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10 Feb 2003 : Column 652—continued

David Burnside (South Antrim): I am sure that all hon. Members on this side of the House would agree that that disgusting loyalist violence should be condemned and that it shames the face of loyalism in Northern Ireland, but, in informing the House about events in the past week, would the Secretary of State like to add the disgraceful bomb explosion at a nightclub in Colombia and the great loss of life there? It seems that the bomb was exploded using a method that resulted from the technical training of members of Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA who are standing trial in Colombia. Will he include that in his condemnation?

Mr. Murphy: Obviously, I cannot comment on legal proceedings in another jurisdiction. I can, however, deplore what occurred in Colombia and any activity of that nature, whether in south America or on our own continent, and irrespective of whether it is started by terrorists of one side or the other. The question of paramilitary activity goes across the board—it is not just loyalist, and it is not just republican. The reason why the Assembly lies suspended and why politicians of all persuasions in Northern Ireland and the two Governments must address paramilitarism has been brought to the fore dramatically in the past few days.

It is also important to put on record the fact that there is a difference between the criminality that we have seen and the political loyalism that we have also seen over the past few years, which has helped in many ways to develop the peace process. There are loyalist politicians who, like us in this House, abhor such activity; nevertheless, it is important that all of us in government and, indeed, in the House of Commons are conscious of the effect of such activity on the political process.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): I share the Secretary of State's views about gangsterism, but does he share the concern of decent folk on the Shankhill road who believe that the police did not act properly when they allowed others to come down the Shankill road, with guns firing, to clear people out of the area? They are glad that the others have gone, but they think that it would be better if the police did their job and protected them, instead of leaving it to mobsters.

Mr. Murphy: I do not share the hon. Gentleman's view about the police; I entirely share his view about the peaceful, law-abiding citizens who live along the Shankill and other roads in Belfast and elsewhere in Northern Ireland. There are certainly loyalists in the Shankill area who want nothing to do with that sort of gangsterism and mob rule. I believe that those people need to be led by politicians who understand where they are coming from, but it is understood by all politicians in Northern Ireland that it is only through the political process that we can achieve peace, prosperity and stable institutions. As I have said, I have spoken to the Chief Constable, who assures me that the police were very rapidly on the scene and that they did all that they could

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to deal with the situation. I know, too, that the Policing Board has met the Chief Constable to discuss those issues.

Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough): Is not it time that the gangsters among the loyalists in Northern Ireland ceased to be able to hide under what to them is a respectable umbrella term—paramilitary—and were instead described by the Government, and by everyone, as the criminals that they are?

Mr. Murphy: I agree. The time has come for any kind of paramilitary activity—it does not matter from what part of the political spectrum it comes—to end. That will be the purpose of the discussions and negotiations over the next couple of days and weeks.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland): The Secretary of State will have read the same press reports that I read at the end of last week about people fleeing the Shankhill road to houses bought in central Scotland and in south-east England; some of them were not people whom one would normally expect to be in a position to buy a second home. Last year, the House gave very significant powers to the police under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. Will he assure us that there will be the fullest co-operation between his office, the Home Secretary and Scottish Ministers to ensure that those powers are fully exercised in respect of those individuals?

Mr. Murphy: The hon. Gentleman refers directly to the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 and the Assets Recovery Agency, which has now started its operation in Northern Ireland. That will be a great boost in taking ill-gotten gains from criminals and mobsters. As for his point about Scotland, I spoke at the weekend to the First Minister and to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland.

I emphasise that this is not a one-sided matter. Perhaps some of the reason that we do not hear so much about the activities of those who are termed dissident republicans is that they have been thwarted, intercepted and nullified by the very effective security forces that we have working in Northern Ireland. That does not mean that they do not exist: we need only cast our minds back to Omagh to reflect on how awful the activities of so-called dissident republicans can be. I know that the House agrees that all this paramilitary activity must be consigned to history. It is not part of the politics of any modern, democratic, peaceful society.

Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh): I fully agree with the Secretary of State that all such activity should be consigned to history. One way of bringing completion is to bring some clarity to the belief and the fact that members of the very same organisations on both sides were used by the security services for security reasons. One of the factors that led to the Ulster Defence Association in all its guises having such power in Belfast was its relationship with the security services and its imperviousness to arrest by them in a certain period.

