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House of Commons

Wednesday 27 November 2002

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Police Service of Northern Ireland

1. Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough): If he will make a statement on recent reforms to the Police Service of Northern Ireland. [81599]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Jane Kennedy): I refer my hon. Friend to the statement that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland made on 25 November. The Government remain committed to the new beginning to policing, building on the implementation of the recommendations of the independent commission on policing for Northern Ireland. Working with the police and the Policing Board, we continue to make steady progress across a range of areas.

Helen Jackson : Does the Minister agree that we now have a unique opportunity—while the Assembly is in recession, so to speak—to ensure that, through policing, we put in place the final, difficult ingredients? Is it not the case that any party that wants to play a constitutional role in the government of Northern Ireland must play a role in its civil police service, and must recognise that that is part of politics—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I think that the Minister gets the drift.

Jane Kennedy: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. The Government's aim is to develop a modern police service that is both effective and widely accepted throughout the society that it serves. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said on 17 October, the concept of republicans being on the Policing Board while maintaining an active paramilitary organisation outside of the law is an absurdity.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): Given the evident need for good, well-qualified police officers in Northern Ireland, of whatever religion, will the Minister please explain the consequences if a police recruit from one

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religious denomination or another pulls out during the qualification process? Is there any pressure for a reciprocal withdrawal to maintain the 50:50 ratio?

Jane Kennedy: The hon. Gentleman knows the detail of the arrangements that bring into effect the 50:50 recruitment of Catholics and Protestants to the Northern Ireland police service. He also understands that our efforts are directed towards achieving a more accountable, representative and effective police force. It is worth noting that 35 per cent. of those applying to join PSNI over the last year have come from the Catholic community. I look forward to that trend continuing over the coming years.

Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh): I know that the Minister is convinced that policing is a crucial part of the creation of peace and political stability in Northern Ireland. I note with more than a little pleasure that 14 of the amendments that have been made will be instantly recognised by those who sat on the last police Bill Committee. Will she give an assurance that, this time, nobody will be allowed to play political games with the very important issue of policing, and that no party or Government will be allowed to use it as a bargaining chip for political reasons?

Jane Kennedy: The forthcoming Bill will cover the commitments, to which the hon. Gentleman refers, to legislative change that we made in the updated Patten implementation plan that we published in August last year, and other issues that have arisen during the review.

Lady Hermon (North Down): Given that the Patten report specifically warned against the balkanisation of policing in Northern Ireland, can the Minister assure me that the new policing proposals announced this week will not lead to any such balkanisation?

Jane Kennedy: The hon. Lady knows that we are in the early stages of discussing the detail of the Bill. Her specific point would not be any part of our intention in developing the new proposals surrounding the accountability of policing in Northern Ireland. We will debate the detail as we proceed through the parliamentary stages of the Bill, and I hope that we can thrash out all those details in debate in time-honoured fashion.

Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry): Does the Minister accept that further concessions on policing, such as permitting terrorists to sit on district policing partnerships, will be viewed across the community in Northern Ireland, in Unionist and nationalist areas, as totally unacceptable?

Jane Kennedy: The clauses that we have published, which we hope will form part of the Bill, give effect to the commitments that we made at the Weston Park talks last year. Those commitments, once enacted, will fully reflect the Patten recommendations. Had the Government contemplated further concessions, however, they would have been included in those clauses.

Mr. John Taylor (Solihull): As a precondition of convicted terrorists sitting as independent members of

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district policing partnerships, the Secretary of State has said that there must be Xacts of completion" by the IRA. Will the Minister confirm that these Xacts of completion" must include decommissioning and, crucially, disbandment?

Jane Kennedy: We gave a commitment to consider in the context of the policing review the disqualification rules for membership of DPPs and, indeed, the powers of the Belfast DPP sub-groups to which the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) referred. However, we are not yet persuaded that the time is right to introduce changes in these areas, so they will not be included in the Bill. It is our view that the removal of the disqualification of ex-prisoners could happen only in the context of acts of completion as envisaged by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in his speech in Belfast last month. I could not improve on his words.

Northern Ireland Assembly

2. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): What the preconditions are for the ending of the suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly; and if he will make a statement. [81600]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Paul Murphy): The devolved institutions can operate only if there is trust that all parties to the Belfast agreement are committed to fulfilling their obligations, including the commitment to exclusively democratic and peaceful means. Rebuilding trust was a key focus of the talks at Parliament buildings last Thursday. We are urgently seeking with the Irish Government and the parties in Northern Ireland the basis on which that trust can be restored.

Simon Hughes : The House will accept entirely the premise that the Secretary of State set out. Does he agree that it would therefore be timely for the Government to initiate in this context a complete review of the Good Friday agreement as provided for under paragraph 8 of the agreement? Does he accept that, to see a good way forward, one has to predict all the foreseeable difficulties, and they must include how Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly are designated? That was a major stumbling block a year ago.

