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House of Commons

Wednesday 1 December 2004

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. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): If he will make a statement on progress by participants in the Belfast agreement in using their influence to achieve the decommissioning of all paramilitary arms. [199398]

6. Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): If he will make a statement on arms decommissioning. [199403]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Ian Pearson): It is essential, as the Prime Minister, Taoiseach and others have made clear, that all aspects of paramilitarism are put behind us in Northern Ireland. The decommissioning of paramilitary arms is an essential part of that objective and at the heart of our dialogue with the Northern Ireland political parties. I am happy to note that the Ulster Defence Association has engaged with the Decommissioning Commission.

There have been four acts of decommissioning to date, the latest of which occurred on 21 October 2003, when the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning reported that it had witnessed a third event in which IRA weapons were put beyond use.

Mr. Robathan: The Minister will have recognised the direct quote from the Belfast agreement. He will know perfectly well that, according to the agreement, "total disarmament" was expected by 22 May 2000—four and a half years ago. When will he stop listening to the lies of Sinn Fein—[Interruption.] Does anybody doubt that they are lies? The lies are inextricably linked to the IRA. Sinn Fein promised total disarmament six and a half years ago. When will he hold Sinn Fein and the IRA to account?

Mr. Pearson: I have no problem in agreeing that Sinn Fein and the IRA are inextricably linked, but the hon. Gentleman's comments are not helpful at this delicate stage of the talks process, and it would be inappropriate to comment further.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: We are, I hope, on the eve of an historic agreement between the parties in Northern
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Ireland, a critical part of which is the decommissioning process. Does the Minister agree that if all parties wish to participate in the democratic process, they must accept that the armed struggle is over and that we should have a clear and verifiable path to decommissioning? In saying that, we focus on the IRA and its associates, but should we not also focus on the decommissioning of loyalist paramilitaries?

Mr. Pearson: I agree. To use a rugby analogy, we are going up the pitch and are camped out on the 5 yd line. We are tantalising close to achieving what I believe will be a long-lasting peace settlement in Northern Ireland. The hon. Gentleman is right to point to the fact that all paramilitary organisations, both republican and loyalist, must decommission and give up the path of violence completely. That is why I am very pleased that the UDA has decided to engage with the Decommissioning Commission. We as a Government will continue to exert any influence we can on all paramilitary organisations to decommission.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East) (DUP): I support the Minister's views on loyalist paramilitaries and the need for them to follow any initiative that might be taken by the Provisional IRA. Although he may not have found our comments helpful, they do, none the less, reflect a sincerely held degree of scepticism in Northern Ireland about the behaviour of the Provisional IRA. Therefore, any act of decommissioning must be not only conclusive and verifiable, but transparent in a way that has a visual aspect, so that the day afterwards no one in the House or outside has any doubt that the event occurred.

Mr. Pearson: Again, I am happy to agree. Public confidence in the decommissioning process is important. I recognise that greater transparency is required if both sides of the community are to be satisfied, and, as the hon. Gentleman will be aware, that is under detailed discussion.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann) (UUP): May I, first, endorse entirely the final words of the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) about decommissioning? What he describes is simply the complete implementation of the Belfast agreement.

General de Chastelain and his colleagues on the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning have no obligation under the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997 or the scheme made under that Act to keep the details of decommissioning secret. Will he urge the general to publish details of what has happened and what may happen, without worrying too much about the views of the paramilitaries concerned?

Mr. Pearson: I note the right hon. Gentleman's comments. The scheme and the regulations allow for confidentiality at the request of participants. I reaffirm the Government's confidence in the integrity and the abilities of General John de Chastelain. We recognise as a Government that public confidence in decommissioning is important. Discussions are ongoing and it would not be appropriate for me to comment further.
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Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down) (SDLP): So far, the Minister has referred mainly to paramilitary arms. Does that indicate a change of opinion from the one expressed in the joint declaration, which stated that all paramilitary structures and other activities—criminal activities and so on—are covered by the term "decommissioning"?

How does the Minister respond to the fact that, although the Northern Ireland Office welcomed the UDA ceasefire some weeks ago, yesterday five UDA members were charged with conspiracy to kidnap? People with whom he has been negotiating were in court cheering on those who were accused of paramilitary and illegal activity. Does not that tell us what the people of Northern Ireland will think of both types of paramilitary organisation and their so-called decommissioning, not only of weapons, but of criminal and intimidating activity?

