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2 Dec 2002 : Column 631—continued

David Burnside (South Antrim): Does the hon. Gentleman agree with the recent unanimous resolution of the Ulster Unionist Council on the proposals for the police boards? If unelected terrorists are put on to the district policing partnerships, the Ulster Unionist party's representation on the policing board will be placed under serious question. Will he unite with the Ulster Unionist party in withdrawing from that board?

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Rev. Ian Paisley: In a speech, I made public what we would do. We would be out and, this time, I hope that the hon. Gentleman's party would follow us and take immediate action. I was about to develop that point in my speech.

When we were called in by the former Secretary of State and asked whether we would put our representatives on the policing board, I said, XWe could consider that provided you aren't going to make a deal afterwards with IRA-Sinn Fein and bring them in by the back door." He said to us, XIf you don't join the policing board now"—it was the last day on which we could join—Xyou will not be on it until there is an election." I said, XThank you, but answer this question. If the IRA don't join it, will it have to wait for an election before it gets on the board?" He said, XThat is right." However, that is not what is being negotiated now. We were brought in under false pretences. We were given a promise on which the IRA has not delivered and is not going to deliver. I say unequivocally that it will drive real Unionists out of the policing board. Perhaps that is what it wants to do.

Helen Jackson: I respect the hon. Gentleman's party and his leadership of it. In what circumstances can the membership of the district policing boards include people who may have been in paramilitary organisations and are genuinely moving into politics for the future? Are there circumstances in which that is possible, or is it a case of XNo. Never"?

Rev. Ian Paisley: It is XNo. Never." Those people are not elected. They do not even have the support of others who are elected. The hon. Lady's Government promised us that the arrangements would work in a specific way, but they have gone back on their promise. In the Secretary of State's words, policing will not be complete until republicans are included on the board—but at what price? That is what the people of Northern Ireland want to know. They do not want the Government to issue the document. Instead, they want them to tell us frankly what concessions they made under the first document and what concessions they are likely to make under the second document.

I am sorry that I have taken longer than I expected, but the matter goes to the root of our problem in Northern Ireland. We need proper policing. Unless people in all communities can go to bed at night knowing that they will not be attacked and, if they are attacked, that they will be protected, we will not have peace in Northern Ireland. Let us not have more whitewash of the IRA. Let us no longer tell people that quantum leaps have been taken on security, because it is not so. The Minister knows that. The facts surrounding the policing board also show that to be the case.

Hon. Members need to pay attention to the problem. What would be their attitude if they had the same problem in their cities and constituencies? They should not be so quick to condemn Northern Ireland Members of Parliament, every one of whom lives under a threat. We have all been threatened. Many of us have been shot at and many of us are visited continually by people who say, XMind your step." What can an individual do to mind his step in this situation? Hon. Members should ask themselves, XWould I like that to happen to my constituents?"

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I salute the Roman Catholic people, especially those in my constituency, who have joined the new police service. We know what happened to one of the first who joined: the IRA attempted to blow him to smithereens outside his house. The IRA circulates the district with its literature that says, XTreat the new police service as you treated the RUC." What place has a party that does that in properly policing any civilised democratic community?

4.59 pm

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Jane Kennedy): I beg to move, To leave out from XHouse" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland regrets that he is unable to be here to take part in the debate. He is engaged on business in America; otherwise he would certainly have been here to respond to the points made forcefully by the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley). The hon. Gentleman's position, and that of his party, on these issues is well known and has been understood for many years. He articulates a point of view that has resonance in Northern Ireland, and I acknowledge that from the outset.

I shall begin by reflecting on the changes in Northern Ireland in recent years. We have come a long way. Before the Belfast agreement, which I know the hon. Gentleman does not hold with, the people of Northern Ireland had endured 30 years of what were euphemistically called Xthe troubles". There were thousands of deaths, and thousands more lives were torn apart by the violence, sectarianism and community divisions that the hon. Gentleman articulately described. Yet after all that it was possible to reach an agreement about how to shape a better future—one in which former enemies could work together in partnership, in communities and in government. People from all sections of the community could put aside the intransigence and hatred of the past, and co-operate.

Such a transformation required great leaps of faith from the people of Northern Ireland, and particularly, perhaps, from its political leaders. No one said that it would be easy, and the hon. Gentleman has described just how difficult it has been. I say to him, his party and the House that, as security Minister, I know better than almost anyone else in Government what the security difficulties have been. However, he says that things are as bad as they have ever been, and I suggest that that is not true.

This year, 10 people have lost their lives as a result of the security situation in Northern Ireland. That is 10 deaths too many and those lives were lost unnecessarily. If I were a relative of any of those

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individuals, I would feel precisely the bitterness and grief described by the hon. Gentleman. However, if we go back 30 years, we find that 470 people lost their lives in one year alone. The number of people who die as a result of the security situation in Northern Ireland has dramatically decreased, and that ought to be taken into account when we consider the difficult issues that face us in our attempt to maintain momentum in developing a more peaceful society.

