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Northern Ireland

12.31 pm

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Peter Hain): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement about Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland is governed best when it is governed locally. Since 2002, for reasons that the whole House knows, that has not been possible. However, our commitment remains absolutely clear: the Government believe that 2006 can be the year for restoration of the Assembly and will work to that end as a matter of utmost priority.

My predecessors have all referred to critical times for Northern Ireland, and there have been many, but this year is indeed critical, especially for the Northern Ireland political parties and specifically for Assembly Members. For them, 2006 is a make-or-break year.

If no restoration of the Assembly is in prospect, two stark realities have to be faced. First, public resentment in Northern Ireland continues to build at the continued payment to Assembly Members of salaries and allowances that total on average £85,000 per member while Stormont stands idle. Since it was suspended in October 2002, the Assembly has cost £78 million to maintain.

Countless times, voters in Northern Ireland have asked me, "How long can this go on?" I want to tell the House today that it will not go on for many months more. Furthermore, no Northern Ireland political leader has disagreed with me that it would be traducing democracy to have elections for the second time to an Assembly that does not exist. Elections are due in May 2007. For them to be meaningful, we must have an Assembly that exercises its full responsibilities. We therefore need to make progress urgently. We cannot let things drift.

Members of the Legislative Assembly were elected to be active members of a legislative Assembly, working for their constituents in that Assembly. They have a duty to do so. I want to see them discharging their responsibilities to their electors to govern on the shared basis that the voters of Northern Ireland gave them a mandate for in the 1998 referendum. Of course, that means building greater trust to deliver on commitments already made on all sides.

Unionists and nationalists need to know that republicans are committed to exclusively lawful means. They need to know that all paramilitary activity, including criminality, has ended. The Independent Monitoring Commission is the body that will make that assessment. They also need to know that there is unequivocal support for the Police Service of Northern Ireland and for the rule of law. And republicans and nationalists have to know that unionists are fully committed to fair and equitable power sharing. But if people are serious about seeing a shared future based on fairness and equality, they must persuade each other of that. I am therefore asking each of the political parties to agree on dates in early February for substantial discussions with the British and Irish Governments, to give their views on the way forward to restore the political institutions. The Prime Minister, together with    the Taoiseach, will be closely involved with developments during the year.
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I also wish to inform the House about the Government's intentions as regards the Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill. When I moved its Second Reading on 23 November, I said that the Bill was necessary to help to bring closure to Northern Ireland's dark past of violence by resolving outstanding issues that had not been dealt with in the Belfast agreement, primarily that of terrorist suspects on the run. Following the agreement, more than 400 paramilitary prisoners were released on licence. Although victims of atrocities were, understandably, in uproar at the sight of murderers and former terrorists walking free, it was the right thing to do to seal the agreement and lock in the peace. However, it left unresolved an equally difficult matter: the issue of what to do about those who had committed terrorist offences before 10 April 1998 and who, had they been in prison at the material time, would have been part of the early release scheme. It also left unanswered the question of what to do about others who might be prosecuted in future for crimes committed during the troubles before the Good Friday agreement.

The Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill is a challenge to everyone to look to the future, and not to be trapped in the past. That challenge remains. But, as I told the House then, I did not bring forward the Bill with a spring in my step, because I knew how hard it was for those thousands of victims who had lost so much. I knew that introducing the legislation would be difficult and uncomfortable, and I neither sought nor expected the sympathy of the House for that.

Members of the House, particularly those from Northern Ireland, expressed their opposition to the Bill with great power and passion. In detailed discussion in Committee over many hours—I think it was 27 hours—those concerns were amplified with real commitment by Members across the Committee. That passion was expressed no less powerfully outside the House in meetings that I and my hon. Friend, the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, had with victims' groups. In response to the arguments put to us in Committee, we have been drafting wide-ranging amendments to the Bill, including amendments to ensure that defendants would have to appear before the special tribunal. We were also giving serious consideration to a time limit for the scheme.

