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26 Mar 2003 : Column 337continued
Lembit Öpik: Thanks to the excellent offices and exemplary performance of the Northern Ireland Office staff, I have been reading for the first time the code of practice on the appointment of independent members to district policing partnerships, which they kindly provided. I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman has had a chance to look at it, but I suggest that several of the issues raised by new clauses 9, 10 11 and 13 are covered in that document, which requires certain standards of integrity and so forth in applicants. I am not trying to trick the hon. Gentleman, but I invite him to comment on whether that does not already provide sufficient reassurance.
I want to move on to our new clauses 18 and 19. I hope that we will have an opportunity to vote on them, because we set some store by them. New clause 18 sets out two disqualifications that we consider very important. The first is a disqualification for anyone who has had a sentence of more than 12 months. The second, which relates to a concept drawn from the Terrorism Act 2000, disqualifies anyone who is, in the opinion of a senior police officer, connected with a paramilitary organisation. For the sake of completeness, we refer to two different definitions of paramilitary organisations that are taken from the Government's own legislationnamely, the Northern Ireland Sentences Act 1998 and the Terrorism Act 2000. To maintain equivalence between independent and councillor members of DPPs, to which the Secretary of State rightly attaches importance, new clause 19 proposes that the board must consult a senior police officerwe define that as chief superintendent or above, which is the normal definition in such casesbefore approving independent members of DPPs. It does not make much sense to say that if someone has to be disqualified because he has been revealed to be in breach of his oath or found guilty of a serious criminal offence or of involvement in terrorism, the procedure has to involve going to the police to get an opinion, unless we allow the Policing Board to express a view in advance, ex ante, before its nomination of independent members. The new clause would be a logical and worthwhile change to the Bill.
I have set out our views on the new clauses and amendments, with the exception of one that is purely a drafting amendment, and my comments on subsequent amendments will be informed by the same concern, which we should regard as the acid test. First, will anything that we do this afternoon contribute to, or detract from, the success of the peace process and the chances for normalisation in Northern Ireland? Secondlyas an essential ingredient of the answer to the first questionwill anything that we do this afternoon give the Government greater credibility with those who have to perform their obligations under the agreement and the ceasefire? Will it make our seriousness clear, particularly to Sinn Fein-IRA? Will it make it absolutely plain to Sinn Fein-IRA that we require decisive action from it, or will it remove the pressure? Will it make Sinn Fein-IRA feel that all kinds of concessions are coming their way in any case, irrespective of what they do?
The House should turn its attention to that essential second question. If hon. Members look at the matter in that way, they can reach only one conclusion: that we should withhold any concessions of a unilateral nature and make it absolutely plain to Sinn Fein-IRA that we have now reachedto use the Prime Minister's words, although, sadly, in introducing the Bill at this time he has not followed them up with action and decisionthe fork in the road. There are only two possibilities, and we must make it absolutely plain that if Sinn Fein-IRA do not go down the road of complete implementation and
Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh): First, I want to make one or two points about matters that were raised earlier in the debate. I want to put on record my personal appreciation for the way in which the Secretary of State has very courageously shown transparency in relation to this part of the Bill. It would have been so easy for him to bury it, then to pull it out of the hat at a later stage, rather than to include it for consideration by the Standing Committee. That was the right thing for him to do. It is a great pleasure for me to able to state that the Secretary of State has behaved with great honesty and transparency in relation to policing legislation. As regards the Minister of State, reference was made to the non-consideration of these matters in Standing Committee. In fairness, it was very much the expressed wish of the Chairman that we should proceed in the way that the Secretary of State indicated.
