belfast and other people in Northern Ireland that the axe that currently hangs over several police stations, including two in my constituency that cover areas where there has been trouble in recent daysin the Whitewell area and between Tiger's Bay and Newingtonwill be removed? Will the Secretary of State ensure that those police stations will remain open and that security will not be reduced at a very difficult time?
Dr. Reid: First, I welcome the hon. Gentleman's acknowledgement of the Government's commitment to resource the police service. I do not often have the opportunity to welcome such acknowledgements but I am grateful for it. On decisions about the future of police stations in general, the key role will be played by the Policing Board. Despite the cynicism and attempts by people to undermine the role of the Policing Board, it has risen magnificently to continual challenges, not least most recently on the subject of the Omagh inquiry. I am sure that it will act with just as much wisdom, circumspection and concern for effective policing on the matters that the hon. Gentleman has raised.
Siobhain McDonagh: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. I draw his attention to the very good work of the Northern Ireland centre for trauma and transformation. What assurances can he give about its future funding?
Mr. Browne: I can assure my hon. Friend that the centre's work has been fully recognised by the Northern Ireland Office. Significant funding has been committed so that it can go ahead as the Northern Ireland centre for trauma. The centre is doing good work in Northern Ireland, and internationally.
Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): I welcome what has been done for victims, but does the Minister accept that we have fresh victims daily, who sometimes seem to be forgotten about? Will it be possible for the Minister to use his influence more to prevent the constant changes in our policing that keep people writing reports instead of working on the streets?
Mr. Browne: I recognise the need for less bureaucracy in this matter. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are about to take a fresh look at our strategy with regard to victims to ensure that it is capable of responding to the changing context that the hon. Gentleman has identified.