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House of Commons

Wednesday 14 January 2004

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


London Local Authorities Bill [Lords].

Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [7 January],

Debate to be resumed on Wednesday 21 January.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Sinn Fein Election Campaigns

1. David Burnside (South Antrim) (UUP): What discussions he has had with the Government of the Irish Republic on police investigations into whether the Provisional IRA is raising money through criminal activities to fund Sinn Fein's election campaigns. [146806]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Jane Kennedy): I am aware that concerns have been expressed in the Republic of Ireland. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the two Governments regularly discuss combating the criminal activities of paramilitary organisations. Indeed, PIRA involvement in organised

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crime is well documented. There have been recent criminal operations, and the Police Service of Northern Ireland advises me that it suspects that those involved have direct links to the Provisional IRA.

David Burnside : This is a very serious matter, which I have already brought to the attention of your office, Mr. Speaker, and the Minister's answer is, frankly, unsatisfactory. IRA tax scams help to fund Sinn Fein. Garda detectives raid homes over a massive construction industry fraud operated by republicans. The Minister is aware that the president of Sinn Fein, Gerry Adams, and the chief negotiator, Martin McGuinness, sit on the army council. The army council is funding a British political party operating in the United Kingdom. The answer is most unsatisfactory. What is the Minister going to do to ensure that political parties masquerading as democratic parties are brought to account and that they are not allowed to be funded by illegal activities, whether terrorist or criminal? The Minister knows all the activities. The Minister should do something and take on Sinn Fein, which is not a democratic party.

Jane Kennedy: The hon. Gentleman is within his rights to urge that we do more, and we are not complacent. However, it is a matter for the Chief Constable to pursue the criminal activities of all paramilitary organisations. Any financial association between PIRA and Sinn Fein is a matter for the Chief Constable in the first instance. There is no doubt that a complete range of individuals with paramilitary links is involved in organised crime—both loyalist and republican—and the Government will respond with vigour to any criminal activity perpetrated by armed groups. No form of criminal activity will be deemed acceptable or condoned in any way. The hon. Gentleman is right: it is still the Government's view that the links between Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA are very strong. They are two sides of the same coin, inextricably linked.

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of illegal fundraising through racketeering, especially in the ethnic minority groups in Northern Ireland, for loyalist terrorist organisations?

Jane Kennedy: We obviously look into the activities of paramilitary organisations very closely. That is precisely the role of the Organised Crime Task Force, to ensure that the response of the law enforcement agencies to such criminality is as robust as it possibly can be and as effective as we can possibly make it.

Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): The hon. Member for South Antrim (David Burnside) is right. The Minister's response is inadequate, because those allegations come not from myself or the hon. Gentleman, but from the Irish Justice Minister. They come also from the leader of Fine Gael and from the leader of Fianna Fáil in the Irish Government. They are all saying that Sinn Fein-IRA are unfit to be in the Government in the Irish Republic. Other Members have

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had experience of Sinn Fein in the Government in Northern Ireland. Does the Minister understand clearly that the vast majority of Unionists in Northern Ireland will not warrant a political party being in the Government in Northern Ireland while it is continuing to engage in that kind of criminal and paramilitary activity?

Jane Kennedy: I hear the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. I am aware of the concerns that have been expressed in the Republic of Ireland. The Republic of Ireland Government and the British Government work very closely to combat the activities of paramilitary organisations—in particular, the criminal activities in which they are engaged. We will continue to take that work forward. I note the comments that he has made about the stance of the political party of which he is now a member.

Mrs. Jackie Lawrence (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the link between criminal activity and fundraising for political parties is wrong in principle for any party and that all parties should work together towards an end to paramilitary and criminal activity, whether republican or loyalist?

Jane Kennedy: Yes I would. I am more than happy to endorse those comments. We are aware that this whole area of work needs to be kept constantly under review. Such activity is quite beyond the remit of the Belfast agreement. There is no place in a democratic society for criminal activity of that order. All paramilitary organisations are engaged in it, and it is the Government's intention to enable the law enforcement agencies, both in the north of Ireland and engaging with those in the Republic of Ireland, to ensure that such criminal activity is brought to an end in so far as we are able to achieve that.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): Does the Minister recall the Prime Minister's very clear article in the Belfast News Letter and The Irish News at the time of the Belfast agreement on 22 May 1998? He said:

and these are key words—

When can the people of Northern Ireland, whose lives are blighted by these things, expect the Prime Minister's words to be turned into real action?

Jane Kennedy: The hon. Gentleman is right and we stand by the comments that he quotes. The Provisional IRA is a proscribed, illegal paramilitary organisation, and our position on that is quite unequivocal. There must be an end to all paramilitary activity from whatever source—republican or loyalist.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West) (Lab): Is it the Minister's policy that the standards of funding for

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political parties in Northern Ireland should have the same clarity and transparency as those for parties in the rest of the United Kingdom? If so, what can she do to improve the clarity and transparency of funding for all parties in Northern Ireland?

Jane Kennedy: The Government are currently reviewing the order under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr. Spellar), will make a parliamentary announcement shortly on the conclusions of the review.

Peace Process

2. Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): If he will make a statement on the peace process. [146807]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Paul Murphy): It remains our objective to secure the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland on a stable and secure footing. We will be talking to the parties in the coming weeks about how this can be achieved, and we shall be presenting proposals, jointly with the Irish Government, on how the review of the operation of the Belfast agreement will be taken forward. It remains our view that the agreement is the political framework that is capable of securing the support of both communities in Northern Ireland, and we are committed to its implementation.

