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15 Oct 2002 : Column 189—continued

Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough): Is not the price of freedom eternal vigilance, and is not the fact that so many young lives have been lost a reminder of that dire statement?

The House will welcome my right hon. Friend's statement that the United Nations Security Council has passed a further resolution condemning the bombings and also that there is co-operation within the framework of the United Nations to attack global outreach terrorism. However, will he confirm that in the association with Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom in Bali, there can be co-operation outside the United Nations as well as within it? Finally, will he tell the House where we are with the United Nations resolution on Iraq?

The Prime Minister: On my hon. Friend's latter point, we are pursuing it and I hope and believe that we can achieve a consensus on it. On his first point, he is right that we must work with the authorities in Indonesia as well as the Australians and Americans to do everything that we can to counter the terrorist threat. I can assure him that we are doing that.

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Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): On behalf of the Unionist Members and the great majority of the people of Northern Ireland, may I express sympathy to those in Australia and in other parts of the world who have suffered in this appalling tragedy? Regrettably, there has been a sense of denial at various levels. In May this year, I asked in the House about links with al-Qaeda. At the time, there was no knowledge of any, but some of us were aware of them. When we were in Indonesia, we discovered that that was the name that they dared not speak. In other words, they were aware of the issue but not prepared to face it.

Dropping the word Xinternational" from terrorism is a blessing, because we must realise that terrorism is homespun as well as international. Therefore, we join the Prime Minister in his leadership to deal with terrorism whence it comes. Regrettably, for example, in Northern Ireland, in the fight against organised crime, there seem to be delays between the Home Office and the Northern Ireland Office in putting into action some of the things that are needed and were agreed to earlier.

The statement from the Security Council on terrorism is to be welcomed. I trust that it will be equally united not only in putting forward a statement but in recommending action to deal with terrorism, whether it is in the form of weapons of mass destruction or the car bombs that plague our communities. We will back it.

The Prime Minister: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support on the statement. What he says is right: we must deal with this issue whatever its source and origin. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will make a statement on Northern Ireland shortly.

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Northern Ireland

4.19 pm

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Dr. John Reid): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement about Northern Ireland.

As the House knows, over the past weeks and months the political process in Northern Ireland has encountered increasing difficulties. I do not need to remind the House of the magnitude of the project on which we are embarked in Northern Ireland, nor that in any great historic process of this kind, there will inevitably be setbacks and difficulties.

My sincere hope, therefore, was that we would be able to overcome those latest challenges in the short term. That is why the Prime Minister and I have had intensive discussions in recent days with the Northern Ireland political parties and the Irish Government. However, it became clear that an impasse had been reached and that decisive action was needed to safeguard the progress made and tackle the remaining challenges. Because of the difficulties that we have encountered, yesterday I made an order under the Northern Ireland Act 2000 suspending devolved government in Northern Ireland. It came into effect at midnight yesterday. I said yesterday that I regretted that that had become inevitable. The real losers here are the ordinary people of Northern Ireland—those who appreciate and deserve local decisions being made by local politicians to improve the lives of local people, not least because the devolved Administration have achieved so much on their behalf and in their interest.

I take this opportunity to pay warm tribute to the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and his predecessor, their ministerial colleagues and the Assembly Members themselves for all that they have done in a relatively short period to improve the lives of people in Northern Ireland and to express the hope—I do very much hope this—that the devolved institution can be restored quickly.

I stress that that impasse affects only one aspect of the Belfast agreement, albeit an important one. As the joint statement by the Prime Minister made clear, this Government remain totally committed to the full implementation of the agreement. It has already brought great benefits to the people of Northern Ireland.

In their statement yesterday, the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach also recognised that the recent difficulties in Northern Ireland stemmed from a loss of trust on both sides of the community. There has been much apportioning of blame already and there is no doubt that there is a lack of confidence on both sides of the community. At the heart of the recent political difficulties, however, have been concerns about the commitment to exclusively democratic and non-violent means.

Let us be clear, lest anyone should think that we do not take a balanced view, that we have seen violence from all sides of the community, including a campaign, sometimes murderous in its intent and effect, from the so-called loyalist paramilitaries. Let it be equally clear that the Chief Constable and I are combating and will

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combat that violence with all the means at our disposal, wherever it happens and whoever is behind it. We will go where the evidence leads. That is why I recently redoubled our efforts by setting up, in addition to the organised crime taskforce, the law and order action group, which brings together the key agencies to strengthen our drive against all forms of racketeering and violence from wherever they may come. In that context, I have to tell the House that an arrest was made this morning in connection with the shooting of Danny McBrearty in Londonderry on 29 September. Police inquiries are continuing and will continue into that violent act as well.