Mr. Pearson: My hon. Friend is right to point out that decommissioning is only one element—albeit an important one—of the process of removing violence permanently from politics in Northern Ireland, which is what we all want.

As for the UDA, I do not wish to comment on a matter that is before the courts, but I will say that I welcome the arrests that the police have made. Paramilitary organisations must recognise that neither the Government nor the people of Northern Ireland will tolerate the crimes that they commit being treated any differently from ordinary crimes. The Secretary of State has made it clear in talks with the Ulster Political Research Group that that remains the Government's position. We have said before that we will judge the UDA on its actions, not on its words, and we will continue to do so.

On a more positive note, there are early signs of a decrease in paramilitary assaults since the UDA's statement. I welcome that.

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con): This is really a question for the Secretary of State, but he is curiously silent this morning, so I shall address it to the Under-Secretary. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that until there is verifiable and transparent decommissioning of all arms and paramilitary infrastructures, it would be most unwise to dismantle the existing security and military infrastructures in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Pearson: We are only on Question 1, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend will speak at some point. As for the hon. Gentleman's substantive point, the Chief Constable and the General Office Commanding keep the security situation under continuous review and ensure that we have the resources required to meet the threat assessed.

Cross-Border Trade

2. Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): What effect the recent depreciation of sterling against the euro has had on cross-border trade with the Republic of Ireland. [199399]
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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Barry Gardiner): The exchange rate between sterling and the euro has been relatively stable in recent years. Between June and October 2004, sterling depreciated by 3 per cent against the euro. Given that the depreciation is very recent, it is not expected to have had a significant impact on cross-border trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Hugh Bayley: The growth in trade and investment and the record number of jobs in Northern Ireland that have come from that are among the real benefits to have emerged from the peace process. Does the Minister recognise that political certainty creates the right climate for investment and that the restoration of devolved government would create that certainty and therefore encourage further prosperity in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Gardiner: My hon. Friend is correct. The stability brought about by the Good Friday agreement has resulted in a staggering increase in foreign direct investment in Northern Ireland in the past two years—a total of about £1 billion, in fact. Major world companies, including Northbrook Technology, HCL and Citigroup, have decided to locate in Northern Ireland. They have helped to create 60,000 new jobs in the past five years, and the unemployment rate has fallen from 5.7 per cent. to 5.1 per cent. and then to 4.7 per cent. There has been a staggering improvement in the Province's economy.

There has been a 90 per cent. increase in the number of tourists visiting Northern Ireland. Tourists see it as a destination that is safe and good to visit.

Those are all benefits of stability. The hon. Gentleman is right that the restoration of the devolved Assembly would be a tremendous signal to investors and tourists that Northern Ireland is on track and is a place to do business.

Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): Speaking of jobs, I hope that the Minister will welcome the prospect of 1,000 new jobs at the proposed John Lewis department store in Sprucefield, which will have the benefit of attracting cross-border trade. Does the Minister recognise that we are competing with Dublin for this project and that Departments in Northern Ireland must make every effort to secure this investment for the Province?

Mr. Gardiner: Yes. The hon. Gentleman will know that a planning application has been made and that it would not, therefore, be right for me to comment on it, although I understand that it is being dealt with as expeditiously as possible. The hon. Gentleman is right about large companies locating in Northern Ireland: they bring with them jobs and prosperity, which is what we want. Business is confident that it can invest in Northern Ireland and make money. I have in mind the companies that I have visited recently, such as Andor Technology, a home-grown company, and Montupet and Michelin. It is clear that companies see Northern Ireland as a very good place to locate and do business in the single market in Europe.
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Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley) (Lab/Co-op): Is the Minister aware that when I was in Derry recently the euro was readily accepted in shops, hotels and taxis, and that Northern Ireland is in the vanguard of acceptance of the euro? Is it not about time that the Government met the five tests and that we get into the euro as quickly as possible?

Mr. Gardiner: My right hon. Friend will appreciate that the five tests are beyond my ministerial portfolio. He is right to highlight the fact that in Derry and other parts of Northern Ireland it is extremely important that we offer tourists what they want, part of which is being able to do business in euros—people expect that when they come from Europe. Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom that shares a land border with the eurozone, so it is doubly important that such a facility is available. That shows, once again, the strides that tourism is making in Northern Ireland to meet customers' needs.

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