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Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): First, may I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, and for letting me see a copy earlier this morning? I want to start by associating myself and my hon. Friends with his tributes to Mo Mowlam and Gerry Fitt, who served the people of Northern Ireland and the cause of peaceful and democrat politics there well during their careers.
I also support the Secretary of State's words about the police. The bravery and dedication of the Police Service of Northern Ireland deserve the thanks and support of everyone, regardless of their background and community. Loyalist communities may feel a genuine sense of disillusion today, but that cannot justify sectarian attacks on Catholics. Nor can any grievance, however deeply felt, excuse the sickening spectacle of men bragging about their loyalty to the UK and then hurling rocks at UK police officers.
The IRA statement of 28 July, and last month's report from General de Chastelain, are significant and welcome developments. They represent further steps in the transition of the republican movement from terrorism to democratic and peaceful politics. Will the Secretary of State confirm that, if Sinn Fein wishes to be regarded as a normal democratic party entitled to a role in a power-sharing Executive, republicans must end all paramilitary and criminal activity, as he said, but also carry out an important ideological shift? We are surely entitled to expect that the republican movement must support the police, the courts and the rule of law, and give up the belief, which its members still hold and assert, that the IRA and its army council are the legitimate source of authority throughout the island of Ireland.
Given that the history of terrorism in Northern Ireland stretches over more than 30 years, does the Secretary of State agree that it is not surprising that many peopleparticularly, but by no means exclusively, in the Unionist communitymistrust the republican movement? The right hon. Gentleman will recall that the Taoiseach said last year that what offended him most about republican tactics was the willingness to turn on and off the tap of paramilitary violence when it suited the movement's political ends. In view of that, what period of time does the Secretary of State believe would be reasonable to test whether the republican commitment to peaceful and democratic politics really is both permanent and irreversible?
The Secretary of State will know the position that my party has consistently taken on the question of terrorists on the run. Can he say now whether the terms of the proposed legislation will actually require an alleged terrorist to appear in court and, at least, shoulder the responsibility for his deeds, or will the whole process take place in absentia? Will such a terrorist be subject to licence, so that he could be recalled if he were ever to revert to terrorism? If not, despite the Secretary of State's words, we are talking about an amnesty in all but name.
I welcomed the Secretary of State's comments at the conference of the Police Federation for Northern Ireland that previous terrorist convictions should
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continue to be a bar to service with the police, but how does he regard people who have not been convicted of a terrorist offence but for whom good intelligence and information exists to suggest paramilitary involvement? Will such men and women be able to serve in the PSNI or the PSNI reserve, or as community support officers? Surely the Secretary of State would agree that it would be utterly wrong to hand over the policing of either loyalist or republican areas to men and women who had until recently been active in paramilitary organisations and mafia-style criminal gangs.
Finally, will the Secretary of State comment on so-called community restorative justice in view of media reports in Northern Ireland that Government support for such projects is being urged on him by the republican movement? Will he accept that if restorative justice is to form a part of our criminal justice systemI have no objection to that in principleit has to rest on the leadership and involvement of the police service and the other institutions of the criminal justice system? Simply to license what have been violent kangaroo courts run by the paramilitaries would not bring about the restoration of peaceful politics: it would be a concession that none of us would wish to make.
Mr. Hain: I agree completely with the hon. Gentleman's last point. There is no way that this Government will view community restorative justicethe hon. Gentleman expressed its objectives well and confirmed his support for its principlesas a licence to hand over policing to paramilitaries or some kind of militia. There is no question of that happening.
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's opening remarks, especially his steadfast support for the police, who had a horrendous time especially on 10, 11 and 12 September. Indeed, I visited the police headquarters shortly after that weekend of rioting and saw some of the Land Rovers and talked to some of the officers. Masses of bullets had been fired that penetrated the armour-plating. Repeated attempts had also been made to shatter the armoured glass to kill the officers inside. They are very brave men. The hon. Gentleman's support will be much appreciated by the Chief Constable, Hugh Orde, who gave outstanding leadership.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that if Sinn Fein wants to join government, it must support the police and the rule of law. One cannot be a Minister, especially in the devolved Assembly that we wish to see established, and not support the police. That would be completely contradictory, and Sinn Fein will have to face up to that, sooner rather than later.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the distrust felt in Unionist and loyalist communities about the intentions of republicans when they make promises, and I understand that. After all, it is barely a year since detailed discussions were held in which the leadership of the Democratic Unionist party, led by the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley), showed much courage and determination to see whether agreement could be reached. We later learned that as those discussions took place, the Northern bank robbery was being planned and undertaken. I understand the distrust felt, and other examples show that it is understandable. However, we need to move forward and I am sure that everyoneincluding the hon. Gentleman, and he was fair enough to say soaccepts that the IRA's statement
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on 28 July was historic. It has to be implemented, of course, but it was a historic statement. The decommissioning announced by General de Chastelain's independent commission on 26 September was also historic and we had never seen anything like it before, but time will be needed to build trust in the months ahead. The hon. Gentleman asks at what point we can be certain that peace will be permanent, and that is the key question. We will have to continue to work at building trust to take the process forward and I am grateful that he will work alongside us in that task.
