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House of Commons

Wednesday 13 July 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. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South) (Lab): If he will make a statement on prospects for the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland. [10652]

5. Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): If he will make a statement on the prospects for the Northern Ireland Assembly reconvening. [10656]

6. Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, South) (Lab): When he expects the devolved institutions of Northern Ireland to be restored. [10657]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Peter Hain): The Government are committed to the restoration of a fully inclusive, devolved, power-sharing Executive in Northern Ireland at the earliest opportunity, which is in turn dependent on a complete and verifiable end to all paramilitary and criminal activity and the decommissioning of all illegally held weapons.

Ben Chapman: Does my right hon. Friend agree that although Northern Ireland has come a long way in recent years, the key element in all this is trust? Events have served to eradicate trust between the parties. What steps does he think need to be taken to restore that trust by each of those concerned?

Mr. Hain: I agree that there has been an erosion of trust since Easter 1998, and that needs to be rebuilt. It will best be rebuilt by all those involved in paramilitary activity and criminality in Northern Ireland ending that involvement, full stop. That is what has to be achieved.

Ann Winterton: Now that we have tragically seen once again the effects of terrorist attacks in the United Kingdom, will that not reinforce the view that there is no place in the future Government of Northern Ireland for those who have abused our democracy by the bullet and the bomb? Does the Secretary of State agree that no progress can be made until the structures of terrorism,
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such as the IRA, are dismantled? Without such action, as the hon. Member for Wirral, South (Ben Chapman) has just said, there can be no trust in a peaceful future for Northern Ireland.

Mr. Hain: I have been very struck in Northern Ireland in recent days by the tremendous sympathy shown by people right across Northern Ireland, of all backgrounds, all beliefs and all political parties, with the people of London and of Great Britain as a whole. I am sure that the hon. Lady will be pleased by that indication of where sentiment lies. Of course we want to rid Northern Ireland politics for good of the bombs, the bullets and the punishment beatings, of all violence and certainly of all terrorism, and that is what we are working on.

Mr. Harris: During my right hon. Friend's recent visit to the United States, did he have any meetings with representatives of the Irish-American community, and if so what views did they express regarding the possibility of the restoration of devolution in the near future?

Mr. Hain: I did indeed meet members of the Irish-American community in Washington and New York, and had excellent discussions with them, as well as with the Secretary of State, Condi Rice, and with special envoy, Mitchell Reiss. I was struck by the change in attitude from the very top, down through senators such as Edward Kennedy, Congressman Pete King and, indeed, senior business men such as Bill Flynn. There is now a much better understanding of, and support for, the British Government's position, and that is very welcome. All have offered—the President especially, via the Secretary of State—to help in whatever way they can. We are very grateful for that support and we look forward to drawing on it in the future.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East) (DUP): Given the appalling, exclusively republican violence last night and the failure of the republican leadership of Sinn Fein to condemn it, what confidence can the community in Northern Ireland have that Sinn Fein is seeking to make any transition towards democracy and peaceful politics? Does the Secretary of State not recognise that, by requiring inclusive devolution at an Executive level, he puts a veto and a massive bargaining chip into the hands of those very people?

Mr. Hain: I share the condemnation and regret of the hon. Gentleman and, I imagine, all his colleagues concerning the violent disorder in the Ardoyne area last night. There is no question but that that should not have happened, and it cannot be tolerated. As for the future of inclusive Government, he will know that it is our objective, as I have said before, to banish all forms of violence from Northern Ireland politics, and it is in the interests of everybody, including his party, which is now in an important leading position in Northern Ireland, that we get all the parties round the Executive table, sharing Government.

The activity in the Ardoyne area last night contrasted, I might add, with the activity in the morning, which was almost entirely peaceful, as I discussed with the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) over the phone, as did the Under-Secretary of State for Northern
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Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Woodward), who is responsible for security. That regrettable and unacceptable violence was an isolated incident in a marching season of about 3,000 parades which were overwhelmingly peaceful. There have been only a handful of serious incidents. I look to the model of Londonderry; the people of Derry got together and found a way through to a process in which the Orangemen were able to parade in accordance with their historic traditions, and at the same time the community felt comfortable with that. Dialogue is the way forward on all these things.

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down) (SDLP): During the Government's talks towards devolution with the various parties in the past number of months, what assurances has the Secretary of State, first, given the Democratic Unionist party on the composition of the membership of the Northern Ireland Policing Board, which is due for revision in the autumn? Secondly, what assurances has he given Sinn Fein on changes in the structure of the Police Service of Northern Ireland in view of the fact that the Patten report commissioned on policing in Northern Ireland has been well nigh fully implemented?

