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2 Dec 2002 : Column 659—continued

6.45 pm

Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, Cathcart): I follow the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) by stating that the debate should have offered a more positive statement on the progress that has been made in Northern Ireland, but it gives hon. Members an opportunity to pay tribute to the immense bravery and commitment of the members previously of the RUC and now of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. I cannot imagine that there is a more difficult policing job anywhere in the United Kingdom than on the streets of Belfast and Londonderry. Every Member of the House should be extremely grateful for the work of the police during the many years of the so-called troubles.

The hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell) said that police morale is particularly low at the moment, and I do not doubt that. I question whether unhappiness about the 50:50 recruitment policy is a greater cause of low morale than being the target of terrorist bullets and bombs, as was the case in the 1970s and 1980s. I should have thought that even with unhappiness about the recruitment policy, morale in the new police service is not as low as it was when terrorists regularly and systematically targeted officers.

It is said that there is great rejoicing in heaven over a sinner repenting, and I am sure that, on the 50:50 recruitment policy, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) falls into that category. I do not want to make political capital out of that. Surely on a matter such as Northern Ireland we should be prepared

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to look again at statements that we have made and consider them seriously in the light of current events. I hope that if the Government had decided that they had been wrong on one issue or another, they would have the courage and honesty to come to the Dispatch Box and say so. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on doing precisely that.

When it comes to being positive about the police service, we should bear it in mind that there have been several landmark events in the past couple of years, including the opening of the Office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland in November 2000, the enactment of the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill and the establishment of police district commands in April 2001. On a matter that is pertinent to my other comments, last year the Chief Constable announced that he would be able to recruit more than 300 new officers, when the original target was only 260. Despite the reservations of some Opposition Members, the police service managed to recruit 40 more recruits than it told the Secretary of State it would be able to, even with the 50:50 restriction.

Mr. Dodds: The hon. Gentleman referred to the morale of the police service and asked whether it is lower now than it was when people were being shot and so on. I am sure that he will accept that morale is low because many members of the service feel that they have been betrayed. What would the hon. Gentleman say to the chairman of the Police Federation for Northern Ireland, who expressed his disbelief at the plan suggested by the Secretary of State and claimed that it would prevent ordinary, decent people from joining the district policing partnerships? He said:

Mr. Harris: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's intervention. I had intended to refer to that point later in my comments, so perhaps he will bear with me.

Landmarks of the past couple of years include the appointment of the Northern Ireland Policing Board to replace the Police Authority; in November 2001, the first recruits under the new arrangements entered training, the policing board assumed its powers, and the Royal Ulster Constabulary changed its name to the Police Service of Northern Ireland for operational purposes, changing it formally on 5 April 2002. Most important, the Social Democratic and Labour party took up its responsibilities to participate in policing arrangements in Northern Ireland after decades of refusing to take part on behalf of its constituents. I congratulate the SDLP on doing so. The DUP's motion appears to reflect a desire to exclude more people from such arrangements, but we should be taking steps to ensure that Sinn Fein, too, faces up to its responsibility to participate in the policing board.

I shall now explore the motion in more detail—perhaps in so doing I shall reply to the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds). DUP Members are urging the House to oppose

I am curious about their objection: is it to non-elected members, or to people with terrorist convictions? If the latter, I am not sure what position they have taken until

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now by agreeing to sit with Sinn Fein in the Executive and the Northern Ireland Assembly, and only abandoning it—[Interruption.] When the cameras are not there the DUP Ministers have worked well with Sinn Fein Ministers in the Assembly.

Lady Hermon: It will help all hon. Members, especially the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris), to state that the reason why we object to people with terrorist convictions being members of district policing partnerships is the recommendation in the Patten report—the Government want that report to be fully implemented—that independent members of district policing partnerships should

Can the hon. Gentleman explain how anyone with a terrorist conviction can bring with him or her expertise in community safety? That is our objection.

Mr. Harris: I have great respect for the hon. Lady's views and for DUP Members. My point is simply that since the Government have already made a commitment not to appoint people with terrorist convictions to the policing partnerships at present—the time is not yet right—it would not be useful for the House to debate what qualifications such people need. The Government have said that the time is not yet right for such people to be appointed, and I for one am happy to accept that commitment.

