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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Before I call the Secretary of State, I remind the House that Mr. Speaker has placed a 12-minute limit on all Back-Bench speeches in this debate.

8.5 pm

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Dr. John Reid): I welcome this opportunity for the House to consider the peace process in Northern Ireland. This is a short debate in which to consider a subject that is immense both in its historic magnitude and in its complexity. Because of that complexity, it would be easy for any of us to grasp each or any passing event to justify the no doubt contrary opinions that will be expressed tonight.

Although there is no inevitability about the success or otherwise of any human endeavour, I have no doubt that some hon. Members who speak tonight will claim scientific—in some cases dogmatic—precision in relation to their predictions and prescriptions for the future. Those of us not blessed with such foresight recognise that, in the midst of any massive social or political transformation, it is often difficult to discern the broad sweep of historical change above the headline of the moment. It is all too easy to concentrate on the minutes, thereby losing some appreciation of the movement of the hours, especially when the minutes show up all the imperfections that we have inherited from an imperfect past.

Some of those complexities can be seen in the last few weeks' contrasting, contradictory, complex and, at times, seemingly incompatible series of events. For example, we have just seen an almost unprecedentedly peaceful few days over the 12 July period. I thank the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) for ascribing to me the efforts that I have made, but efforts have also been made by the people in the communities themselves. We have recently seen the apparent paradox of the Assistant chief constable warning against the potential for mobilisation of republicans into given communities one day, and, within 24 hours, the same officer congratulating not only republicans but leading members of the IRA for having helped to contain the violence.

David Burnside (South Antrim): The only reason why the police officer to whom the Secretary of State refers changed his mind was that spikes, bottles and weapons of terrorism that were being lined up in Ardoyne to attack a planned Orange parade were revealed by the good intelligence of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, and people such as Gerry Kelly and others were put on the back foot because they had been denying that they were

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planning that kind of republican violence. Is the right hon. Gentleman not misrepresenting the facts of what happened over the weekend?

Dr. Reid: Not for the first time, the hon. Gentleman is factually wrong. The assistant chief constable said that he changed his mind because he saw that leading republicans—in his own words—helped to marshal and restrain some of the young people. The point that I was making was about the complex and contradictory nature of events that we have to assess, and the difficulty of distinguishing passing events from the greater movements of historical change.

As I said, we had an unprecedentedly peaceful 12 July weekend, and I was going on to say that it came at the end of a worrying few weeks in which we had ghastly reminders of just how far we have to go: the home of four young children gunned and petrol bombed in Coleraine; a house petrol bombed in Antrim; a funeral cortege insulted and assaulted in Londonderry; a Catholic church burned out—and so it goes on. Those are all testimony to the bigotry, sectarianism and mindless hatred that still exist with some people and in some areas of Northern Ireland.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North): The Secretary of State mentioned a number of incidents. I am sure that he would want to add to that list the murder of my constituent William Morgan, who was buried today. He was a young man with a wife and family—his wife is pregnant—done to death by vicious sectarian thugs. The police have described it as a murder. I am sure that the Secretary of State will want to convey his condolences and those of the House to the wife and family.

Dr. Reid: Yes, indeed, I have no hesitation in doing just that. Tragically, what I was presenting to the House was not a comprehensive list of the ghastly reminders of which I spoke.

It should not surprise us, then, that a series of surveys—the most recent from the university of Ulster only last week—has illustrated the decline in the optimism generated by the first IRA ceasefire in 1994 and then by the Belfast agreement in 1998. In 1996, for instance, 44 per cent. of Protestants and 47 per cent. of Catholics thought that inter-community relationships were better than five years previously. By last year, the totals had dropped to only 25 per cent. and 33 per cent. respectively.

That drop in confidence has been particularly noted—and sometimes highlighted in the House—on the Protestant side, but that is not the whole story, because between 2000 and 2001 there was a significant increase among both Protestants and Catholics who viewed their own community as the underdog. Both sides see their own community as beleaguered or besieged. As someone remarked to me recently, sometimes the problem in Northern Ireland is the inability of either side to acknowledge the other side's victimhood.

The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford mentioned balance. It is important to get a balanced appreciation of exactly where we are. If we look at the broader canvas, despite some of the ghastly events that I mentioned, we can see a much more balanced picture. There have been real gains in the everyday life of the Province, and it does not contribute anything to our appreciation of where we are if we dismiss them too

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lightly. Of course, we must not regard them as exclusively optimistic without taking into account the balancing factor of how far we have to go, but there has been real progress.

We now have a Northern Ireland which in the recent past has achieved the fastest economic growth of any region in the United Kingdom. For the first time in decades, more people are staying in or returning to the Province than are leaving it. Economic investment, tourism and commercial activity have been returning and accelerating. For the most part, young people and families can enjoy a night out. For all the imperfections and blemishes, normality is returning—perhaps more slowly than we would like, but we can still trace its advance.

Troop levels, at about 13,500, are the lowest since 1970, and routine military patrolling is down by about 50 per cent. over the past four years. Over the same period, employment has grown by almost 5 per cent., with 650,000 in work—more people than ever before. Unemployment is at an historic low, and the standard of living for the vast majority of people has been improving.

All those factors must be weighed in the balance in any discussion of the peace process. Above all, that terrible index, the total of the tragic loss of life, which has been the dreadful hallmark of three decades of conflict, is at an all-time low. None of that should be dismissed lightly. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the worst year of the troubles, as a direct result of which, in that single year alone, 470 people in Northern Ireland died. Twenty years ago—10 years later—there were still nearly 100 people who lost their lives in a single year. Even 10 years ago, there was almost the same total of people who died directly as a result of the troubles. Last year, 16 people were killed, and this year four people have lost their lives to date. That is four too many, and every single death is one too many, but it does no justice to how much we have achieved to pretend that it is not significantly different from the huge total that we lost even 10 years ago.

Let me give one figure that I have given before: in the three and a half years before the IRA ceasefire, no fewer than 350 lives were tragically lost in Northern Ireland, while in the three and a half years after the Belfast agreement, 50 lives were lost—a seventh of the earlier total. As I said, there are still huge problems and every death is one too many, but let us not embark on this debate without realising how far we have come.

This afternoon, to add to the complexity of the course of events in Northern Ireland, we had another statement from the Provisional Irish Republican Army, to which the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford referred. That IRA statement is, I believe, a welcome acknowledgment of the grief and loss that that organisation has caused over the years of pointless and tragic conflict, and the deaths for which it was responsible.

I especially welcome the fact that the statement includes an open apology to the families of many of those who died. Of course, actions speak louder than words, but the words that we have heard today are, I believe, more persuasive than those that the IRA had hitherto brought itself to utter. I strongly hope that it means that at last the IRA has turned its face unequivocally against violence. If it has, Northern Ireland has a bright future, but the real test is whether the transition from violence to democracy continues and gives confidence to the whole process.

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To make a reality of the acknowledgement and the expression of regret, in terms that ordinary people, and especially those who have suffered, can appreciate, they need to be able to have the confidence that the events that caused that tragic misery, pain and loss will never return, that the conflict is in the past, and that the resolution of difficulties in the future will be carried out by democratic means.

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