Having got that off my chest, I want briefly to make a few points. I shall not go into the detail of the Bill, because either one accepts the need for it, or one has to face a situation whereby no matter what type of safeguards are put in place, they may ultimately all be ineffective unless the central philosophy is correct. The central thesis of the Bill is the same as that on which the peace process itself was founded. The Secretary of State is right that it is necessary for people to make a declaration against terrorism, as do councillors in local government. Some may say, "So what?" and it is hard to blame them for that, but I know about the abuse that was hurled at my party colleagues on a district council when they appointed members of my party to a district policing partnership; I know about the threats that were made against those people, against their wives and families and against their homes. I want to be able to have a good, strong look straight into the eyes of some of the people who made those threats when they walk on to a district policing partnership themselves.
We should not forget that if we let people off the hook on this or any other issue, we are doing them a service. I know, because of where I live and work, that there is nothing that many would like better than the removal of the chalice of having to make a decision about DPPs and sitting on the Policing Board. I sincerely hope and trust that we as legislators will not facilitate such people. If we are to move forward, it is essential that that nettle be grasped. That will not be easy for those in Sinn Fein who want to move forward, who seriously want an end to violence and who seriously want peace, any more than it was easy for us when we had to make fundamental decisions.
Mr. Trimble: I heartily agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman is saying, particularly about the challenge that supporting policing and participating on DPPs provides for members of Sinn Fein. I understand the relish with which he would look them in the eye if and when certain events occurred, but new clause 1, which deals with independent members, is wholly separate from that matter. The matter to which the hon. Gentleman refers arises primarily with regard to the appointment of political membersthe councillors
Mr. Mallon: I very much take the right hon. Gentleman's point. He is right, but there is one thing that I have never discovered while living in the north of Ireland: an independent person. I have never discovered a person who did not have an allegiance of some kind. If we were concerned only with the appointment of independents to DPPs, we would not be having this debate. All of us know that some of the independents who will be appointed to DPPs will be members of political organisationsparamilitary organisations, or whatever they may be. That is a fact of life in Northern Ireland. Whatever our degree of rectitude, that will remain a fact of life.
In many ways, there is a remarkable selfishness about this debate. I do not criticise or imply criticism of the Speaker's selection of amendments, but I would love to be able to take an entire day to discuss amendments in my interest or in that of my party. Indeed, when one thinks of it, this issue, which is not the biggest in relation to policing and will not be, is receiving more time on the Floor of the House than was allocated to the entire Patten report. Who will be pleased about that? I could make a number of guessesone, to be exactabout who will be entirely pleased that their requirements kept the House of Commons debating for six and a half hours one day and seven hours the next day. Tactics have been mentioned. Might we consider what tactics involve? I make the point, and leave it there.
I emphasise the selfishness. We had to grapple with problems, but our priority was to try to ensure that the accountability of the policing structures was right for all the people of the north of Ireland, not just those in our party whom it might affect. The remarkable selfishness is that one key element of the requirement of the republican movement is in the interests of those who would be its members or supporters, and not in the interests of overall accountability or of good policing in the north of Ireland.
The Secretary of State is right that there is nothing new. These proposals are no shock to me or to any hon. Member. At Weston Park, assurances were given. They were given on the record and they were given off the record. Again, that is a fact of life. I shall deal with what is on the record because it is conclusive enough. Page 11 of the updated implementation plan states:
I accept those assurances. As I said, this issue was not a priority for our party. The issues our party prioritises include some of those which, if we are lucky, we will be able to debate for 10 seconds or five minutes tomorrow. However, I support the Government on this matter. I feel that I should say why. I believe that if we are
There are two ways and only two ways of achieving the Patten aims. The first is to legislate for it properly and the second is to implement it. The legislation takes place here and I hope and trust that we will implement Patten properly through legislation. The other way to implement it is through decisions that are made on the Policing Board. The more one reads the Patten report, the more one concludes that, in many ways, the real substance will be in the daily decisions that will be, and are, taken by the Policing Board to achieve Patten's objectives. To those in the republican movement who have had the luxury of not making decisions, I say this: "If you wish to have Patten, implement it. There is only one place in which you can implement it. You cannot shirk it. You cannot sit on the fence on this one. You cannot use this issue beyond the point we are at."