Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East) (DUP): I intend to touch on only one key aspect of the Bill. First, however, I say that I hope that the Minister is right and that the Government's judgment is right. It is in the interest of all hon. Members, especially those on these Benches, that Northern Ireland sees normality and that we reach that stage by August 2007. I am sure that Social Democratic and Labour Members, one of whom has been with us for part of the debate, would agree with me. If the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) had been in the Chamber for any of this important terrorism debate, I am sure that she would have agreed with me, too. When she comes backat some stageperhaps she will confirm that.
I have heard several accolades directed towards the Minister, all of which were worthy, I am sure. However, I honestly believe that the elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland could do a better job than him. They are the people who should be dealing with Northern Ireland issues, not because they are wiser,
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more erudite or more sagacious than the Minister, but simply because they have a knowledge that he can never have as he is not part of that community. I thus hope that his judgment is right.
I can do nothing but agree with the Government about extending the special provisions. It would be rash if they did not maintain the powers in the Terrorism Act 2000, so it is right for them to do so. However, I was unconvinced by the Minister's attempt to indicate the rationale behind choosing the date of August 2007. He was unable to tell the House what was in the words, behaviour or record of the organisations that I have listedboth republican and loyalistthat gave him hope that in a few years we might be on the road towards, if not at, normality.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) made a valuable speech because he is well placed to know the circumstances of the terrorist threat in Northern Ireland. As he indicated, he is a member of the Northern Ireland Policing Board. He regularly receives briefings from the person who is best placed of all to know what the terrorist threat is. The existing threat in the community is clear to not only people at that level, but those of us on the ground.
On top of that, my hon. Friend rightly pointed out that the Government set up an independent body to assess the extent of the threat of terrorism in Northern Ireland. They charged that body with the responsibility of assessing the behaviour of every paramilitary organisation in Northern Ireland. I have read the last report of the Independent Monitoring Commission. Nothing in the report indicates that the IMC expects that by 2007 we will have reached the stage that the Minister judges we will reach.
As a constituency Member who is aware of what happens on the ground in his constituency, I have to say that the paramilitary organisations are still maintaining territorial control in their areasthat is a fact. There is no indication that they will release that control; indeed, there is every indication that the Government are even assisting them to maintain it. They may have attempted to change their authority in the community but, whatever their guise, as paramilitary organisations they maintain control, whether through the Government proposals on community restorative justice or through proposals on community associations. They intend to keep stretching their tentacles into the community. Nothing in the behaviour of those organisations leads me to share the Minister's hope.
I have seen the problems created at interfaces when paramilitary organisations are in control. Nothing in their criminal activities suggests that they are about to give up paramilitary control, not only of the area but of the community as a whole. If all the signs on the ground and the views expressed to the Policing Board by the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland are mistaken, and if the IMC, which has the same sources as the Minister in the intelligence services and in the police, both in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, has got it wrong, I hope that the Minister will tell us and show us additional evidence to demonstrate that the date that has been picked is a proper one. I do not believe that it is, but let us look at the consequences.
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The Minister suggested that there is no need to worryif the Government have got it wrong they will not leave the people of Northern Ireland undefended. They will introduce legislation and take whatever steps are necessary to provide security. I do not doubt that the Minister and the Government would do so in those circumstances. However, their action could have unintended consequences. The Minister is sending out a message at a time when it is dangerous to do so. Paramilitary organisations, particularly the Provisional IRA, have always attempted to test the Government to see how much they can get away with before the Government take a stand against them. They are testing the Government at present. My colleagues and I require an end to paramilitary and criminal activitythat is an essential component in progress towards the devolution of powers in Northern Ireland. Those paramilitary organisations want to test what level of criminal and paramilitary activity the Government expect, but if there is anything other than zero tolerance the Minister will let the community down badly. The Bill gives paramilitary organisations the message that what they are doing is all right. It says, "We are content with it, and we are even establishing legislation in the expectation that you will maintain this situation in Northern Ireland."
It is not all right, but the criminality of paramilitary organisations continues every day in Northern Ireland. It does so not just at the lesser level, such as threatening the local grocery store if the owner does not make his weekly donation, but in the structured efforts of the Provisional IRA and other paramilitary organisations to exert their authority on any building proposals in their area. It is evident, too, in drug dealing and the sale of counterfeit goods in their area. All those things are still going on in those communities, but the Minister has introduced legislation that suggests that the Government are comfortable and happy about the way things are going. They are so happy, in fact, that they are content to include a stop date of 2007 because things are going in the right direction.
That is the wrong message for the Government to send out. They should hold out until they have complete cessation of all paramilitary and criminal activity. That comes back to the issue that my colleagues and I have fought since 1998. We believe that the Ulster Unionist party was wrong to accept the IRA's bona fides, and should have held out to achieve a complete end to all its activities. The Ulster Unionists let the IRA in and hoped that they would toe the line. Those are the same tactics as the Government are using now"bring them along with you". Our view is that the Government should hold out until the IRA has met the standard. That is the only criterion that those people will understand. I hope the Minister will recognise that he needs to send out a clear message that no level of violence or criminality will be acceptable, and if any level of it exists, the legislation will be continued.
Mr. Gregory Campbell:
I join in thanking the Minister for the way in which the debate has been conducted, even if at times during consideration of the amendments we have been at odds. I also pay tribute to all the other Members who took part in debate. It was highly
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productive and constructive that two of the three Northern Ireland parties were present for and took part in the debate. For that we should all be grateful.
The need for the legislation is undoubtedly considerable. I could liken the legislative process to the position of house owners or tenants. If we felt that we were under threat or there was evidence of threat to our property, we would put up defensive mechanisms. We might not like to put up fencing or take other protective measures to ensure that our properties were secure, but we would know that those measures were essential. The Bill may be viewed in a similar light. None of us looks forward to renewing the legislation, but we know that it is essential.
We welcome the Minister's assurance that pre-legislative scrutiny on the Diplock courts will be granted to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, but, as several hon. Members have pointed out, it is unfortunate that the Secretary of State has not said that there should be pre-legislative scrutiny of the even more important Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill. Similarly, the Minister made an impassioned plea for the retention of section 108.
Lembit Öpik: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that even if there is pre-legislative scrutiny, there is no guarantee that the Government will take the outcome on board? I cite the fact that we have been told in Wales that the four police forces are to be merged into one, but that there will be consultation. To date, we have been given no indication whatever that the Government intend to take the consultation as useful feedback and alter their plans. One thing the Minister could do is give us an assurance that the pre-legislative scrutiny will be taken seriously by the Government and has some chance of altering the legislation.