19 Jan 2005 : Column 795

House of Commons

Wednesday 19 January 2005

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Devolved Government

1. Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South) (UUP): If he will make a statement on the political process towards re-establishment of devolved government in Northern Ireland. [208434]

4. Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): If he will make a statement on the restoration of devolved government. [208437]

5. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): What assessment he has made of the implications for the peace process of the recent theft from the headquarters of Northern Bank in Belfast. [208438]

6. Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): What plans he has to convene talks between political parties on a political settlement in Northern Ireland. [208439]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Paul Murphy): As I said in my statement to the House last Tuesday, I deeply regret the fact that progress towards the re-establishment of devolved government in Northern Ireland has been put in jeopardy by the Northern bank raid.

I cannot forecast 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, and we shall not abandon our commitment to that.

I am in the process of talking to the Northern Ireland parties, with a view to hearing at first hand their assessments of the current position and their views on a number of difficult questions that now face us.

Rev. Martin Smyth: I welcome the Secretary of State's response, but how can the people of Northern Ireland be assured when there are denials of the bank robbery on the part of those who hitherto denied certain incidents in the past, such as permitting a young lad to return to
19 Jan 2005 : Column 796
Londonderry, telling his mother that he would be safe and then ordering his execution? How can we rest with any sense of trust and peace with that sort of nonsense going on?

Mr. Murphy: The hon. Gentleman is right in pointing out in his last few words the significance of all this for the trust, confidence and faith between parties that must exist before we can get the restoration of the institutions in Northern Ireland. I believe that the Chief Constable was right in his assessment; the Irish Government believe the same; and I think that the people of Northern Ireland believe it as well. The issue now is how we get into a situation where we can restore those institutions, but before we can do that, we have to restore the trust, which is exactly what the hon. Gentleman referred to.

Mr. Mackay: The Secretary of State will be aware that the whole House has huge sympathy with his predicament. He has been very badly let down by the republicans. Can he confirm the following facts: first, Sinn Fein and the IRA are inextricably linked; secondly, it would be impossible to have in devolved government people who have carried out such a large criminal act?

Mr. Murphy: Yes, and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said precisely that. The issue that has caused this problem is that of criminality, and that issue must be addressed before we can restore the institutions—not least because, as I suggested in my last answer, we simply will not get politicians, party leaders and people who have been elected in Northern Ireland together unless that trust is restored.

The other issue is that, of course, as dramatic and big as the bank robbery was, we must not forget the other aspects of criminality that go on, day in and day out, in Northern Ireland, in loyalist as well as republican areas. We must stop that criminality, as otherwise we get a society that is not wholesome. People have had their minds concentrated because of the events of the past few weeks, and perhaps in some ways that is not a bad thing, because we can tell the people of Northern Ireland that we will concentrate on trying to end that criminality and ensuring that all parties that are in the Executive abandon any idea of linkage with groups that involve themselves in any criminality.

David Taylor: Following last night's denial by the Provisional IRA that it was involved in last month's Northern bank robbery, the Police Service of Northern Ireland has asked why the statement has been made now, not three weeks or so ago, and the Secretary of State has said that he still concurs with Chief Constable Orde's judgment that IRA-Sinn Fein are implicated in the crime. If that is so, why does he not impose on Sinn Fein the penalty of exclusion—for, say, 12 months—from a new power-sharing Executive?

Mr. Murphy: The issue of exclusion from an Executive would arise, of course, in the event of an Assembly being up and running, and rules are laid down for that. The Independent Monitoring Commission would report to the Assembly. If the Assembly did not take a decision on that, it would come to me in terms of exclusion. At the moment, of course, there is no Assembly, but the issue still goes back to
19 Jan 2005 : Column 797
the fact that there must be trust among the parties for an Executive to be formed. There were considerable negotiations leading up to Christmas that, in the end, did not work. That was a great pity, but at the end of the day, unless we tackle the criminality, we will not get the trust for the parties to get together. Whatever the reasons behind exclusion and all the rest of it, that is the fundamental problem that we face. Both Governments agree that the IMC should report earlier than in April. We have not yet decided the details. Of course, we will request the IMC to do precisely that; and of course it has in its remit the possibility of sanctions and penalties.

