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House of Commons

Wednesday 8 January 2003

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—


1. Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North): To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the future of the 11-plus in Northern Ireland. [89176]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Jane Kennedy): The decision to end transfer tests was announced by my predecessor, the former Education Minister, Martin McGuinness, on 11 October last year, and I will be working to abolish them as soon as is practicable. Whatever arrangements are made to achieve progress with the education system, I can assure the House that the guiding principle will be the best interests of all the children of Northern Ireland.

In that context, with your permission, Mr. Speaker, I am sure that the whole House will join me in condemning Monday's pipe bomb attack on Holy Cross primary school. Those who carried out the attack must be brought to justice, and I call on anyone who has information to give it to the police. Every child has the right to learn in a safe and secure environment, and it is everyone's responsibility to guard and maintain that right.

Mr. Chaytor : I thank my hon. Friend for her reply. Does she feel that her predecessor's decision was the right decision for Northern Ireland?

Jane Kennedy: The former Minister's decision was based on the outcome of the consultation on responses to the Burns report. The House will be aware that I am continuing detailed consultation on the responses to that report. The meetings have been very fruitful—we are looking to develop a consensus on the way forward and, as hon. Members will be aware, decisions on what will replace the current transfer tests have yet to be taken.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim): On behalf of my party and colleagues, I condemn and deplore the criminal act of putting a pipe bomb near a school. However, the

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Minister should pay more attention to the clearly expressed will of the people of Northern Ireland. Does she not accept that the pupils of Northern Ireland continue to do better than their counterparts in England and Wales in achieving higher qualifications? That is partly due to the effectiveness of our present selection procedure, so will she seek to retain a transfer procedure that commands the widespread respect and support of the people of Northern Ireland?

Jane Kennedy: I have no problem—I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman's last point. The proportion of young people achieving top-grade GCSEs in Northern Ireland is among the highest in the UK, but many young people, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, are leaving school with low qualifications. The objective of the post-primary review, as the hon. Gentleman knows, is to raise standards for all pupils and build a modern and fair education system that enables all children in Northern Ireland to achieve their full potential.

Devolved Institutions

2. Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough): To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what recent discussions he has held with Northern Ireland party leaders about the future of the devolved institutions. [89177]

6. Mr. Mark Hendrick (Preston): To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what recent discussions he has had on the prospects for re-establishing the Northern Ireland Assembly. [89182]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Paul Murphy): We had intensive discussions before Christmas with the main political parties in Northern Ireland with a view to restoring the stable and inclusive operation of the Belfast agreement on an exclusively democratic and peaceful basis. We plan further urgent discussions, with a view to reaching agreement before the Assembly elections on 1 May.

Helen Jackson : I welcome my right hon. Friend's response. I am sure that he agrees that devolution encourages all the Northern Ireland political parties to talk together about the ordinary political issues that affect their everyday lives. Will he expand on the process that he envisages to enable further discussions between now and, we hope, the elections in May? In particular, how will the Government of the Republic be brought into the discussions?

Mr. Murphy: I thank my hon. Friend for her comments—she is quite right about the restoration of devolution in Northern Ireland. I believe that every party in Northern Ireland, irrespective of its background, heritage and traditions, wants the restoration of devolution. My hon. Friend the Minister of State has just referred to education, which is properly a matter for Northern Ireland politicians, as opposed to us in Westminster. I hope that we shall reach that position as soon as possible.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Helen Jackson) will be aware that I met the Irish Government before Christmas and that yesterday the leader of the Ulster Unionist party, the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), met the Prime Minister and me. Today, the Prime Minister is meeting Sinn Fein, and tomorrow the Social Democratic and Labour party. Further meetings will be held in Belfast next week, which the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. Browne), will attend, and I plan further meetings over the next two weeks.

