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Mr. Christopher Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): I rise to speak after some first-class contributions by people who know far more about this subject than I do. My hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack), my colleague on the Select Committee, has articulated the way forward given the issues facing us in Northern Ireland.
For the past 30 years, the situation in Northern Ireland has rightly evoked strong emotions among all the parties involved, but we have now reached an important turning point, and we should do all that we can to encourage the process to achieve a peaceful resolution. Over the past decade, the threat of terrorism has greatly diminished. I, too, welcome the IRA statement of July and the report by the Independent Monitoring Commission in October that showed that progress had been made. A "permanent and irreversible" shift away from violence by paramilitary organisations is the only way in which we can create the "enabling environment" needed for sustainable peace. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) said, the IRA must cease to engage in all forms of organised crime and other criminal activity. It must also accept the legitimacy of the police and the criminal justice systems in the north and the south, and encourage full co-operation with them.
The measures in the Bill, while enforcing the provisions of part VII of the Terrorism Act 2000, pave the way for "normalisation", as many right hon. and hon. Members have pointed out. However, we must not allow that process to begin while paramilitary groups such as the IRA maintain a blatant disrespect for law and order. It is important that we do not rush into the process without careful consideration of the consequences should the IRA go back on its word. Decisions such as dismantling security installations and watchtowers, dismantling the service battalions of the Royal Irish Regiment and reducing the permanent garrison in the Province by half to 5,000 should be reviewed after a period of time. The IMC concluded that
Can the Secretary of State tell us what a "sustained period of time" is? We must take into account the fact that the troubles in Northern Ireland have been going
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on for over 30 years. As much as we want to accelerate the peace process, perhaps we should adopt a patient approach.
It is important to address the issue of loyalist paramilitaries. Much has been made of IRA decommissioning and yet, as the IMC confirmed, the threat from loyalist paramilitary organisations remains serious. If we can take anything from the events of recent years it is that we cannot be complacent about any threat of terrorism from any quarter. Like many others, I watched with disgust the recent violence and disruption on the streets of Belfast following the re-routing of a contentious Orange Order march. It was not, as one would presume, violence instigated by republican organisations. Instead, loyalist paramilitaries attacked our country's police and Army. That is not to be tolerated, especially as it is perpetrated by people who claim to be loyal to the United Kingdom. Loyalist organisations are responsible for more violent attacks than republican organisations, and over the past six months the margin of difference has grown even wider. I call upon the Government urgently to address the current Unionist disaffection with the process. It is imperative that everyone is included and works together.
I am gravely concerned about the fact that there has been little constructive discussion of the process beyond the two-year normalisation period. I hope that the Secretary of State has taken on board hon. Members' concerns about the transition from Diplock courts to trial by jury, and that he will consider that carefully. A clear timetable of action communicated to the parties involved would ensure that we are all singing from the same hymn sheet.
It cannot be denied that the Bill is an essential part of the final "enabling environment", and I support its measures. It would be irresponsible to allow the provisions in part VII of the Terrorism Act 2000 to lapse without sufficient safeguards in their place and the Bill will continue to make such provision. The additional powers for the Attorney General of Northern Ireland are important in helping us to distinguish between offences under criminal law and offences under terrorism laws, which may prove significant in measuring the success of the IRA statement.
Finally, will the Secretary of State consider carefully the points that we have made this evening? I am sure that Members on both sides of the House will show their support for the Bill and for any sensible measures that will finally allow the people of Northern Ireland to live in a country that is no longer threatened by terrorism or violence.
Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP):
May I begin by referring to terrorist and paramilitary developments in Northern Ireland in recent days, following statements by a number of churchmen and others about the loyalist feud and by the Loyalist Volunteer Force about its position? As hon. Members have said, those statements have been welcomed, not least in my north Belfast constituency and in the constituencies of my hon. Friends, which have borne the brunt of a vicious campaign both over the summer and previously. Internecine violence has not just inflicted pain, injury,
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hurt and death on the individuals concerned, but has caused widespread community dislocation and the removal of families from homes and society. Progress to end such violence with statements from paramilitary organisations such as the one by the LVF at the weekend is therefore welcome.
I want to put on record my gratitude to everyone involved in that difficult and challenging behind-the-scenes work. Just as we have made it clear in relation to the IRA that action is what counts, not words, so it is in relation to the LVF and the loyalist paramilitaries. My hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) referred to Brid Rodgers from Upper Bann, who said that people had many concerns about the LVF statement. Unionists have expressed the same concerns and doubts about IRA statements on behalf of the people whom we represent, but we are often castigated and derided for doing so. We have been told that we should take the IRA at its word, but the former Member for Upper Bann, Mr. David Trimble, took the IRA at its wordhe was urged by both sides of the House to do soand we know where that got us. Three times IRA-Sinn Fein were admitted into government, but on each occasion they exposed their true nature.