Mr. Campbell: How can the Secretary of State reassure people in Northern Ireland that in discussions that he will have with the political parties he will not countenance bank robbing, gun smuggling, gangsterism and terrorism as any part of a process aimed at getting a satisfactory form of devolved government back in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Murphy: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I have already talked to him and his party, and doubtless we will have more meetings as the weeks go by. It is important for us to talk to parties about how they think we can move forward, and part of those discussions will deal with the possibility of establishing scrutiny over me and my fellow Ministers. In addition to that, it is important that we emphasise the issue of criminality during any discussions with parties. We must make it clear to parties that bank robberies and criminality in any form simply do not form part of a modern, democratic, non-violent political society in Northern Ireland. Such activities cannot continue, because they corrupt society.

Tony Cunningham (Workington) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the unity of the British and Irish Governments in putting pressure on the IRA to cease paramilitary activity should continue and be encouraged?

Mr. Murphy: One of the important aspects of the past couple of weeks has been the way in which the British and Irish Governments have reacted in exactly the same manner to the bank robbery. This week I met Dermot Ahern, the Irish Foreign Minister, and there will be a formal meeting of the British and Irish Governments in Dublin in just under a fortnight to determine where we are. It is important that both Governments take the same view on criminality, as we do, and especially on how the raid on the bank has had grave consequences for the political and peace processes in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down) (SDLP): The Secretary of State said that the past process was brought to a halt by criminality. Does he agree that the joint declaration following the Leeds series of talks indicated that paramilitarism and criminality were debarments from future talks? What then happened in respect of the heists and robberies at Makro and Gallahers and the abduction of Bobby Tohill? Were they not acts of criminality carried out during the talks process? What was new that meant that this specific criminality brought
19 Jan 2005 : Column 798
the process to a halt? If the Secretary of State gets back to the talks, will he go back to the basics of the Good Friday agreement and make them inclusive of all parties in Northern Ireland that subscribed to that agreement? The people of Ireland—north and south—endorsed the principle of inclusivity on a proper basis for such talks.

Mr. Murphy: Yes, and one of the great benefits of the process in which my hon. Friend was involved in the lead-up to the Good Friday agreement was the fact that all parties were in Castle buildings making decisions together. There is no real substitute for that. However, I remind him that although that was a major principle behind how we arrived at the talks, a further principle of the Good Friday agreement was that there should not be criminality and that bodies such as the IRA and loyalist groups should not be associated with parties regarding criminality. It is important for hon. Members and people in Northern Ireland to realise that the bank robbery in Northern Ireland violated the Good Friday agreement and the principles that lie behind it. The Good Friday agreement was not about continuing criminality and paramilitary activities, but ending those things.

Mr. Michael Mates (East Hampshire) (Con): I am sure that everyone will sympathise with the position in which the IRA has put the Secretary of State and his Ministers through its blatant disregard for the letter and spirit of the Good Friday agreement. Does he agree that several issues have been on hold for some months in the hope that we could get a devolved government so that the Assembly, if it could come together again, could make decisions that needed to be taken? Now that it is clear that there will be no progress on that front for many months, if not years, may I urge him to implement the measures that have been held up and thus give the people of Northern Ireland firm government at least, even if it has to be the second best—the continuation of direct rule?

Mr. Murphy: The right hon. Gentleman's point about second best is right. We have to get the best, which is local Ministers taking decisions locally and being held accountable by local people. That is the aim of us all. But of course the right hon. Gentleman is correct: government has to continue, decisions have to be made and there has to be good governance in Northern Ireland, albeit through direct rule. Our job is then to consult as widely as we can with people in Northern Ireland, including the political parties, when we make vital decisions.

Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab): The Secretary of State is right to see this appalling crime in the context of the wider future for Northern Ireland and its potential devolution. Does he agree, however, that Sinn Fein should take that crime as its opportunity to make a clean break with the criminal and IRA elements in the communities that it is supposed to be representing politically?

Mr. Murphy: My hon. Friend makes an important and interesting point. If that break with criminality does not come, we really have no hope of getting the institutions in Northern Ireland up and running again.
19 Jan 2005 : Column 799

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): We all recognise the crucial importance of tackling the deep divisions in Northern Ireland society, but it is now more than a year since the consultation on "A Shared Future" ended. Is the Minister aware that it identified continuing communal conflict and tensions, but little evidence of significant increases in shared education and housing? Given that the consultation led to specific strategic and tactical recommendations, both national and local, may I ask when the Government intend to publish their action plan based on "A Shared Future"?