I have no doubt that I will be asked—I can see the question on the lips of Opposition Members—what my definition of completion is. The hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) mentioned the disbandment of the IRA, but that is not part of the Good Friday agreement, so if that is what his party seeks it is seeking something that is not to be found in the detail of the agreement.

I am aware that at least one of my colleagues wants to speak, so I shall try to be brief. We in Scotland are used to members of nationalist parties continually talking down Scotland in general and its economic achievements in particular. I hear an echo of that in the DUP motion. The text of the motion is not rooted in reality. As my hon. Friend the Minister of State said, the process of achieving normality in Northern Ireland was never going to be completed overnight, but it is disingenuous of DUP Members—especially the hon. Member for North Antrim, for whom I have a great deal of respect and who is not nearly as scary in real life as he appeared to be when as a boy I saw him on television—to suggest that the threat to individual lives in Northern Ireland is greater now than it was when the Good Friday agreement was signed. That is simply not true. Look at the economic statistics, the jobs that have been created and the confidence created by the Good Friday agreement—not by the Government, but by the agreement and by the people of Northern Ireland who signed up to it. The confidence that that has inspired in the single community of Northern Ireland is something that we should respect, not talk down.

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Rev. Ian Paisley: Will the hon. Gentleman give way? He need not be afraid.

Mr. Harris: I give way.

Rev. Ian Paisley: Will the hon. Gentleman bear in mind the fact that never in the history of Northern Ireland has so much information been in the hands of Sinn Fein-IRA? That information is in the form of 1,000 documents containing people's names, addresses, details of their motor cars, the names of family members, where they are employed, what time they leave home, and so on. All that information is, for the first time, in the hands of the IRA—1,000 documents about people who serve the Government. Is that not a cause for people to be really concerned about what is happening?

Mr. Harris: If the hon. Gentleman is referring to the alleged spy ring at Stormont, we all share his concern. It is a matter that should concern the security forces and does concern the Northern Ireland Office. However, his party stayed in the Northern Ireland Assembly for a long time before that event took place. In his speech today, he mentioned other events such as the Castlereagh break-in and the arrests in Colombia, but throughout that period his party—rightly—stayed in the Assembly. I have to ask whether the DUP walk-out a few weeks ago had more to do with the run-up to Assembly elections in May next year than with genuine concerns about recent security developments.

I ask the House to support the amendment in the name of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. The motion does not reflect political reality in Northern Ireland, except as a cynical exercise in very early electioneering.

6.57 pm

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East): This has been a useful debate. I hope that the Democratic Unionist party will have many more Opposition days—this is the first occasion on which my party has secured an Opposition day debate.

I shall respond to some of the points made during the debate, but I hope that the House will let me make a few comments on my own account first. There are four main elements in the motion, the first of which is an awareness of the continuing terrorist campaign in Northern Ireland. I join my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) in denouncing loyalist violence. More and more, the Unionist community is seeing that loyalist paramilitaries are more interested in securing their own self-interest than in securing the Union or the position of the loyalist community. Their activities should immediately be brought to an end—they bring nothing but dishonour to the cause that they claim to uphold.

Much has been said about the extent of terrorist activity on the part of the Provisional IRA. During the course of its so-called ceasefire, its members have murdered many people and have been involved in the shooting or paramilitary beatings of hundreds of people. We all know of its gun-running from Florida, its training activities with FARC guerrillas in Colombia, the raid on the Castlereagh special branch headquarters,

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and its spying activities at Stormont—all from an organisation that purports to be on a ceasefire, an organisation that the Government continue to try to appease.

The recognition by the Government of the need to suspend the Assembly marked their recognition that Sinn Fein-IRA were involved in unacceptable activity. It is difficult to understand the Government's logic—they suspended the Assembly because of bad behaviour by the IRA, but will restore it by making concessions to the IRA. When the Government accept that the IRA has not behaved, I cannot accept that it is prudent to make more concessions to get it to behave; that is simply attempting to buy the silence of the Provisional IRA.

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