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House of Commons

Wednesday 15 June 2005

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


Liverpool City Council (Prohibition of Smoking in Places of Work) Bill [Lords]

Motion made,

Hon. Members: Object.

To be considered on Wednesday 22 June.

London Local Authorities (Prohibition of Smoking in Places of Work) Bill [Lords]

Motion made,

Hon. Members: Object.

To be considered on Wednesday 22 June.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Royal Irish Regiment

1. Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): What discussions he has had with the Chief Constable and the General Officer Commanding on the future deployment of the Home Service battalions of the Royal Irish Regiment. [3011]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. David Hanson): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State meets regularly with his security advisers, including the Chief Constable and the General Officer Commanding, to discuss the security situation in Northern Ireland. However, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman will understand, the details of troop deployments undertaken by the Army in fulfilling its role of supporting the Police Service of Northern Ireland are operational issues and therefore matters for the GOC.
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Mr. Donaldson: Speaking as someone who previously served with the regiment, I take the opportunity to salute the courage of the Royal Irish Regiment Home Service battalions in discharging a service to the people of Northern Ireland for some 30 years. Is it not time, however, that we gave those soldiers the clarity and certainty that they desire about their future? The current doubt and uncertainty is definitely causing morale problems among the soldiers. I understand what the Minister said about the operational requirements, but is it not time that the Government clearly announced that the Home Service battalions will continue to fulfil an important role in providing security to the people of Northern Ireland for now and for the future?

Mr. Hanson: I join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the work that the battalions have undertaken, for which there is considerable support in the community. I also pay tribute to the work that the hon. Gentleman himself has done. I hope that I can reassure him by saying that the Government have no plans to disband the Royal Irish Regiment in general or the three Home Service battalions in particular. They remain an essential component of the Army's support to the Police Service of Northern Ireland and will continue to be so as long as the terrorist threat remains. I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman. The situation is fluid and may change, but for now, as I said, those battalions provide an important and essential component of the Army's support services.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): I am delighted to hear that the Government have no plans to disband the Home Service battalions of the Royal Irish Regiment, but does the Minister agree that at a time when the Government are deploying extra troops in Afghanistan and Iraq and disbanding four infantry battalions, the Royal Irish Regiment's role is even more important? Is the Minister confident that, should there be a resumption of violence in Northern Ireland, sufficient troops will be available to deploy there to assist the Police Service of Northern Ireland?

Mr. Hanson: I can give the hon. Gentleman a categorical yes on that question. He will know that the Royal Irish Regiment plays a strong supportive role to the PSNI and I have given a commitment today, on behalf of the Government, that so long as the security situation remains difficult, the battalions will remain in position. As I have already made clear, that is our commitment and we believe that those battalions will remain an essential component of the Army support service in Northern Ireland.


2. Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, South) (Lab): What discussions he has had with Northern Ireland's political parties on restoration of the devolved institutions. [3012]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Peter Hain): First, I would like to pay tribute to my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy). As I have travelled throughout Northern Ireland and, indeed, across the border during
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this past month, I have not been surprised to find that he is viewed with considerable respect and affection for all that he has done.

I have had good meetings with the main parties and, provided that the Provisional IRA commits itself to ending all paramilitary activity and criminality, I remain hopeful of restoring the devolved institutions.

Mr. Harris: I welcome my right hon. Friend to the Dispatch Box as the new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. The whole House will agree with the principle that democratic parties should not share power with parties that continue to balance the ballot box in one hand with the Armalite in the other. When he next meets representatives of Sinn Fein, will my right hon. Friend remind them that total decommissioning is not a concession, but a basic requirement for any party that hopes to establish its democratic credentials?

Mr. Hain: My hon. Friend makes his point eloquently, as always. There is now a cross-party commitment to insisting that paramilitary activity and criminality are banished from Northern Ireland, particularly in respect of its politics. That is vital if progress is to be made and we await the forthcoming statement from the Provisional IRA to see how it measures up against that important yardstick.

Dr. William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): Does not the Secretary of State understand that recent events have proved beyond doubt that Sinn Fein-IRA are totally incapable of making the move to exclusively democratic means? Surely it is time to move on. The Government must proceed without Sinn Fein-IRA. No amount of IRA verbiage will move Unionists to support anything less than the total demolition of IRA structures and the total end of all criminality.

Mr. Hain: I certainly agree that there has to be an unequivocal commitment to ending criminality and paramilitary activity. Moreover, given the events of the past year or so, that commitment must be validated and verified. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that that is the important principle. If we are able to secure such a commitment and make sure that it has taken root, we will then be able to establish the basis for inclusive government, involving all parties committed to exclusively democratic and peaceful means. I hope that that will include Sinn Fein in the future.

