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House of Commons

Wednesday 1 May 2002

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


Mersey Tunnels Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Wednesday 8 May.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Castlereagh Police Station

1. Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): If he will make a statement on the recent breach of security at Castlereagh police station. [51664]

5. Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim): What steps have been taken to increase security since the recent burglary at Castlereagh. [51671]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Dr. John Reid): The breach of security at Castlereagh is a matter of grave concern. The police investigation into the incident is ongoing and the House will understand why I cannot go into details while it continues. In parallel to the criminal investigation, I have established a separate review conducted by Sir John Chilcot and reporting to me to investigate all the national security implications. The acting Chief Constable has advised that appropriate immediate measures have been undertaken to increase security and that a detailed security review is ongoing.

Rev. Martin Smyth: I welcome the Secretary of State's statement as far as it goes, but does he accept the definition of the Member for Mid-Ulster (Mr. McGuinness), who said that the ceasefire is holding because the IRA is not shooting at the police or the Army? In the light of the intelligence and other activities that have been going on, is it not nearly time that the reviews were concluded and action taken to ensure proper democracy in Northern Ireland?

Dr. Reid: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that I keep all the ceasefires under constant review. The acting Chief Constable has made it clear that he does not believe that the IRA ceasefire is under threat. I will, of course, continue to discuss these matters with him.

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As far as the comments of Mr. McGuinness are concerned, it is years since an attack was made by the IRA on the police and security forces. That is a fact. The IRA ceasefire has helped to create the basis of trust on which the agreement was reached, and in a sense is the reason why so much progress has been made. However—and it is a large "however"—the hard fact is that four years after the Belfast agreement, a ceasefire is not enough. I believe that the leadership of republicanism is committed to the process working, but if there is to be confidence that there is wholehearted commitment to exclusively peaceful means, we need to see an end to paramilitary attacks, targeting and any other such preparations. In a sense, we all truly need to have the sense that the war is over.

Mr. Beggs: Does the Secretary of State fully understand the extent of the horror arising from the breach of security at Castlereagh and the theft of the sensitive materials from that building, which have caused a serious loss of confidence among all law-abiding people in Northern Ireland? How does he intend to restore confidence that those responsible for security in Northern Ireland are competent to protect themselves as well as to provide security for the rest of us?

Dr. Reid: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. It is precisely one of the reasons why, alongside the police investigation, I have asked Sir John Chilcot to consider some of the wider implications of this breach of national security. Of course, there are wider implications, again because of the allegations that are circulating. I will not comment on any subject on which a judicial process is under way. I merely say this: I want this process to succeed, as do the Government and, I believe, all the parties to it, because we have made so much progress in the past four years on new institutions, democratic structures, human and civil rights and de-escalating the military presence in Northern Ireland. In that context and at this time, after four years, that is precisely why it is not acceptable that either the apparatus of violence or terrorism or the preparations for it can be allowed to continue.

Mr. John Hume (Foyle): Given that the Castlereagh security office would be regarded as one of the highest-security offices in Northern Ireland, does the Secretary of State agree that it is highly unlikely that members of paramilitary organisations could enter that building without being recognised?

Dr. Reid: I have to say to my hon. Friend that the nature of Castlereagh changed significantly when it ceased to be a holding centre, not least as a result of representations from his colleagues. If it is possible for paramilitaries to break out of the most secure premises in Northern Ireland—the Maze prison—it is possible for anyone, including paramilitaries, to break in to Castlereagh.

I shall make no comment on the specifics of the investigation, but there is a possibility that, as in other cases, charges will be brought and evidence given. Time will tell who was responsible for the break-in.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East): Does the Secretary of State agree that the only major line of inquiry

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that the police are following is an investigation into the role of the Provisional IRA in the break-in? If, after a full investigation, it is discovered that the Provisional IRA was responsible, will the Secretary of State judge that to be such a significant breach of its ceasefire that the IRA-Sinn Fein representatives on the Government of Northern Ireland should be removed? The right hon. Gentleman knows that current legislation allows for a voting system that would not exclude them. Is he prepared to change the law to exclude Sinn Fein-IRA if they have breached their ceasefire? Or is he unprepared to change it even if the Law Lords rule against him in a case that will come before them soon? Is he prepared to change it, as his spokesman recently suggested, only to keep Sinn Fein in government?

Dr. Reid: I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is wrong on his first point. The investigation to which he referred is not the only major line of inquiry. It is the major line of inquiry, but there are no closed minds when considering evidence. I see the hon. Gentleman's hon. Friends laughing. I am afraid that I examine the facts before I make decisions.

The hon. Gentleman referred to a court case. Without prejudice to the wisdom that their Lordships will bring to bear on it, I simply remind him that, on decisions, I beat him the first and second times. I am confident that we will beat his appeal for the third time.

Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough): Is not the lesson of Castlereagh that the trust between the communities in Northern Ireland is fragile? In that context, is it not important to hold a full and detailed investigation into exactly who was responsible for the break-in and why it happened? Is it not also important for all paramilitary groups to move away from violence for the foreseeable future and make that clear not only in words but in deeds?