The Government still feel that it was right to introduce this legislation, not least to honour the commitment made publicly by both the British and Irish Governments in 2003, a commitment that was a key building block in the process that saw the IRA end its armed campaign. The Government could have proceeded with the Bill when the issue was first raised seven years ago. We could have done so when the joint declaration was made in 2003. We did not do so, however, because the IRA had not delivered on its promise to end its war. We waited until that happened.

Every Northern Ireland party vigorously opposed the Bill, bar Sinn Fein. Now Sinn Fein opposes it, because it refuses to accept that the legislation should apply to members of the security forces charged with terrorism-related offences. To exclude from the provisions of the Bill any members of the security forces who might have been involved in such offences would have been not only illogical but indefensible, and we would not do it. Closure on the past cannot be one-sided. That was, and is, non-negotiable.
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The process would have made people accountable for their past actions through the special tribunal before being released on licence. Sinn Fein has now said that any republican potentially covered by the legislation should have nothing to do with it. But if no one went through the process, victims who would have suffered the pain of having to come to terms with the legislation would have done so for nothing. That is unacceptable, and I am therefore withdrawing the Bill.

When I introduced the Bill, I said that I would not presume to tell any victims that they must draw a line under the past, but the Government still believe that the anomaly will need to be faced at some stage as part of the process of moving forward. It is regrettable that Northern Ireland is not yet ready to do that. We will reflect carefully over the coming months on how to make progress in the context of dealing with the legacy of the past. We will not rush to conclusions and I will take stock in the autumn. In reflecting, we will be mindful of the views of all the political parties, the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, victims' groups and others.

We are approaching the endgame of a long period of transition that began with the ceasefire of the early 1990s. As I have said before, the endgame in conflict transformation is often the hardest part, and so it has proved in this case, but 2006 can and must be a year of historic progress in Northern Ireland. It must be a year in which we see a devolved, power-sharing executive of local politicians making the decisions that affect the everyday lives of the people of Northern Ireland. That goal should unite all Members of the House.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): In withdrawing the Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill, the Secretary of State has done the right thing, and I am happy to give his decision an unqualified welcome. It is good for the House that the Government have decided to join the cross-party consensus which, of course, extended to many Labour Members as well as members of all Opposition parties.

I hope that as the Secretary of State reflects on the way forward, he will take account of the position of those who were exiled from Northern Ireland by the threats of paramilitary organisations. I ask him above all to have at the forefront of his thoughts the interests of victims of the troubles and their families and to agree that, if there is to be a hope of reconciliation, particularly when we are asking so much of those who have lost members of their families to terrorism, there must be telling of the truth, not just a partial account of the truth, and some justice must be applied to those who were responsible for the violence of the past, even if that justice is largely symbolic. There must be both truth and justice if we are to have a chance of reconciliation.

As for the proposed all-party talks—or, rather, talks between the Governments and the various Northern Ireland parties—we have consistently supported efforts to achieve devolution. I want the institutions up and running again. Decisions that directly affect the lives of people in Northern Ireland ought to be made by locally elected representatives who are accountable to the people of the Province, not by the Order-in-Council procedure here, which is profoundly unsatisfactory and, frankly, pretty undemocratic.
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I hope that the Secretary of State's talks succeed, but does he agree that their success will depend crucially on two things? As he suggested, they will depend on the rebuilding of trust between parties and between communities—a trust that will have been fractured over the past year by incidents such as the robbery of the Northern bank and the murder of Robert McCartney, and the subsequent treatment of members of his family. Does he agree that trust is unlikely to be rebuilt quickly, or on the basis of a single favourable report from the Independent Monitoring Commission?

I want to make it clear that we Conservatives welcome the changes that the republican movement has made and announced, particularly those announced during the latter part of 2005, but we also want to see clear evidence that that change is both permanent and irreversible. Above all, does the Secretary of State agree that our hopes of success in the talks and the political process depend fundamentally on an end to criminality in all its forms, and on full support being given to the police, the courts and the rule of law by every political party that aspires to serve in government in Northern Ireland?

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