On the so-called on-the-runs legislation, I shall have to ask the hon. Gentleman to wait for the legislation to be publishedI will notify him of that in the usual wayfor the detailed matters he raises. However, I wish to stress a couple of points. It will not be an amnesty and it will involve a judicial processtwo important principles. Such matters are very difficult. After the Belfast agreement in 1998, many people found very difficult the release on licence of prisoners who had in some cases committed horrendous crimes, whether republicanas they mainly wereor loyalist. The process of ending violence is difficult, and this is a good example of why that is so.
On the subject of policing, I assure the hon. Gentleman categorically that the same criteria will be applied to future recruits to the police, whether as conventional police officers or community support officers, if the Policing Board decides to recommend that the latter should be introduced to Northern Ireland, given their success in Great Britain. No one will be recruited unless they satisfy completely, down to the last full stop and comma, the normal recruitment criteria for the police that have applied over the years and apply now. There is no question of someone who is a paramilitary one day walking into a police uniform the next day. I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman.
We hope to continue the discussions with all the political parties that I have had over the past few months and take the process forward, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will continue to support that.
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I, too, thank the Secretary of State for early sight of the statement and associate myself with his comments about the late Gerry Fitt, who was a large character as I grew up, and with those about Mo Mowlam, who was unique in her principle, charisma and drive to remove obstacles in the peace process that no one else could have removed.
I welcome the IRA statement of 28 July and its act of decommissioning in September. Does the Secretary of State agree that both sides of the House must recognise that this is a momentous step forward? Indeed, it is rather more than some of us could have hoped for in 2005. We must all agree that it was necessary for the IRA to take that step and that, to some extent, the long delay requires a rebuilding of trust with the IRA and other paramilitaries.
Does the Secretary of State agree that a key publication is the forthcoming report of the Independent Monitoring Commission? That will help us to see whether the IRA is continuing its previously considerable involvement in criminal activity and paramilitary beatings across Northern Ireland. Does the Secretary of State agree that, for people to develop
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further faith in those formerly involved in the IRA, there must be total and genuine cessation of the underlying violence that has continued? Does he agree that the IRA must make a statement to confirm that those whom it exiled from their homes during the so-called troubles are free to return home safely and without fear of retribution?
We welcome the Secretary of State's decision to specify the Ulster Volunteer Force. There are of course genuine grievances in the loyalist community, but I am sure he will agree that those grievances should be properly presented through debate in the political system of dialogue and not through paramilitary violence.
It is clear that the police have an appallingly difficult job in the Province and we salute their courage and determination, for much of the time under the greatest of dangers. Does the Secretary of State agree that although there is a case for devolving policing and justice to the Northern Ireland Assembly, that can happen only when the Assembly has proved itself durable and sustainable? Nothing could be worse than the suspension of the Assembly when it had jurisdiction over the police.
We welcome the announcement about a victims commissioner, but can the Secretary of State assure us that the commissioner will have real teeth? Will the commissioner have the opportunity genuinely to act in the interests of victims rather than merely speaking about their concerns?
Finally, in relation to on-the-runs, the Secretary of State really must give a commitment that the needs of victims will come first. Will he clarify what he said to the Conservative party spokesman, the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington)? Is he assuring us that people allegedly involved in terrorist activities will be required to appear before a board or court as part of the process, and that they will not simply be given some form of amnesty? If that is what he is proposing, it is encouraging. We will see the details at a later stage, but it would be helpful in the context of his statement if he gave an indication that that significant stumbling block will be addressed in the way that I described.
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