Although no one said that it would be easy, we believed that it would not be impossible. As the Prime Minister said on 17 October:

It has taken courage and vision. Some of the steps have indeed been difficult, but there have been difficulties for all sides. The important point is that, despite those difficulties, there has been progress, and Northern Ireland today is a better, more peaceful place than it was before the agreement. It is not nirvana, and there is a long way to go, but it is a vast improvement on the situation that existed decades ago. Transformations can be slow but they do happen.

The same is true of policing. I shall develop the arguments put forward by the hon. Gentleman and answer some of his points. As the Belfast agreement made clear, it is essential that the policing structures and arrangements are such that the Police Service is professional, effective and efficient, fair and impartial, free from partisan political control, accountable both under the law for its actions and to the community that it serves and representative of the society that it polices. The hon. Gentleman will argue that the service has been professional, effective and efficient, fair and impartial, and I agree with much of what he says, but the Police Service's structures and arrangements—its accountability arrangements and representative nature—must be capable of gaining support throughout the whole community of Northern Ireland if it is to maintain law and order, including responding effectively to crime and to any terrorist threat or public order problem. A police service that cannot do so will fail to win public confidence and acceptance.

Patten was clear about the scale of the challenge and the need to provide a new beginning for policing in Northern Ireland. That will take time and it will not be easy, but huge progress has already been made. I suspect that if we had said five years ago that we would one day have a policing board operating on a cross-community basis, or that 50 per cent. of recruits to the police would be Catholic, most people would not have believed us, yet that has been achieved. Even when the policing board was set up, there were those who expected it to fail. There were those who did not expect the board to be able to resolve the question of the badge or the uniforms—but it did. There were those who said that the board would never be able to agree on a new Chief Constable—but, again, it did. There were those who said that the board would not be able to agree a recommendation on the future of the full-time reserve—but it did.

The hon. Member for North Antrim might argue that all those measures are unnecessary concessions to Sinn Fein and republicans, but I believe that they are a necessary part of the reforms to policing in Northern Ireland that will enable cross-community support to

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develop, grow and strengthen. Since its first meeting just over a year ago, the policing board has quickly established itself as a powerful and credible organisation with a clear interest in holding the police to account and ensuring effective policing of the whole of Northern Ireland. Despite the enormity of the challenge facing them, board members have collectively shown themselves to be committed to creating the new beginning for policing envisaged by the agreement. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to all the board members, including the representatives of the Democratic Unionist party, for their commitment and the dedication that they have shown to their duties.

The changes have not only affected the accountability structures for policing; the Police Service itself has undergone a series of significant changes. The determination of the service, from its leadership through the rank and file to the new recruits, to deliver the changes envisaged by Patten has been impressive. Collectively, the police have shown that it is possible to move forward, to create the new beginning and to forge new relationships with all sections of the community. That is the future for policing in Northern Ireland. It is a future grounded in effective policing, with a police service carrying out its professional remit without fear or favour.

The results of current policing arrangements are tangible. In recent months, much of the sectarian violence at interfaces in north and east Belfast—I see the hon. Members who represent those constituencies in their seats—has been nullified through good police tactics, which have also yielded 124 persons charged. I acknowledge that that has come at a cost—437 police officers have been injured as a result of the violence at interfaces—but we should acknowledge the good, professional and capable work that the police have been doing to reduce the effects of that violence.

Such successes in policing are not limited to the violence on our streets. The House might like to know that, since September, 24 loyalists and 11 republicans have been charged under the Terrorism Act 2000. Hon. Members who attack the arrangements for policing in Northern Ireland should consider that that has a knock-on effect, whether intended or not, on each and every police officer. Again and again, it brings policing into the political domain, which is not helpful for effective policing. The hon. Member for North Antrim would be quick to acknowledge that, over the past 30 years, many of those officers have faced some hideous challenges. They have lost their colleagues to terrorist attacks. They have themselves been wounded and scarred and seen their families threatened.

Of course, their work today could never be described as easy. Policing in any community is a difficult challenge, but policing in Northern Ireland is a particularly difficult challenge. The individuals who provide that public service deserve our support and gratitude. I know that they have the support and gratitude of the hon. Gentleman, his party and the Ulster Unionist party, but they deserve the support and gratitude of all parties in Northern Ireland. They have gained the support of the Social Democratic and Labour party in Northern Ireland and deserve Sinn Fein's support.

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I agree with the Democratic Unionist motion in one respect—the implicit importance that it attaches to district policing partnerships. I should like to make that importance explicit. The Patten report was clear about the role of district policing partnership boards, and said:

The district policing partnerships will play a vital role as a bridge between the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the local community. I pay tribute to the role of the Northern Ireland Policing Board for working towards the establishment of district policing partnerships. I know that that process is well advanced—all the district councils have selected political members, and the first interviews for independent members have been held. Indeed, they were held in the constituency of the hon. Member for North Antrim. I understand that the district policing partnerships should be in a position to have their first meetings in February. I do not underestimate the impact that that will have on local communities. Councillors will be associated with a major new role, and I know they will play their part very conscientiously.

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