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Northern Ireland

3.30 pm

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Dr. John Reid): With permission, I wish to make a statement—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Will hon. Members please leave the Chamber quietly?

Dr. Reid: After the meeting that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach had with the parties at Hillsborough on 4 July, he said that we would reflect on what had been said about continuing levels of violence in Northern Ireland and consider what could be done to restore confidence in the political process.

As my right hon. Friend said, there can be no acceptable or tolerable level of violence. The principles of democracy and non-violence, which were laid down by the international body under Senator George Mitchell in 1996 and formed the basis on which the political negotiations took place, are as relevant now as they were then. As a signal of shared purpose in eradicating violence, I have today written to all the parties asking them to reaffirm their total and absolute commitment to those principles.

In recent weeks, in particular over last weekend, we have seen serious disturbances that have brought violence to the streets of Belfast and elsewhere, culminating in the appalling murder of Gerard Lawlor by so-called loyalists early on Monday morning—a young man who was barely in his teens when the peace talks started, and not out of them when his life was so cruelly taken. I am sure I speak on behalf of the whole House when I send our sympathy and condolences to his family and our deep regrets to all the families of the injured and murdered in Northern Ireland. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear"] That was not an isolated incident. Over the previous 72 hours, there had been five attempted murders, eight shootings and five other violent attacks. Those disgraceful events benefit no one, and have been a source of anguish to victims, families and all those who live in the areas concerned.

I said recently that we would oppose by all means those who remain wedded to violence. The security forces are bearing down on the paramilitaries to deny them the freedom to operate in order to prevent murders, shootings and pipe and petrol bomb attacks. More than 250 additional police officers and soldiers have been brought in to dominate the interfaces in north Belfast. They are stopping and checking the movement of individuals and vehicles to prevent armed gangs entering and leaving the area. Known paramilitaries are being kept under close surveillance.

This means that more police and Army resources are now deployed in north Belfast than at any point since the beginning of the ceasefires in contrast to routine patrolling elsewhere in Northern Ireland, which has been dramatically reduced. The Police Service of Northern Ireland is pursuing a variety of proactive and reactive methods to disrupt paramilitary movement in the area. I am sure that the House will give its total support to the arduous and courageous task that it is fulfilling.

Since violence flared in Belfast at the beginning of May, the police have made a number of arrests of terrorists, and for public order offences ranging from

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riotous behaviour to possession of petrol bombs. Since 4 May, in north and east Belfast, 21 loyalists have been arrested, with 15 charged. Over the same period, 12 republicans have been arrested and all were charged.

The police are determined that the perpetrators of the violence should be brought to book and will pursue them by every means available to them. I share that aim. I have asked my noble Friend the Attorney-General to lead an examination of police powers, bail arrangements and the scope for additional criminal offences. He will also examine whether any changes in the criminal law could be made to facilitate successful prosecution for acts of terrorism, violence and organised crime. All that would complement not only the enhanced activity of the police and the Army, but the Proceeds of Crime Bill, which we hope will receive Royal Assent today and which will give us a powerful weapon to hit paramilitary finances and the greed of individuals.

However, security measures alone will not solve the problem. That is why I also said recently that we would work in partnership with those who wanted to engage in local dialogue. Following the meeting at Hillsborough, I met several of the political parties, and encouraged closer and more systematic dialogue at local level.

In the light of recent events, at my request, the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. Browne), has initiated further urgent discussions with local representatives, including those with links to paramilitary organisations, in an attempt to develop the kind of local partnership structures that will help prevent such disturbances in future. We are willing to spend as long as it takes with those who want to work in partnership with us and with each other. Those who do not want to do so should face the full force of the law.

I cannot emphasise too strongly that it is essential now that things should calm down, and that we should have a settled summer. It would be intolerable for the political progress on which the future well-being of Northern Ireland depends to be held to ransom by the murderous activities of paramilitaries of either side. It would be equally intolerable if the progress valued by the many in Northern Ireland were to become hostage to the few who are still committed to violence.

People want us to face up to these problems honestly. It would, I believe, help us and the public in Northern Ireland to have more transparent information about the involvement of paramilitary groups in such activities, and the general pattern of paramilitary activity in the community. On the related area of the involvement of paramilitaries in racketeering and organised crime, I have already asked Professor Ron Goldstock to assist me in assessing the scale of the problem. He brings to that task his experience as a former head of anti-organised crime activities in New York state.

