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Peace Process

3. David Burnside (South Antrim) (UUP): How many parties represented in the Stormont Assembly retain links with terrorist organisations; and what his latest estimate is of the terrorist threat posed by such links. [199400]

7. John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): If he will make a statement on the peace process. [199404]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Paul Murphy): Intensive dialogue on political advance between the British and Irish Governments and the Northern Ireland parties continues. We have in that context put to some of the parties the detailed proposals of the two Governments on the best way forward. We await a response.

The Independent Monitoring Commission has identified associations between the leadership of paramilitary groups, and Sinn Fein and the Progressive Unionist Party. I do not believe the links of themselves increase the threat of terrorism, but it is essential that paramilitarism itself should come to an end.

David Burnside: I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Last month a leading member of Sinn Fein was jailed for four years in the Irish Republic for spying on democratically elected politicians in the south of Ireland—an incident similar to the one that led to the closure of the Stormont Executive and the operational Assembly. The month before, in October, the police believe that the IRA-republican movement were involved in a £1 million robbery of cigarettes in south Belfast. Does the right hon. Gentleman believe that the ordinary people of Northern Ireland can tolerate republican criminals being placed in the Executive of Northern Ireland? Does he not realise that ordinary Unionists and people on the ground, irrespective of the views of some political leaders, are totally against Sinn Fein-IRA republican terrorists being in the Government of Northern Ireland?

Mr. Murphy: I think that the ordinary people of Northern Ireland would agree that we must tackle
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criminality in all its forms very robustly. I agree that people who are accused of crimes and are found guilty should be dealt with according to the law. However, I also think that the ordinary people of Northern Ireland want a future based on power sharing between nationalism and Unionism. I believe that everybody in Northern Ireland would like the restoration of their Assembly and Government and, to that end, I applaud the work of all the parties that are trying to ensure that that happens. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees that it is far better to have a Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive than direct rule.

John Barrett: What steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that the current talks include supportive parties such as the Alliance party, not just the Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Fein?

Mr. Murphy: The Good Friday agreement was made between all the parties in Northern Ireland that were at the talks, so it is important that any agreement is as inclusive as possible. Sinn Fein and the DUP are the biggest parties in their respective communities, so they have an important role to play because of their electoral mandate. The other parties, too, have an extremely important role to play, and we cannot go forward unless there is consensus among them. I met the leader of the Alliance party in recent weeks. Indeed, I met its deputy leader yesterday, and the Alliance party is meeting the Prime Minister today in Downing street.

Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh) (SDLP): The outgoing Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir John Stevens, has stated on the record that there were substantial links between Northern Ireland authorities and an illegal paramilitary organisation, and that that collusion resulted in a number of deaths, including that of Pat Finucane. Does the Secretary of State agree that the public and the family of Pat Finucane have a right to know what those links are and how long they lasted? Does he further agree that the links between the authorities and a terrorist organisation can be properly established only by a fully independent tribunal that deliberates in public and has no restrictions placed on its findings?

Mr. Murphy: My hon. Friend is right that everybody in Northern Ireland wants to find out the truth and what happened. I agree, too, that the only way to do so is through a genuinely independent tribunal that looks at the issues. He knows, of course, that when Judge Cory looked at those issues and at whether the tribunal should meet in public or in private, he said that as far as possible it should do so in public but that, inevitably, because of issues of national security, it would not always be possible. My hon. Friend also knows that the inquiries Bill will soon come before the House, so he will be able to scrutinise that measure and make his points. I agree absolutely that we must find the truth and that there is no excuse whatsoever for collusion.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): Does the Secretary of State accept that Sinn Fein must get rid of all the weapons of terrorism in a credible, verifiable and transparent way and that there must be a complete end to the criminal and other activity that occurs daily?
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Otherwise, democrats in Northern Ireland must move on without Sinn Fein, and will there be a Government commitment to that effect?