Mr. Hendrick : Does my right hon. Friend agree that since the dissolution of the Northern Ireland Assembly there has been no effective medium for discussion between the main political parties and that, to some extent, that has fuelled sectarian violence? There is a clear need to get that dialogue back on track, and I am pleased to hear about the efforts that are being made at the moment. Is he confident that sufficient dialogue will have taken place by May to enable the elections to go ahead peacefully and the Northern Ireland Assembly to be reconstituted fairly soon?

Mr. Murphy: It is certainly my hope that there will be elections on 1 May to the Northern Ireland Assembly, so that devolution and the other institutions can be restored. I also welcome meetings, for example, between the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) and the president of Sinn Fein, and other meetings between political parties in Northern Ireland. Everybody involved in the political process in Northern Ireland is making an intensive effort to ensure that we restore the institutions, but I do not underestimate the difficulties that lie ahead of us. There are important issues at stake, the central one of which, of course, is to ensure that we engage in politics in Northern Ireland through exclusively peaceful means.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North): In the context of restoring devolution, will the Secretary of State join in condemning the association of the Sinn Fein lord mayor of Belfast, Alex Maskey, and two Sinn Fein Members of the House with a calendar that glorifies and promotes IRA activity and that is currently on sale in Northern Ireland? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that that illustrates the links between Sinn Fein politicians and IRA terrorists, exposes the hypocrisy of Sinn Fein, which talks about peace but is happy to be linked with terror and violence, and proves once again that it is unfit for government in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Murphy: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that there is no place for violence in Northern Ireland right across the political spectrum. One of the most important issues that we will address this week and next week is how to ensure that political parties are exclusively peaceful and exclusively democratic. As regards the calendar, that is a matter for Belfast council.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann): I assume that the Secretary of State will be at the meeting to be held this afternoon with the leadership of the republican movement. Will he point out to them that a party that is committed or claims to be committed to exclusively

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democratic means—the standard set out in the Belfast agreement—does not maintain a private army, does not collude with international terrorism and does not operate a spy ring at the heart of government? Will he tell them clearly and unequivocally that all those activities must end before the restoration of devolution can take place?

Mr. Murphy: I understand what the right hon. Gentleman is saying. It is the collapse of trust and confidence that has led to the suspension of the Assembly and the institutions. I repeat what the Prime Minister has said: we want a commitment to exclusively peaceful means—real, total and permanent—and a cessation of any sort of paramilitary activity.

Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh): The Secretary of State knows that many of us would regard the devolution of policing and justice powers as the most fundamental step in the political process. Does he agree that, for that to happen, there will have to be a proven period of stability and maturity within the political institutions? Does he further agree that, in the present impasse, that issue should not become a bargaining chip with any political party, or between any political party and the Government?

Mr. Murphy: My hon. Friend makes a valid point. It is important that we ensure the stability of the institutions and of the general situation in Northern Ireland before we embark on the devolution of policing and justice. He will, of course, remember, as will many other hon. Members in the Chamber, that the principle of the devolution of justice and policing was enshrined in the Belfast agreement. The principle is right; as to the timing, I agree that the matter should not be a political football, but should be agreed by all the political parties.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland): Why have the Government chosen to pursue the practice of bilateral meetings between the Prime Minister and certain party leaders from Northern Ireland, instead of convening the review group, which is open to the Government under the terms of the agreement? In particular, does the Secretary of State agree that the review group will be needed to resolve the problem of designations, which has been outstanding since November 2001?

Mr. Murphy: May I, first, welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new position in the House? I look forward to working with him in the months ahead.

Two paragraphs of the agreement refer to a review. Paragraph 7, of course, is the paragraph under which we are currently talking in Northern Ireland. The paragraph 8 review is the more general review required under the agreement and will take place four years after it took effect. Therefore, in about autumn this year, there will probably be a major review under the terms of the agreement.

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On the hon. Gentleman's points about bilateral meetings, my view is that the more meetings the better, in whatever form. We have to deal with these matters and resolve the difficulties as quickly as possible.

Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, Cathcart): I welcome any moves by the Government to discuss with Northern Ireland political parties the re-establishment of the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland, but does my right hon. Friend agree that the House has a role to play in building confidence among the different parties, if only they were all represented here in the House of Commons? In the discussions, have Sinn Fein Members indicated any increase in willingness to come here and do the job that they were elected to do—represent their constituents in the House of Commons?

Mr. Murphy: I shall have the opportunity later to talk to Sinn Fein about various issues. I will raise that issue, but I suggest to my hon. Friend that he may not get an immediate response.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford): May I wholeheartedly endorse the Minister of State's condemnation of the appalling attack on Holy Cross school—a wonderful school that I have visited on many occasions? May I also express my hope, which I believe will be felt throughout the House, that the parents of children in that school and everybody else there will be united in their determination to ensure that such intimidation will not succeed in destroying a wonderful educational institution?

Does the right hon. Gentleman share the assessment of the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs, which has now been leaked throughout the press on both sides of the Irish sea, that the IRA remains active and

Mr. Murphy: I welcome the hon. Gentleman's words about Holy Cross school. We find what happened yesterday wholly and totally repugnant. I hope that things will get back to normal as quickly as possible.

The Prime Minister has made it absolutely clear, as have I, that there is still activity on the part of the IRA. Indeed, there is activity on the part of paramilitaries across the political spectrum in Northern Ireland. Of course, that does not mean that the ceasefire has been broken, but, as the Prime Minister also said, it is not simply a question of the breaking of a ceasefire, but one of ensuring proper trust and confidence among parties so that they go back into the institutions and the devolved Administration in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Davies: May I make it absolutely plain that the Opposition expect the Government to live up to the brave declarations of the Prime Minister in Belfast in November and to take specific action when there is evidence of continuing breaches, instead of, as before, all too often simply turning a blind eye—a policy that led us to the current crisis?

On a separate matter, will the right hon. Gentleman now establish a public inquiry into the Claudy atrocity in 1972, given that Assistant Chief Constable Sam Kinkaid is reported to have stated that documents exist

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that provide direct evidence of a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice by the then Government and the Northern Ireland Office?

Mr. Murphy: The hon. Gentleman and I, and everyone else in the House who is aware of what happened at Claudy, regard it as one of the most heinous bombings and crimes of the past 30 years. It was a terrible business. On the question of a public inquiry, he will be aware that that the police investigation is not yet complete. The Government are co-operating fully with that investigation and it would not be appropriate for me to comment any further until it is complete.

Mr. Davies: It is a fact that the atrocity took place 30 years ago, so we hope that the police investigations will be completed reasonably soon and will not take another 30 years. However, may I have the right hon. Gentleman's assurance that, if there is evidence of any sort of cover-up or collusion involving Ministers or the Northern Ireland Office, there will be a public inquiry? [Interruption.] I have to say to him that his Back Benchers, who are suggesting that because a Conservative Government were in power—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman does not have to say anything to a Back Bencher. He is putting a question to the Minister.

Mr. Davies: I want to make it clear that Conservative Members believe that the truth should come out, irrespective of who may have been involved in any cover-up, without fear or favour. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that it would be thoroughly deplorable if anything were done that would confirm the sad impression that has already been created that, when an atrocity or a cover-up involves victims from the nationalist community, the Government are prepared to spend any amount of time or money to get at the facts, but when the atrocity involves victims of the Unionist community, they will not bestir themselves.

Mr. Murphy: We make no distinction between the victims of crimes in the troubles over the past three decades: both sides of the community in Northern Ireland have suffered appallingly. I will await the result of the investigation, but I agree with the hon. Gentleman that this should be dealt with as speedily as possible. I also agree that there should be no cover-up, as he puts it, in uncovering the truth. It is extremely important that we get to the bottom of this matter, but we have to await the results of the police investigation.

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