Mr. Murphy: The new policy framework is currently at the final draft stage. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State and his officials have engaged in consultation with all parties and other stakeholders in Northern Ireland. Publication is expected in late February or March, and an action plan is expected to follow in the autumn.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab): In an earlier answer, did not my right hon. Friend put the cart before the horse? In order to set up the Executive, surely there needs to be the exclusion of Sinn Fein, rather than the other way round.

Mr. Murphy: We must never get away from the central issue that this bank robbery has highlighted: criminality. We have to resolve that in order for a fully inclusive Executive to be established. For a voluntary coalition to work, it would have to involve nationalists and Unionists. The parties are making suggestions to me about other methods by which we could improve scrutiny in Northern Ireland; whether that is by having an Assembly without an Executive, as some parties have suggested, we will have to wait and see. At the end of the day, we have to concentrate on stopping criminality as the major issue for us in Northern Ireland.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): I am sure that the Secretary of State will have noted the comment of a very senior Sinn Fein negotiator that the abduction and murder by the IRA of Mrs. Jean McConville, mother of 10, was not a criminal act. Does not that single comment indicate the distance that Sinn Fein and the IRA still have to travel before they really understand what democratic and peaceful politics is about?

Mr. Murphy: The abduction of Mrs. McConville, who was, as the hon. Gentleman said, a mother of 10, was a wicked criminal act, and to suggest otherwise is preposterous. No political party can define what a crime is in Northern Ireland, or anywhere else for that matter. I think that everybody in the House and in Northern Ireland would recognise that that was a wicked, terrible crime, which everybody condemned.

Mr. Lidington: There is no difference between the Secretary of State and myself on that.

Will the right hon. Gentleman make it clear in his conversations with the political parties that the Government will not allow the IRA to treat guns, private armies and criminal empires as some kind of bargaining chip to be traded for political concession or meetings at No. 10; that giving up crime and violence is a condition of inclusion in democratic politics and in
19 Jan 2005 : Column 800
government; and that all the powers and resources of both the British and the Irish Government will be directed at breaking the grip that both republican and loyalist mafias still have on too many communities in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Murphy: I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman. As I have said repeatedly this morning, there is no question of having an inclusive Executive until the problem of criminality is resolved. We simply cannot have our communities in Northern Ireland, whether in loyalist areas or in republican areas, bedevilled by criminality and paramilitarism.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): Given the continuing failure of the IRA and Sinn Fein to abide by exclusively peaceful and democratic means, and given, in the IRA statement last night, their contemptuous refusal to face up to the truth and accept their involvement in criminality, terrorism, paramilitarism and so on, when will the Secretary of State reflect the anger of the community across the board in Northern Ireland, come to the House and tell us what action he will take? When will he move ahead with those parties that want proper devolved government up and running in Northern Ireland and stop allowing the criminals of Sinn Fein-IRA to hold the rest of the community to ransom?

Mr. Murphy: First, because he has attended meetings with me, the hon. Gentleman is conscious of the fact that I have to talk to his and other parties in Northern Ireland to see where the future lies in terms of devolution and the institutions. I repeat that we cannot have an Executive as it is envisaged in the Good Friday agreement unless we tackle criminality, and we cannot have a voluntary coalition unless it contains both nationalists and Unionists. There might be other ways in which we can exercise democracy in Northern Ireland—for example, through the Assembly without an Executive—and, like my Irish counterparts, I am perfectly willing to consider all the aspects of strands 1, 2 and 3. What is important is that we continue the dialogue and aim for local involvement in decision making in Northern Ireland. The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that many people in Northern Ireland, not just politicians, want a devolved Administration in which their politicians can be held to account.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim) (UUP): The Secretary of State has shown extreme patience in trying to find a political way forward, but what useful purpose can be served by further talks with Sinn Fein-IRA, whose spokesperson, P. O'Neill, is an undoubted liar? For how much longer will the representatives of truly democratic parties in Northern Ireland be denied the opportunity to represent the law-abiding electorate?

Mr. Murphy: I have little to add to my previous answer on what we have to do to get a voluntary coalition or the Executive as it is envisaged in the Good Friday agreement. However, there is sense in talking to representatives of Sinn Fein, not least because we can emphasise to them the significance of what has happened since the bank raid and the importance of ending criminality in Northern Ireland. We have to
19 Jan 2005 : Column 801
make it clear to them that that is the purpose of the Government, the Irish Government, all the people of Northern Ireland, and all Members of this House.

Next Section IndexHome Page