Mr. Murphy: It is not just the Government who committed themselves—the Good Friday agreement itself said that the only way forward in Northern Ireland was through non-violent and peaceful means. Clearly, decommissioning is an important part of that. We have just had exchanges across the Floor about how that should happen, and I agree not only that decommissioning must be final, full and transparent but that everybody must have confidence in the way in which it is carried out. He is also right that there must be an end to paramilitary activity by all sides in Northern Ireland. Until we get there, we will never have a properly democratic society. He also knows, because he has been involved in recent negotiations, that those important issues are currently being discussed. I sincerely hope that in the days ahead we will resolve those difficulties and secure an agreement that will ensure that we have an Assembly and an Executive in Northern Ireland very soon.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): Does the Secretary of State share my sense of exasperation that 10 years after the first ceasefires were agreed, parties linked to paramilitary organisations are still able to impose political control on certain areas by resorting to violence, intimidation and crime? Must we not insist that, to get terrorism out of politics altogether, we must see the end of paramilitary structures and organisations so that people everywhere in Northern Ireland and from all parties look to the police and the courts, not to the paramilitaries, to enforce the law and see justice done?

Mr. Murphy: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right in everything he says. He can rest assured that those principles lie at the heart of the current discussions and negotiations between the parties and the Governments. I sincerely hope, as I have just said, that the discussions will be fruitful and that we will resolve those issues.

Mr. Lidington: I thank the Secretary of State for that assurance. Will he bear in mind in the negotiations people's fears, particularly in areas such as South Armagh and parts of Fermanagh, that a reduction in the number of soldiers and the removal of watchtowers might expose them to the sort of terrorist threat that is still alive in those areas and from which their families have suffered for many years? Will the Secretary of State make it clear that the Government will place the security interests and the defence of the people of Northern Ireland ahead of any need for political gestures to republican parties?

Mr. Murphy: It is not about political gestures. If there is normalisation in Northern Ireland, which again is part of the Belfast agreement, it has to be based on a genuine move by paramilitaries. Normalisation features prominently in the current discussions. I agree that people's security should be uppermost in any Government's mind, but if we have an agreement—if there is movement in the way that we want it to happen—we want a normal society in Northern Ireland, whether in South Armagh or any other part of the province.
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Religious Bigotry

4. Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): What steps he has taken to combat religious bigotry in schools. [199401]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Barry Gardiner): Let me make it clear that there is no place for intolerance in schools, and schools in Northern Ireland have been in the forefront of tackling the issue. I condemn any form of prejudice in society and commend the efforts made by schools and teachers to help overcome it—for example, through integrated education and elements of the curriculum such as education for mutual understanding, cultural heritage, religious education and, in the future, the citizenship programme that will be coming into our curriculum.

Mr. Allen: The Minister will be aware that the Secretary of State for Education and Skills has issued guidance to schools in the UK that they should offer a broad-based education in religious and other life-value systems so that youngsters get a broad idea of different views. Does that apply in Northern Ireland, the place where it is probably most needed? If not, what other steps does the Minister propose to ensure that youngsters from both communities can receive an inoculation against the religious bigotry that infests their communities?

Mr. Gardiner: We already have in schools in Northern Ireland cross-curricular themes such as education for mutual understanding and cultural heritage, which are doing tremendous work in bringing children together and helping them to cope with the different traditions that exist there. From September 2006, the revised curriculum, which I have accepted, will bring citizenship in as a compulsory element at key stages 3 and 4. That will include topics such as diversity, inclusion, equality and human rights. My hon. Friend will be well aware of the number of integrated schools in Northern Ireland, which are also doing tremendous work. They have a combined enrolment of 16,000 pupils already. Much good work is going on in the denominational schools as well to ensure that children cope with the pressures in society.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): Has the Minister read the report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which says that the unavailability of unsegregated education might raise education rights issues? The Government say that they are in favour of choice. In the light of the overwhelming demand and substantial under-provision, will the Minister make a commitment that every parent who wants to send their child to an integrated school will have that opportunity in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Gardiner: The hon. Gentleman knows that the Government are obliged not to promote any particular form of education, but to encourage and facilitate any form of education in accordance with the wishes of parents. He also knows that different schools will place pressure upon the rolls of other schools at a time of changing demography. The Department of Education
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in Northern Ireland has to balance those issues to allow all parents to ensure that their children get the education that they deserve.

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