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down) (SDLP): On behalf of my party, may I welcome the Secretary of State and two of his ministerial colleagues to their new Front-Bench posts? I also welcome the return of another colleague to her position, and I hope that there will be great co-operation with them all.

The Secretary of State has said in public that all democratic and political progress in Northern Ireland depends on a statement from the army council of the IRA, and that that statement must be acceptable and represent no hindrance to political progress. How would the right hon. Gentleman define the acceptability of such a statement in respect of decommissioning and the cessation of criminal activity and operational capacity? Is he not concerned that such a statement would allow groups such as Sinn Fein to participate in policing and
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other institutions of law and order? Does he accept that a very close analysis of such a statement would have to be made to ensure that it contained no potential blocks to political progress?

Mr. Hain: My hon. Friend has put that question very well, and I pay tribute to the role of the Social Democratic and Labour party in the peace process over very many years. It has shown tremendous courage and vision, for which it has not necessarily received credit or recognition at the ballot box. History will show that the SDLP's courage and leadership have been vital components in establishing an unparalleled period of prosperity, stability and political progress in Northern Ireland.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): The right hon. Gentleman is the fifth Secretary of State with whom I have had the pleasure to work. In the light of our shared responsibilities, I have little doubt that he would agree that the future looks bright for Northern Ireland, and for Wales as well.

The Secretary of State will have seen the 10 benchmark measures set out by the Alliance party to evaluate the robustness of statements made by paramilitaries, including the IRA. Does he agree that it is necessary to have objective measures to assess the paramilitaries' commitment to peace? Is he willing to accept an invitation to meet the Alliance party's leader, David Ford, to discuss those 10 measures and the rationale behind them?

Mr. Hain: First of all, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcome. I note that he is my shadow in Wales as well as Northern Ireland, so I shall have to watch out for him. However, if he invites me to fly from Wales to Northern Ireland in his aircraft, I do not think that I will accept. He does the flight regularly, but he is the pilot and I am not sure how safe the journey might be.

Certainly, I will give a commitment to meet David Ford again. The Alliance party has put forward an interesting set of proposals, which contains a lot of common sense. I have met him before, and his Alliance party leadership colleagues, but of course we want to maintain close contact.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend accept that many of us are concerned that peace processes tend either to move forward or roll backwards? In the light of what the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea) said earlier, will he stress that we reject the tendency of some parties to rule out concession or compromise even before they have heard what the other side has to say? Is not the only way forward to work with those parties that are willing to reach a compromise?

Mr. Hain: It is important that we all work together, according to the principles of inclusive governance and power sharing established in the Belfast agreement. My hon. Friend will recognise, however, that it is equally important that we banish the bullet, the bomb and all criminality and paramilitary activity from Northern Ireland's politics. Progress has been made, but it is still not good enough and we must move forward.
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Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): I welcome the Secretary of State to his post, and I also welcome the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), and the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Woodward), to their new responsibilities. I should also like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor, the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), with whom I much enjoyed working when we had the responsibility of speaking for our respective parties on Northern Ireland. There is no doubt about his dedication and commitment to the welfare of all the people of Northern Ireland. Does the Secretary of State agree that before an inclusive Executive can be established in Northern Ireland, the Provisional IRA will have to disband?

Mr. Hain: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcome and, especially, his tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy). On the final question, it is important that we banish paramilitary activity and criminality from Northern Ireland's politics. I do not want to get stuck on words, because—as he will know from shadowing my predecessors—it is important to achieve the objective rather than to erect an obstacle. Sometimes words erect obstacles.

Mr. Lidington: Words can erect obstacles, but I would hope that the Secretary of State would agree that we are now at the stage where ambiguity about language becomes an obstacle to agreement rather than something that facilitates agreement. If he does not want to use the word "disbandment", I invite him to go further than his earlier response when he talked about the need for Sinn Fein-IRA to commit themselves to ending all paramilitary involvement and all criminality. Does he agree that a commitment is not enough? What is required is that paramilitary organisations actually end their involvement in crime, cease to be organised paramilitary forces, and can be shown to have done so permanently?

Mr. Hain: I agree with the hon. Gentleman to the extent that a commitment is not enough, although a commitment in clear and unequivocal terms is important. We will now need, in view of what has happened in the past months and years, to see the Independent Monitoring Commission playing its role to verify what is going on. That is important and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will work with me to achieve that objective on a bipartisan basis.

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