I can see a case for doing something similar, to shine a light on levels of paramilitary violence in the community, both loyalist and republican, and to supplement the judgments that I make about the ceasefires. I will consult widely about the idea and how it might best be done, and make my views known after the summer break.

It is now four and a half years since the second IRA ceasefire. The ceasefires have made a huge contribution to political progress in Northern Ireland in addition to reducing the appalling human cost of the conflict. This is

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the 30th anniversary of the worst year of the troubles, when 470 people lost their lives. Even 10 years ago, the annual figure was nearly 100. Last year it was 16; so far this year, six people have lost their lives. We should never forget in the midst of all the problems that we face, and in all our debates in Parliament, just how far we have come. Nevertheless, six is still too many. Of course things are a lot better than they were, but that is not the only test. The real test is whether things are as good as people in Northern Ireland have a right to expect them to be.

The people expect of all paramilitaries and all parties that they contribute to improvement, but there is a particular responsibility on any party participating in the government of Northern Ireland. They must appreciate that operating jointly in government, as the agreement requires, calls for a measure of responsibility and trust, and trust depends on confidence that the transition from violence to democracy continues apace, has not stalled, and will be completed without delay.

The recent statement by the IRA acknowledging the grief and pain of the relatives of those who died at the hands of the IRA—

David Burnside (South Antrim): Non-combatants.

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Dr. Reid: That statement, which also reaffirmed the IRA's commitment to the peace process, was a welcome step in the right direction. There may be those hon. Members who reject any overture of any nature, but I think that it would be unwise of the majority of us to do so. However, we also have to acknowledge that more than four years after the agreement was concluded, welcome though it is, it is simply not enough for paramilitary organisations on ceasefires to have brought an end to their terrorist campaigns.

Confidence in the process requires confidence that there will never again be a return to those dark days, in particular that preparations are not going on under the surface for a resumption of a terrorist campaign, and that paramilitary organisations will be stood down altogether as soon as possible. Whatever their real intentions—and in the case of the IRA I share the assessment of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister that it has never been further from a return to its campaign—nothing could be more damaging than the sense that the options were being kept open in that way.

The judgments I make about ceasefires have to be made in the round, taking account of all relevant factors, including those which the statute obliges me to take into account. That is what I will continue to do, but with the passage of time it is right that those judgments should become increasingly rigorous. In reviewing the ceasefires, I will, as the Prime Minister said, give particular weight to any substantiated information that a paramilitary organisation is engaged in training, targeting, acquisition or development of arms or weapons, or in any similar preparations for a terrorist campaign in Northern Ireland or elsewhere. I say to the House, lest there be any doubt on the matter, that I will not hesitate to use the powers Parliament has given me if the circumstances require it.

There is also still a threat from organisations, both loyalist and republican, that are not on ceasefire. The Irish authorities have already had some notable successes

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against the dissident republicans. Separately and together, we will continue to counter those who cling to violence, using all the resources at our joint disposal.

I hope that I have made it absolutely clear that violence is unacceptable. This is not the first time that I have said that, but I repeat it lest there is any illusion in any quarter. I pledge once again that the Government will do all in our power to achieve the elimination of violence, but I will not pretend to the House that it is within the Government's power to solve all the problems on our own, or by security measures alone.

That is why we must keep in mind the enormous benefits that the political agreement has brought and will continue to bring as we contemplate its implementation. Those benefits include government of Northern Ireland by the people of Northern Ireland, with local elected representatives in a cross-community Administration.

The stability of those institutions is not a concession to paramilitaries or paramilitarism. On the contrary, it provides a platform for putting their activities in the past, where they belong. The steps that I have announced today [Hon. Members: "What steps?"] are most definitely not intended to threaten the democratic institutions, but to buttress democracy against violence. We should never forget how much we have to lose, and it is essential that the political representatives on all sides who have done so much to create and sustain the agreement should, by reaffirming and observing their commitment to exclusively peaceful and democratic means, ensure its continuation.

I have, despite the interjections, set out a range of measures in response to the violence in Northern Ireland. However, the success of the peace process will require courage, patience, endurance and a willingness to compromise from everyone involved. It will be a long and, at times, a difficult haul, but that could not be otherwise in what is an historic attempt to end what is at heart an ancient conflict.

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