Mr. Murphy: As the hon. Gentleman knows, we will conduct the review under paragraph 7 of the agreement. That review gives all parties in the Assembly—those that choose to turn up to the meetings in Parliament buildings, such as the one that we held last week and that we will hold tomorrow—the opportunity to put their cards on the table and to make the points that they want to make.

The hon. Gentleman referred specifically to designation. He will know that his colleagues in the Alliance party raised this issue last week. Of course, it is important that all of us get round the table, talk about the issues and resolve the current impasse.

Mr. John Hume (Foyle): Given that for the first time in history the people of Ireland, north and south, have overwhelmingly, by voting for the agreement, stated how they wish to live together, it is therefore the duty of

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all true democrats to implement the will of the people. That sends a message to certain people on both sides. It sends a message to the paramilitaries such as the IRA, which since its foundation has always said that it is acting in the name of the Irish people. If it is now truly acting in the name of the Irish people, it should not only cease the violence but cease its existence as an organisation. It also sends a message to certain people—

Mr. Speaker: Order. It is a supplementary question. I cannot allow the hon. Gentleman to continue. [Interruption.] Order. The hon. Gentleman must sit down. Will the Secretary of State reply?

Mr. Murphy: My hon. Friend is right in terms of the fact that the people of Ireland, north and south, agreed to the Belfast agreement in a referendum after the Good Friday agreement was signed. Some 90 per cent. of the people of the island of Ireland and 70 per cent. of the people of Northern Ireland agreed with it. That means—I am sure that he agrees with this—that there is an onus on everyone in Northern Ireland to understand that the only way that we can achieve progress is to do what the people of Ireland have voted upon.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann): In recalling the circumstances that led to the suspension, I am sure that the Secretary of State has seen the statement by the police in Northern Ireland that the criminal conspiracy that they uncovered went to the very heart of the republican movement. Their inquiries are continuing. In the light of that, would it not be wise to wait until we have seen the full extent of that conspiracy and who was involved in it? Should we therefore not wait until the inquiries have been completed? While doing that, would it not also be wise to have a thorough public inquiry into how the Northern Ireland Office conducted itself while the spy ring was operating in its own offices?

Mr. Murphy: The right hon. Gentleman is aware that a thorough investigation is being undertaken by the security services as to why these events took place. He is also right to remind the House that this series of events finally led to the loss of confidence and trust between the parties in Stormont and to the suspension of the Assembly. It is important to discuss these issues in the political context. I am sure that that will happen tomorrow; it certainly happened last week.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North): Will my right hon. Friend confirm that if it is not possible for the Assembly to be reinstated immediately or in the near future, the proposed elections to it will go ahead next year as planned?

Mr. Murphy: We have no plans to change the dates of the elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, set for 1 May next year. I sincerely hope, as I am sure every hon. Member does, that we resolve the difficulties before then.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford): Does the right hon. Gentleman's less than precise first answer to the question—I am putting it kindly—mean that the

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completion of decommissioning and disbandment will be a precondition for Sinn Fein resuming its place in a revived power-sharing Executive?

Mr. Murphy: The hon. Gentleman is right in saying that that is a precondition in the sense that, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said, republicans

My right hon. Friend went on to say:

That is clear to me. Those issues will be discussed at the beginning of the meeting tomorrow in Belfast and doubtless they will be at the heart of discussions in meetings to come.

Mr. Davies: I am grateful for the clear assurance at the beginning of that answer. It is enormously important. To put minds at rest in Northern Ireland and elsewhere, will the right hon. Gentleman give another assurance? He has made it clear in his handling of the police Bill that he has gone some way to understanding the error of unilateral concessions and the importance of linkage and of enforcing compliance. Will he therefore deny the rumour in the Northern Ireland press yesterday that the Government are again contemplating an amnesty for on-the-run terrorists?

Mr. Murphy: The hon. Gentleman knows that those issues were discussed at Weston Park. We all know that those issues are particularly painful to victims in Northern Ireland on both sides of the community. I repeat what I said: as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made clear, the Government will only contemplate steps on all issues, including the ones to which the hon. Gentleman referred, in the context of acts of completion.

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore): Despite the tortuous nature of current negotiations on police reform and the peace process, will my right hon. Friend commend the words and actions of all those politicians who are working towards peace? Will he also commend the words of Martin Luther King:

Mr. Murphy: Of course I echo my hon. Friend's eloquent comments. When I recently took on this job after an absence of three years, I was struck by the fact that the streets of Belfast and Northern Ireland are still very peaceful by comparison with the situation a decade ago. We cannot take for granted the progress that has been made, but we understand that much still needs to be done.

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