Mr. Carmichael : I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, and especially welcome his comments on the review, which, as we now know, is well overdue from any view of the agreement. When the review takes place, will he give particular priority to the question of designations, which Liberal Democrats believe have operated to institutionalise sectarianism? They have outlived any usefulness that they ever had, so surely they have now got to go.

Mr. Murphy: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's comments about the review because that is a crucial part of the agreement. The political parties in Northern Ireland have written to the Irish Foreign Minister and to me about how they envisage the structure of the review and what it should cover. Part of that includes the point that he made—the Alliance party especially referred to designation. We hope that the review will start in a couple of weeks. It is now just a matter of setting an appropriate date—although I talk to parties in the meantime, and we will examine that and other issues. It is for the parties, with the Governments, to consider them seriously.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will recall that the Weston Park agreement was part of the ongoing peace process. Arising out of that came the decision to establish the Cory tribunal to look at disputed killings. The Irish Government have published their part of the report, so when will the British Government publish theirs? Are we right in

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suspecting that although the security forces have seen over the deletion of sensitive information, the British Government, through the Ministry of Defence and the Northern Ireland Office, are seeking to edit further the judge's report?

Mr. Murphy: My hon. Friend is right about the history of the Cory report and investigation and to point out that the Irish Government have published the two reports with which they were connected. I point out to him and the House that the British Government have to consider four, not two, reports. They are more complex and detailed and longer than those with which the Irish Government had to deal. Moreover, we are not yet in a position to publish—although we will, of course, as soon as possible—because of legal advice. We must consider the rights and safety of individuals.

We have to deal with national security issues, which my hon. Friend touched on, and we have to pay attention to articles 2 and 6 of the European convention on human rights, which deal with the right to life and effective investigations. I can assure my hon. Friend that as soon as we have followed that legal advice we will publish the reports.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann) (UUP): I refer the Secretary of State to the comments that have just been made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (David Burnside) and remind him that it was because of the continuing criminal activity of Sinn Fein and its republican allies that the Assembly at Stormont was suspended in October 2002. That crisis has not yet been resolved; indeed, its resolution is the primary problem that we face in Northern Ireland. Any review, which I agree is long overdue, should focus on that primary issue.

Mr. Murphy: I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the matters to which he refers were the reasons for suspending the Assembly in 2002. I know that he and his colleagues were doing their best to try to deal with those issues before the elections in Northern Ireland were called last year. As he, more than anybody else, knows, that did not work as we wanted it to, and it will be a crucial part of the discussions in the review.

Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh) (SDLP): The Secretary of State will know that in any political or peace process it is essential that those involved in negotiations keep their word. Does he agree that while others are breaking their word, especially Sinn Fein on the use of violence and the continuation of paramilitary activity, it would be absolutely wrong for either Government to renege on their commitments? Will he give an absolute commitment to the House now that that which was negotiated and agreed at Weston Park about Judge Cory will be published and acted on immediately, so that neither Government can be accused of breaking their word on the issue?

Mr. Murphy: My hon. Friend is aware that the Prime Minister and the Government have made clear the position on Cory; the Prime Minister did that before Christmas. Until we publish those reports we cannot,

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obviously, deal with their details. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara), we will publish those reports as soon as we can.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): In wishing the Secretary of State well in the forthcoming talks with the political parties, may I ask him whether he expects the Independent Monitoring Commission to be in a position to report to him by the end of the review process as to the possible links between paramilitary activity, breaches of the agreement and political parties in Northern Ireland, and whether he believes that the Government may be in a position at that stage to take account of such evidence? Will he also bear in mind the possible consequences for the terms under which the devolved institutions might be restored?

Mr. Murphy: The hon. Gentleman is right to stress the importance of the Independent Monitoring Commission because it is crucial to the success of the peace process and, indeed, of the review. The commission has now started its work; the legislation has been passed both here and in the Irish Parliament. Obviously, I hope that it will report at about the time that the review ends, but as we have not given a deadline for either I cannot be more precise than that.

Mr. Lidington: I share the Secretary of State's view that we must respect the democratic mandate of all parties that have received popular support in Northern Ireland, but does he agree that parties that expect to participate in the government of part of this country need to bear it in mind that to have access to a private army, to maintain stocks of weapons and to be linked to punishment beatings and other paramilitary activity falls a long way short of the commitment to exclusively democratic and peaceful means that lay at the heart of the Belfast agreement?

Mr. Murphy: The hon. Gentleman—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. There is far too much conversation on the Government Benches. Hon. Members should not be in conversation. It is far too loud.

Mr. Murphy: The hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) is right to stress the importance of a peaceful, non-violent and democratic society in Northern Ireland. That is at the heart of the Good Friday agreement. He is also right to join the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) in stressing the fact that those issues will be crucial in the months ahead and in the review.

Mr. Peter Mandelson (Hartlepool) (Lab): An important part of the peace process is the reform of the police, which is going ahead with remarkable success, despite the isolated boycott by Sinn Fein. The reform includes the phasing out of the full-time reserve. Will my right hon. Friend comment on the implementation of that, given the pressure on overall police numbers and capability in Northern Ireland? Where individuals are leaving the full-time reserve and are in need of retraining, is that retraining made available? If they wish

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to apply their skills to other areas—Iraq comes to mind—are their pensions and severance terms properly protected?

Mr. Murphy: My right hon. Friend is right to stress the importance of policing to the success of the peace process and the agreement. Retraining will be available to full-time reservists. My right hon. Friend is aware that the methods by which that is addressed is a matter for the Policing Board and is subject to the Chief Constable's views as to the security situation, but in general I believe that that part of the policing reform is going well.

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