We hope that the LVF means what it says. We do not equivocate about loyalist paramilitaries: we want to see them disband and disappear in the same way as republican paramilitaries should disband and disappear. People in all our communities should be allowed to get on with their lives without paramilitarism's coercive effects. We have seen the dreadful effects of paramilitarism in the areas that we represent.
We will support the Government in terms of the Bill, because it is a sensible approach. Unfortunately, we cannot often say that about the Government's approach to issues affecting Northern Ireland, especially in the past few months. The watchword for this debate is caution, and several hon. Members have stressed the importance of caution as we move forward, especially in relation to the criminal justice system. They have rightly stressed the need to be very careful before we remove from the statute book important legislative provisions to combat terrorism.
In his opening remarks, the Secretary of State said that it was vital to have a prudent safety mechanism in place, that we needed a measured approach and that we must not take chances with the safety and security of the people of Northern Ireland. Those are indeed correct sentiments to express when dealing with important issues affecting the safety and security of the people of Northern Ireland.
I hope that the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) will not press the matter to a Division. He indicated reservations about the Bill, but I do not know whether he intends to try to divide the House. I noted what he said about sentencing and the concerns about some of the sentences handed down by judges. I have to say that similar concerns have been expressed about several cases in which people have felt that their families have not received the justice that they should have received, because offenders have not received appropriate sentences. I remind the hon. Gentleman that it does not matter whether sentence is passed by a
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Diplock court or a non-Diplock court, because sentencing is entirely a matter for the judge in either case. Whether a jury is involved in the determination of guilt or not, the issue of sentencing is for the judge only. The argument on sentencing does not therefore rule out support for the Bill.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the concern that evidence was prevented from coming before the courts, be they Diplock or non-Diplock, and he mentioned the murder of Robert McCartney. We have seen the campaign on that case, which has resulted in the McCartney relatives having to leave the Short Strand area withoutI am sad to sayany real prospect of justice being done. That sort of conspiracy, which is sometimes covert and sometimes much more overt, is one of the reasons why it is still important to have the Diplock court mechanism in place. The sort of people who have carried out the campaign against the McCartney family could easily mount a similar campaign against potential jurors. That should cause hon. Members to support the Bill tonight, not to oppose it.
The requirement for caution to be our watchword stands in direct contrast to the headlong rush by the Government on other matters. How can it be right to say that we cannot take risks with the safety and security of the people of Northern Ireland when the Government have rushed to degrade the security along the land frontier between Northern Ireland and the Irish republic, despite the continuing menace and threat from mainstream and dissident republicans? How can it be right to decide to disband the home battalions of the Royal Irish regiment? I might point out that the members of that battalion heard the news through the news media, instead of being told in an appropriate and proper fashion. How can it be right to proceed with legislation to provide what is in effect an amnesty for people guilty of some of the most heinous crimes in Northern Ireland? Some of that has been done purely on the basis of IRA words, not actions, and despite the fact that the Government told us that they would judge the IRA's statement over time, in terms of its actions and not its words. The Government's actions stand in stark contrast to the pledge given to the people of Northern Ireland.
Let us consider the Government's actions in relation to Sean Kelly, a child murderer and a mass murderer who belongs to the Provisional IRA-Sinn Fein movement. When he was first arrested, we were told by the Secretary of State that it was vital that he should be arrested, because of his involvement in terrorism and the danger that he posed to the community at large. Sean Kelly was released on the eve of the IRA statement at the end of July, purely because the Government were told by the IRA-Sinn Fein leadership that it was vital to the IRA making its statement. Such an approach to the people of Northern Ireland by the Government has bred deep cynicism and a total lack of confidence in their willingness to stand by their pledges, to do the proper thing, and to judge the IRA by its actions, not its words.
The way in which the Government have behaved has contributed significantly to the lack of confidence in the unionist community and the feeling of one-sidedness to which the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) referred. It is intolerable that the Government should rush headlong to make concessions
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to IRA-Sinn Fein at a time when it is far from being proved that the IRA is committed, permanently and irreversibly, to exclusively peaceful and democratic means.
The hon. Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris) asked earlier why unionists talk about concessions, but what else are we to call the blatant release of a mass murderer on to the streets so that the IRA would make its statement the next day? How else can the people we represent see it but as a concession to Sinn Fein-IRA? Sadly, there has been too much of that in recent days.
It is right to be cautious. The IMC has made it clear that criminality continues on the part of both the IRA and loyalists; there is no indication that it has been brought to an end. It is deeply ingrained in those organisations. An assistant chief constable of the PSNI told me only the other day that criminality was institutionalised in each paramilitary organisation. It is madness to suggest that within a few months Unionists should be asked simply to turn a blind eye to all that.
In a debate last week, my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) pointed out that the retention of illegally gotten criminal assets and gains from bank robberies and other activities is still a criminal offence and the Minister responding to the debate agreed. There can be no suggestion that everything that happened should be put into the past and that we should turn a blind eye and move forward as if all those things had no impact on people's confidence and their view of the reality of the situation on the ground in Northern Ireland.
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