Mr. Hain: I do not think that it is a question of giving any particular assurance to individual parties. It is a question of finding the best way forward for the future of the PSNI, carrying into effect the recommendations of the Patten report. The recent report of the oversight commissioner showed that some two thirds of those recommendations have been successfully carried out and implemented. That shows that the PSNI is not only making tremendous progress in normalising policing in Northern Ireland—I pay tribute to the Chief Constable—but in some respects becoming an example for other parts of the world that have had conflicts. As we move forward on the Policing Board, we need to do so sensibly. I am certainly consulting all parties, including the hon. Gentleman's, which plays such an important role and continues to do so.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): Although it must be right for the Secretary of State to make it absolutely clear that parties associated with violence and criminality cannot play a part in devolved Administration in the Province, does he accept that they cannot hold the democratic process to ransom and that if they do not completely renounce violence and criminality there has to be a point at which we proceed with devolved Administration without them?

Mr. Hain: No individual party and especially no individual group can hold anybody to ransom in Northern Ireland—certainly not the Secretary of State or this Government. We need to find a way forward. We await the statement that has been promised by the IRA, and it needs to be crystal clear that paramilitary activity and criminality has been banished and that that is verifiable, so that we all know that what has been promised—if it is promised—is delivered on the ground.

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that the model that he referred to in Derry is an important and valuable one? It was first
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initiated in dialogue convened many years ago by John Hume as MP, brought forward by mayors of the city and most importantly in recent years taken forward by a credible non-partisan community interest such as the chamber of commerce. That is the lesson for us all. Will the Secretary of State demonstrate his confidence in the prospects for restoring the institutions—not just the devolved institutions, but all those of the agreement—by indicating that temporary direct rule will not take long-term structural and strategic decisions such as on water charges, rating policy and outcomes of the review of public administration?

Mr. Hain: I cannot promise the latter, because we need to govern. We want to see the hon. Gentleman, DUP Members and all those who have been elected to the Assembly producing circumstances in which an Executive are up and running—hopefully with the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr.   Robinson) as able Ministers running Northern Ireland, as they were before. That is what we want, but we will not postpone decisions that are in the interests of Northern Ireland.

I very much applaud the hon. Gentleman's role, and that of John Hume before him, in the situation in Londonderry. That model showed that the people of Derry could come together despite their historic differences through dialogue and with the Parades Commission. That is a model for how everybody should resolve these tensions and problems, and let us hope that that lesson is learned for next year too.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): May I ask the Secretary of State to pass on to the Chief Constable sympathy and support from, I am sure, the entire House to the police officers who were injured in Belfast while carrying out their duties on behalf of everyone in Northern Ireland yesterday evening? Does the Secretary of State believe that it would be unacceptable for Ministers serving in a devolved Executive in Northern Ireland to refuse to recognise the authority and legitimacy of the courts and the police?

Mr. Hain: In the context of the devolution of policing and criminal justice—something that we would like to see in future years if possible—that is absolutely imperative, otherwise how credible would devolution be and how could it possibly operate? That, however, is in the future. I very much welcome what the hon. Gentleman said about the police officers who were injured at Ardoyne. I believe that more than 60 were injured, a few of them seriously. Of course, our sympathies are with them—they did a very good job in very provocative and difficult circumstances.

Mr. Lidington: The Secretary of State will know that the constitution of the Provisional IRA asserts that the IRA army council is the lawful Government of the entire island of Ireland. Does he therefore agree that part of any IRA response, which we are awaiting, should include a commitment to change its constitution and that statement of objectives so that it is clear that the republican movement accepts the legitimacy of the institutions on both sides of the border? If such a statement and change are not forthcoming, we are at
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risk of ending up with what the leader of the Irish Labour party recently described as a "weasel-worded fudge".

Mr. Hain: Words matter a great deal, and the suggestion of a "weasel-worded fudge" is not acceptable. Words matter, but actions matter even more. Across the spectrum, the people of Northern Ireland, having experienced Castlereagh, Stormontgate, the Northern bank robbery, the grisly murder of Robert McCartney, and the whole catalogue of events that have been well documented by the Independent Monitoring Commission such as punishment beatings and the rest of it, will want to know that all that activity has been shut down. That is the important thing. If we can reach that position, as I very much hope we can, Northern Ireland can move forward in the way that we all want.

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