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Northern Ireland

3.32 pm

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Paul Murphy): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement.

I announced on Friday 12 November my intention to despecify the Ulster Defence Association, incorporating the Ulster Freedom Fighters. I signalled my intention to lay an order before this House to give effect to that decision, and today I have taken the earliest opportunity to do so. The House will also be aware of the statement made yesterday by the Ulster Political Research Group on behalf of the UDA. I welcome that development, which is positive, and will say more about the detail in a few moments.

First, I want to explain my actions in terms of despecifying the UDA. I have reviewed the status of all specified and other paramilitary organisations, as I am obliged to do under legislation, and concluded that there are sufficient grounds to despecify the UDA-UFF. For some time now, there has been contact between my officials and its political representatives, whom I, too, have recently met. I view that as part of an overall strategy to bring final closure to the problems that have hindered progress in Northern Ireland and to set in place an inclusive future for all, based on an enduring political settlement.

The UPRG announced a 12-month period of "military inactivity" by the UDA-UFF, known as the Gregg initiative, on 23 February 2003, and it announced an "indefinite extension" of that initiative on 24 February this year. I have taken advice from the Chief Constable and others and, as I am obliged to do under the terms of the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998, I have reviewed the status of all specified and other paramilitary organisations. It is my judgment, made in the round and having regard to the 1998 Act and other relevant issues, that the UDA ceasefire is now holding and is genuine.

I appreciate that some may question this decision in the light of negative comments in recent Independent Monitoring Commission reports. I have carefully studied both relevant IMC reports and support the strong language directed against a range of paramilitary organisations, but it is clear that UDA activity decreased between the first and second relevant reports, and other material provided to me endorses that view.

I am persuaded by the advice I have received that it is appropriate to despecify the organisation, but I have taken the decision cautiously and prudently, considering the full consequences of my actions and the effect on others, especially victims. I am only too conscious of the impact on victims of violence and the terrible consequences of both sectarianism and feuding within communities. I reassure victims that this Government have not forgotten their suffering and that we will continue to support and to work with them.

There is, however, now an opportunity to move forward. The statement made yesterday by the UDA contained a number of important undertakings. First, there is its commitment to work towards the day when, to use its own words, there will no longer be a need for the UDA or the UFF; its reaffirmation that the UDA
 
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will desist from all military activity and its declaration that the organisation's strategy will focus on community development, job creation, social inclusion and community politics. Secondly, there is its agreement to enter into a process with the Government that will see the eradication of all paramilitary activity. Thirdly, there is confirmation that it will re-engage with the Decommissioning Commission, and indeed I understand that that has already begun.

Those undertakings, which are commitments, not aspirations, are positive. The Government agree with the UPRG when it says that the loyalist community's enemies are issues such as poverty, social deprivation, drugs and crime, and we will work energetically with them and others to tackle those problems. The other issue is to end paramilitarism, and we will be discussing equally urgently with them how that is to be achieved.

The UDA says that it wants lasting peace and that it can prove to the people of Northern Ireland that it can change. I believe that it should be given the opportunity to do so.However, the Government have always made it clear that we would judge paramilitary organisations by their deeds, but also, of course, by their words, so I shall be watching the UDA's actions very carefully over the coming weeks to ensure that it lives up to the commitments that it has made. The UDA remains a proscribed organisation and the police will pursue relentlessly any criminal activity undertaken by its members or those of any other group.

In coming to a final judgment on this matter, I would wish to acknowledge the work that has been done in terms of political leadership by the UPRG. I also want to recognise the contribution that members of other political parties have made to creating the conditions in which loyalism can take these important steps. I take this opportunity to call on other groups engaged in violent activity to take similar steps.

I know that the House will agree that the time has long since passed for all paramilitary groups, loyalist and republican, to cease their activities once and for all and to decommission the weapons that have brought so much suffering to the people of Northern Ireland. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said in Belfast in 2002, the Government want to see all paramilitary groups complete the transition from violence to exclusively peaceful means. I believe that yesterday's announcement by the UDA, together with the political dialogue that is currently taking place with other interested parties, constitutes a significant step towards achieving that goal—a goal that unites every Member of the House and every decent person in Northern Ireland.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): I thank the Secretary of State both for his statement and for his customary courtesy in giving me early knowledge of its contents.

Yesterday's words by the Ulster Political Research Group were welcome, but they need to be matched by action that is both swift and consistent with the pledges that were apparently given yesterday. Less than a fortnight ago, the Independent Monitoring Commission reported that, in the six months between March and August this year, the UDA was responsible for shootings, assaults and at least one vicious sectarian attack on Roman Catholics.
 
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The IMC concluded in its most recent report that the UDA

All this at a time when UDA leaders were reiterating their commitment to the cessation of military activities, which they first announced 10 years ago. That discrepancy between words and conduct in the past is in itself good reason for caution, and so too was the wicked attack last night on an SDLP councillor in Larne—an attack which the victim's family have blamed specifically on the UDA.

I have a few questions for the Secretary of State. First, the UDA has now committed itself to the eradication of all paramilitary activity. Does he agree that that must include an end not only to shootings and assaults, but to the organised crime that has enabled the UDA to impose what can only be described as a mafia-style terror on loyalist communities? What assurances has he been given that the drug dealing, racketeering, exiling and intimidation will now stop?

Secondly, the Secretary of State said that the UDA had agreed to engage with General de Chastelain's commission. Do the Government believe that it has now accepted that it will have to decommission all the weapons and explosives that it currently holds? Will he also take the opportunity to deny the claims made in some of yesterday's media that the Government have secretly agreed that terrorists should be allowed to keep hold of small arms rather than decommissioning them? I hope that he will agree that such a concession would be an insult to the courage of democrats, whether nationalist or Unionist, who serve on the Policing Board and on local partnerships and have to put up daily with intimidation from the paramilitaries.

Thirdly, I welcome the indications that the Secretary of State reported that people who previously supported the UDA intend in future to commit themselves to democratic politics and to working to attract the new investment and jobs that are sorely needed in loyalist areas, but I hope that he can also assure the House that the Government will have no truck with any suggestion that a paramilitary or former paramilitary organisation could in some way become the intermediary between the agencies of Government and the people of those areas. People who have been members of the UDA need to put that past behind them. Will he confirm that if the UDA fails to deliver on its promises, he will have no hesitation in putting it back on the specified list?

The Secretary of State referred to there being no let-up in work by the police to track down and bring to justice people who are responsible for crimes, and I welcome that assurance, but can he also make it clear that there will be no soft-pedalling in the work of the police or the Assets Recovery Agency in pursuing the UDA or other godfathers who have amassed vast fortunes on the back of crime and terror?

Finally, there will be speculation in Northern Ireland that these announcements are part of a sequence designed to bring about the restoration of the political institutions at Stormont. That is an objective that I certainly share, but I hope that the Secretary of State
 
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will confirm that, in seeking that objective of restoring devolution, there can no longer be any room for fudge or ambiguity, and that nobody, and above all the paramilitary organisations, must be in any doubt about what they now have to do, and that their talk must now be matched with action.


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