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Mr. Straw: I think that the United States Government are very well aware of the strength of feeling across the United Kingdom and across this House. I believe that that is one of the factors that have led to the release of these men.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): Bearing it in mind that there will be times in the future, as in the past, when it will be necessary for the greater safety of the greater number to detain people, should not we concentrate on the conditions of detention; and is not that the thing that we most deplore?

Mr. Straw: We have to concentrate both on the circumstances and legality of detention, but certainly on the conditions of detention where it is lawful.

Mr. Roger Godsiff (Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath) (Lab): I welcome the fact that my constituent, Moazzam Begg, is now being returned to his family after three years of incarceration and that the Foreign Secretary says that due process of law will now prevail. However, mindful of the fact that the five detainees who previously came back have not been charged, if no charges are laid against the four people who are returning, including Mr. Begg, how will he find out what the basis of his detainment was; and how will he be able to clear his name, or will he for ever be viewed as a potential international terrorist?

Mr. Straw: My hon. Friend's question prompts in turn several questions that I cannot answer at the moment. Our process is, by definition, different from that of the United States: that is one of the reasons why we objected to the circumstances of the detentions. All I can say, as I have said repeatedly to the House and to my hon. Friend—I am grateful to him for his thanks—is that we will actively consider any representations that are made to us.
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Northern Ireland

1.48 pm

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

As the House will be aware, a major robbery took place at the Northern bank in Belfast just before Christmas. At the end of last week, the Chief Constable of Northern Ireland indicated that in his professional opinion responsibility for the robbery should be attributed to the Provisional IRA. He also made the point that quite apart from the massive scale of the robbery—more than £26 million—it was in no sense a victimless crime. Two families were kidnapped and threatened with death if they did not co-operate with the criminals. In the case of one of the families, the gang, masquerading as police officers, tricked their way into the house by claiming that a family member had been killed in a car accident. Once inside, they donned masks, produced guns and threatened the family. One of the hostages was later taken to an isolated forest where her car was burned and she was abandoned in the snow. She was forced to struggle in severe weather and in darkness across country to seek assistance in a highly distressed state and suffering from hypothermia. I want to reiterate my utter condemnation of those who planned and carried out that appalling crime.

The Chief Constable's public remarks were necessarily constrained by the ongoing investigation. He has briefed me fully on the background which led him to make the statement that he made. I have no doubt that the Chief Constable's opinion is well founded. He did not rush to judgment. The Police Service of Northern Ireland thought initially that five groups could have been responsible for the robbery. Only when a great deal of evidence had been sifted did the Chief Constable make his statement. He is a man of the highest calibre and integrity, leading a professional team of officers acting entirely independently and objectively in pursuit of the criminals concerned. The Irish Government have also made their views on that aspect of the matter entirely clear. There will of course be a further dispassionate assessment of the position when the Independent Monitoring Commission makes its next report. I shall discuss with the Irish Government the time scale in which that report should be made.

On the immediate follow-up to the robbery, I welcome the announcement by the Northern bank of its intention to withdraw from circulation its current bank notes and replace them with notes of a different design and colour. That decision will reduce materially the value of the robbery to the perpetrators and we will discuss with the bank how best to publicise the detailed arrangements.

Since the Chief Constable's statement, there has been much comment about the impact of the developments on the political process in Northern Ireland. I cannot hide my own judgment that it is deeply damaging.

On 9 December, I came to the House to report on the proposals by the British and Irish Governments for a comprehensive agreement, which had been published the previous day. They represented a series of statements that would have been made if there had been an overall agreement at that stage. They included a statement to
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the effect that paramilitary activity by the Provisional IRA would cease immediately and definitively. There was also a statement, to which the Democratic Unionist party was committed, that after a period during which the good faith of the Provisional IRA's commitments had been demonstrated, an inclusive power-sharing Executive would be re-established in March this year. I need hardly remind hon. Members that that would have been nearly two and a half years after the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland were suspended.

In the event, an outstanding issue, in relation to the transparency of the decommissioning process, could not be resolved. However, as I said to the House in December, we had made significant and substantial progress, not least in rebuilding the trust and confidence that is the essential requirement of a stable, inclusive, cross-community, devolved Administration in Northern Ireland.

Today, I deeply regret that that progress has been put in jeopardy. I cannot forecast with certainty when it will prove possible to re-establish an inclusive power-sharing Executive, which the Government continue to believe provides the best long-term guarantee of peace and stability. We shall not abandon our commitment to that ultimate goal.

We are in no doubt, however, that it can be achieved only if the Provisional IRA gives up not only terrorism but all the other forms of criminality in which it is implicated. Unionists in Northern Ireland have made clear that if those tests are met, they will work with Sinn Fein in a power-sharing Executive. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said repeatedly, it is entirely reasonable for Unionists to withhold their co-operation until those tests are met. We have consistently made it clear that, if a political settlement is to be achieved, any illegal activity has to come to an end. The documents published before Christmas were unambiguous on that point.

Let me reiterate to the House that the Government will not promote a political settlement in which a party inextricably linked to an organisation that has carried out major criminal acts can assume responsibilities again in a devolved Administration. Nor could it take on the further responsibilities implied by the devolution of justice and policing while criminal activity of the kind we have just seen, and the capacity to plan and undertake such activity, continues to exist. It would be ludicrous for anyone to suggest that the people of Northern Ireland, from whatever background, voted for a political settlement on that basis in the referendum in 1998.

Against that background, it is clear to me that decisions and responses on that are now needed from Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA. The comments from the Irish Government in recent days indicate that they share that view.

Without the required responses from Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA, I cannot see how we can reinvigorate the political talks that must precede a comprehensive settlement. Without those responses, the Governments and, indeed, the House, will need to consider how best in the changed circumstances to bring pressure to bear on the republican movement to complete the transition to exclusively peaceful and democratic means, including any penalties that might be applied to Sinn Fein.
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I spoke to the Irish Foreign Minister on Friday and will meet him when he returns from a visit to the tsunami-stricken areas of Asia. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will meet the Taoiseach towards the end of the month. In the meantime, I expect to talk to the Northern Ireland parties over the next two weeks with a view to hearing first hand their assessments of the current position and their views on several difficult questions that now face us, including, for example, the appropriateness of continuing to pay the salaries and allowances of the individuals elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly in November 2003 and our proposed way forward on the regulation of donations to political parties in Northern Ireland.

I cannot disguise my deep disappointment at what has happened, but my disappointment is as nothing compared with that of the people of Northern Ireland. They deserve better, given the progress in so many areas of their lives in recent years. The Government, continuing to work in close partnership with the Irish Government, will do everything they can to ensure that that progress is not lost and that we can continue to move forward as soon as possible to a comprehensive political settlement. In the meantime, my colleagues and I will continue to apply ourselves to governing Northern Ireland as effectively as possible in the absence of a devolved Administration.

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