Mr. Murphy: My hon. Friend is right to bring to the House's attention the fact that, during the 30-odd years

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of troubles, awful things happened right across the political board, under different Governments. Obviously, the purpose at the moment is to try to ensure that we move forward out of the problems and the mess of the past, which— until the signing of the Belfast agreement—brought us to nowhere.

Having said all that, Northern Ireland is a much better place now than it was when I first became involved in Northern Ireland politics in 1994. It is a safer, better and more prosperous place to live. Economically, Northern Ireland is now developing faster than any other region of the United Kingdom. The other weekend, I went into Belfast city centre to do some shopping. When I first did that, in 1994, I saw police everywhere, it was difficult to shop, it was difficult to go into a restaurant, and it was difficult to lead the kind of ordinary lives that the rest of us can lead in our constituencies. I am not saying that it is now perfect—far from it—but I am saying that there have been improvements. Those improvements have come about because of the changes that we have seen as a result of the Belfast agreement and because of the determination of leaders of political parties in Northern Ireland to want to move to a better society and a better place in which to live. Of particular note is the way in which the police force has developed in the past few years. That has been the most significant change in the three years since I left the Northern Ireland Office as Minister of State.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): I have greatly enjoyed visiting Northern Ireland and I explain to folk that it is the safest place in western Europe. On the state of life there, will my right hon. Friend's Department publish details on or carry out an audit of crime outside terrorism? The police in Northern Ireland tell me that there is less "normal" crime there than there is in Surrey. It is a very law-abiding society. We need to proclaim that and, if need be, to document it.

Mr. Murphy: In some ways, that is true, but in other ways, the situation is deteriorating. I mentioned the loyalist feud over the past week or two. Some years ago, that might have been described as semi-political activity, but no one could describe it as such now. The drug activity, the extortion and other activities by paramilitary organisations need to be taken into account.

Rev. Martin Smyth: One accepts the pressure that the police have been under. Did the Minister hear the interview this morning in which the Sinn Fein Assembly representative from Omagh castigated the Police Service of Northern Ireland despite all the changes that it has implemented? Despite all its tremendous good work, it has not yet won the approval of Sinn Fein, which it again sees as a target.

Mr. Murphy: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. I understand that 18 police officers were injured in Omagh. That is to be deplored. As I said, in the three years that have elapsed between my leaving the Northern Ireland Office as Minister of State and returning to it as Secretary of State there have been huge developments in the police service. The police force is

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just and fair. It is accountable, professional, effective, impartial and free from partisan control. All those things were set out in the Good Friday agreement as what a police force should be, and I believe that the PSNI operates under those terms. The new Policing Board, which was set up in November 2001, has been powerful and credible. It agreed a new badge and uniform in 2002, and appointed a highly effective new Chief Constable. It issued its first annual policing plan and this week will publish the PSNI code of ethics. It is, I believe, genuinely cross-community, and I pay tribute to all its members.

There have been developments in the district policing partnerships. Nearly 1,500 people have applied to join them, so there is enthusiasm for that scheme. The police ombudsman has increased transparency in the police service and has worked with dedication. I pay tribute in particular to the Northern Ireland Police Fund and the Royal Ulster Constabulary George Cross Foundation. Both those organisations do good work for past and present officers, widows and families, and for others connected with the police service in Northern Ireland. More and more Catholics have joined the police force. In the first year alone, there were more than 530 new recruits. The Government have also recognised that the illegal financial activities of criminals should be tackled through the Organised Crime Task Force, chaired by my hon. Friend the Minister of State, and the new Assets Recovery Agency.

The police have led efforts to combat extortion, illegal drugs and money laundering. This weekend, drugs worth more than £3 million were seized in Craigavon. In the run-up to Christmas, the police seized counterfeit goods valued at £500,000. In January, police and customs officers seized 6 million illicit cigarettes in Coalisland. Those are a few examples of what the police force has been doing in recent months. I pay tribute to the professionalism, dedication and effectiveness of the police force in Northern Ireland and to the fact that it is by no means afraid of change—far from it: in many ways it has led change most effectively in the past three years.

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