I have absolutely no doubt that episodes such as the trial of republicans in Colombia and the break-in at Castlereagh have seriously damaged confidence in the power-sharing arrangements. It would, of course, be entirely improper for any of us, not least a Minister of the Crown, to prejudge the outcomes of any cases involving outstanding criminal charges. However, it would be naive of any of us to ignore the impact on political and public opinion of the recent charges brought against republicans, including members of Sinn Fein, as a result of the police operation on 4 October.

Like me, the House will be particularly concerned about the position of prison officers and others and their families, for whose assistance the police have now established a special unit. The Prison Service is working closely with the police and has established a helpline to that end.

Let me say to the House that there can be no authority, no legitimacy, no morality and no political basis for anyone, in today's Northern Ireland, to have recourse to violence or paramilitary activity. Whatever may have happened 30 years ago, or 300 years ago, in today's Northern Ireland the path to power through democracy is open to everyone and the path of violence is illegitimate for anyone. It is also essential, as the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach noted, that each community has confidence in the commitment of the other to the agreement.

That is now the challenge that faces us. Yesterday was, perhaps not surprisingly, filled with recrimination. Today and the days beyond that should be about rebuilding: but that rebuilding has to be on foundations that are firm, sound and lasting. It is against this background that the Prime Minister and Taoiseach said yesterday that

In their statement, they also said:

in Northern Ireland.

We face some difficult and challenging weeks ahead. Our task is threefold. First, we need to move rapidly and decisively from the recent weeks of political uncertainty. I have no doubt that the people of Northern Ireland—who should always be at the front of our minds in all that we are doing—welcome, appreciate and deserve devolved government. Like them, I would have much

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preferred devolved government continuing, with local Ministers making local decisions. But until it can be restored, my colleagues and I will dedicate ourselves to working for the good of all the people of Northern Ireland to the best—the very best—of our abilities.

In the meantime, we shall carry on the process of government in Northern Ireland proactively, in the interest of all its people. This cannot be a matter of mere care and maintenance. We owe it to the people of Northern Ireland that effective government should be moved forward. We shall not duck the difficult issues. We shall be able to build on the progress made by the devolved Administration in many areas, taking careful account of the XProgramme for Government" and the principles of reinvestment and reform on which it is based and which the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister have supported. I met both of them yesterday to begin to discuss some of those matters.

The Policing Board is widely agreed to have been one of the finest achievements of the agreement. I want its work to continue. The House will recall that it was the first time in our history that there was a cross-community, elected policing board. I have invited all the existing board members to continue providing their excellent service to the community. I sincerely hope—as I know the House will, too—that they will all accept reappointment.

In this context, I also welcome two new members of the ministerial team. I am making available separately the details of ministerial appointments under suspension. In broad terms, the Minister of State's additional responsibilities will focus on education and those of the Under-Secretary of State on social issues, including health. The portfolios of the new Ministers, my hon. Friends the Members for Dudley, South (Mr. Pearson) and for Basildon (Angela Smith), will centre respectively on economic affairs and environmental issues. Our first task is the good governance of Northern Ireland.

Secondly, under the terms of the agreement, we need to embark on a process of review. I shall be in touch with the parties and the Irish Government as to how that should be taken forward. I want to stress that this is an impasse—hopefully short-lived—in only one aspect of the agreement. It is not the whole agreement and it is not the whole peace process. We will continue, in co-operation with the parties and our colleagues in the Irish Government, to carry forward that process and the implementation of the agreement.

Thirdly, with reference to the problems underlying the present suspension that I mentioned earlier, we will bend every effort to find a basis on which to bring back the devolved institutions, and as quickly as possible. The role and the responsibility of the political parties in achieving that are vital. It is our aim to find a basis on which all the institutions of the agreement can be brought back into operation as soon as possible. The election date scheduled for 1 May stands and is not altered by yesterday's decision.

These, then, are the three priorities: the good governance of Northern Ireland, carrying forward the agreement and addressing the present impasse. They will inform the approach of the Government over the coming weeks and months. In those tasks, we will call upon the co-operation and support of the House, of the

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parties, our colleagues in the Irish Government and those far beyond our shores, such as the President and people of the United States, who have been unstinting in their support for this historic project.

I can promise the House that, for our part, we will bear ourselves with determination and endurance, because we recognise that the magnitude of the prize that we seek is commensurate with the challenges that we face.

We have come an enormous distance in recent years. The peace process and the agreement have increased prosperity, revitalised society, safeguarded rights and, above all, saved numerous lives. I am determined that those benefits should not be lost, but should increase. The agreement will remain the template for political progress in Northern Ireland. I hope that the decision that I took yesterday and I have explained to the House today creates a breathing space—a chance to gather strength—before that progress moves forward once again.

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