Dr. Reid: I agree with my hon. Friend. On trust, there is so much at stake and so much to lose that I cannot believe that those on any side who have contributed so much in the past would put the process at risk. I am talking not only about republicans, because everyone has a responsibility to build confidence. Northern Ireland has recently been scarred by a considerable spate of loyalist violence. Apart from being wrong in itself, it gives a spurious justification to those on the other side of the community who wish to retain arms and the apparatus of violence.

We all have a responsibility. However, those who share in government have a special responsibility: they must be free of the taint of any association with the apparatus or the activity of paramilitaries. All of us must not only be committed, as I believe the republican leadership is, to the peace process and to exclusively democratic means, but be seen to be committed to those means.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): Details of the hit list appeared in the press before individuals on it had been informed of their inclusion. What can we do to ensure that such a breach does not happen again?

Dr. Reid: On the first point, the hon. Gentleman suggests that malicious leaking of information may have occurred. In the face of the evidence, I am not in a

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position to deny that. There may be people in all organisations and parties who wish to see the process fail. After all, all organisations are made up of human beings. Some people may be throwing snowballs at the process. However, the real problem is that someone else may be making the snowballs. As long as people make the snowballs, the underlying reality is that others will be able to use them. I therefore appeal to everyone, notwithstanding the nature of some of the leaks and the way in which reports are exaggerated and misinformed, to ensure that we get rid of that underlying reality, which allows those who want to damage the process to do that.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North): But what happens when the snowballs melt? Will the pebbles inside them be revealed? Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that, when the Chilcot inquiry is finished—while we would not want the names of persons to be revealed, for obvious reasons—its principal conclusions will be brought immediately to the House so that we can form an opinion on what has happened in this case? We need to know why someone was able to walk into Castlereagh, go into the most secure office there, obtain these documents and walk away, leaving behind a variety of different smokescreens. Is it not of particular significance that the person who was arrested as a result of the investigations was arrested on the strength of evidence relating to other issues, rather than to anything that was taken from Castlereagh?

Dr. Reid: My hon. Friend will forgive me if I resist the temptation to pursue the snowball metaphor further. On his first point, it is important to distinguish between the police investigation, which is attempting to apprehend those who carried out the crime—a proper and appropriate matter for the police—and the wider review of national security implications that I have asked Sir John Chilcot to undertake. When Sir John reports to me, I will consider how much of that information we can put into the public domain. His report will not necessarily name names in terms of the guilty people who have committed the crime—that was a false assumption by my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara)—

Mr. McNamara: I asked you not to.

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Dr. Reid: That is properly the role of the police in this case. I will look at the report to see how much of it I can put into the public domain without further damaging national security.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford): I hope that the Secretary of State will not disagree with me when I say that the whole peace process is now on trial in a new and very worrisome way as a result of the facts that have emerged over the past two weeks. First, we have heard the suggestions that the IRA is behind the Castlereagh break-in. The murder of a taxi driver in Dungannon has been attributed to the IRA, and there have been authoritative reports that Sinn Fein-IRA continue to target activity against individuals and physical objectives. We know that the IRA has been buying arms in Florida since the ceasefire and since the Belfast agreement, and there are now suggestions that it has been buying arms

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even more recently in Russia. Perhaps most dramatically of all, the US House of Representatives produced a detailed report last week which made it absolutely clear that Sinn Fein-IRA—and it is Sinn Fein-IRA—are at the heart of an international network of drug-running and terrorist organisations.

In the light of all that, I shall put a question to the Secretary of State to which I hope he will give a precise and straightforward answer. Is it his view that the level of IRA activity revealed over the last two weeks in these cases is consistent or not consistent with its obligations under the Belfast agreement, with the ceasefire, and with the detailed criteria set out by the Prime Minister in his speech at Balmoral on 14 May 1998 for evaluating those obligations?

Dr. Reid rose

Mr. Speaker: Order. Before the Minister replies, I must remind the House that we are still on Question 1. I am keen to move on to the next question.

Dr. Reid: In almost every case that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, judicial processes are under way. He knows that. I am not, therefore, prepared to comment on what he calls reports, on suggestions, on innuendo or on speculation. In all those cases, the facts will come into the public domain, and that will be the time to take them into account.

If the hon. Gentleman is asking me, as a generality, not about the ceasefire, on which the acting Chief Constable has made his position known, but about whether a ceasefire is a necessary and sufficient condition to maintain confidence in the process, I have already said that I do not believe that to be so. Any activity involving the intention or preparation of violence inhibits confidence in the process. That is a serious question, and I take it seriously. I have tried to make my own serious judgment on that issue public to the House today.

Mr. Davies: I shall put another question in the hope that I get a straight answer to this one. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that in the present circumstances it would be completely wrong to make new concessions to Sinn Fein-IRA beyond those in the Belfast agreement, such as allowing former terrorists to join district police partnerships, and giving an amnesty to on-the-run terrorists? Does he agree that those ideas, on which he has hummed and hawed for several months, should be definitely excluded?

Dr. Reid: The hon. Gentleman omitted to mention that former terrorists can become Ministers in Northern Ireland. I thought that he supported that. I am surprised at the gusto with which he is prepared to oppose their being on a local policing board while accepting them in the Government of Northern Ireland.

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