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5 July 2006 : Column 263WH—continued

Let us face the fact that if Sinn Fein gets into government in Northern Ireland and does not then support the police, there will be absolutely no pressure
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on it to start supporting them. The hon. Member for Foyle referred to the lessons to be learned from the current process, and the biggest lesson, which the Ulster Unionist party did not learn—costing it its seats in this House and its position in Northern Ireland—concerns what happens when we pander to Sinn Fein and do not take a zero-tolerance approach to such issues, but say, “We’ll have a parallel process. We’ll let you into government.” The Ulster Unionist party did not learn what happens when we say, “You can decommission alongside”, or, “You can get involved in the democratic process and wean yourself off criminality, terrorism and paramilitarism when you get into government and start to work Government institutions. That’s the way to go.” When Sinn Fein went into government, it was quite clear that it did little or nothing about any of the rest of the stuff; it carried on with its paramilitarism and criminality and did not decommission its arms. The lesson that we must learn is that if we want Sinn Fein-IRA to commit to supporting the police and the institutions of law and order, they must do so before they get into government. After that, there will be no means to exert pressure on them to do anything else.

I agree with a large amount of what has been said about community restorative justice. I simply make the point that there are community restorative justice projects in Northern Ireland that work alongside the police and that involve the police not only in their day-to-day operations but in their management committees. I mention Northern Ireland Alternatives, which works in my constituency, in North Down and in other constituencies. Where community restorative justice programmes involve the police and do not give rise to the problems to which my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim and the hon. Member for Foyle alluded, there is a case for saying that they should be looked at differently from schemes run by Community Restorative Justice Ireland, which refuses to have the police anywhere near. There is a distinction there.

On the general point, it is essential for the confidence of the people of Northern Ireland that their local areas and housing estates are policed in a way that is transparent, so that they have confidence that things are not being run by paramilitaries or those associated with them. Community support police officers give rise to the same sort of concerns among ordinary people, who think there is a danger that local paramilitaries could gain a foothold in the policing of local areas if such officers are recruited from local communities. It is essential that we examine draft legislation and terms of employment before any final decisions are made and that, whatever happens, there are clear procedures for vetting officers, so that no one becomes a community police support officer who would not be entitled or able to become a regular police officer. There can be no double standards or lower standards in respect of anyone who seeks to become a community support officer, as there are real concerns in areas that I represent and in others that it could be a back door for paramilitaries.

The lack of public interest in the operation of local district police partnership arrangements and the fact that members of the public are not turning up to meetings has been highlighted recently, particularly in
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the Belfast Telegraph. On some occasions, meetings have been abandoned because there was not a quorum. Colleagues and I have been involved for a long time in local police liaison committees in my patch of north Belfast. They have worked well and have had good attendance. The police have come to meetings and responded to local concerns. Those committees believe that they are being bypassed in favour of DPPs, which are formal and structured and which do not allow the same input from the local community on bringing the police to account.

I ask the Minister to justify the millions of pounds that have been spent on the DPP structure across Northern Ireland. Many people believe that it is not working. It does not bring the police to account in the way envisaged in Patten. Rather than sticking to every letter of what Patten said, people should think about what works, what is effective, and what, in fact, delivers. Something may well have been in Patten, but it should be reviewed if it is not working. We must be prepared to be flexible and think about structures that can properly bring local police to account.

10.32 am

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I thank the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) for giving us the opportunity to debate policing in Northern Ireland. He will know that the issue that has been vexing many of us in Wales is whether the four forces of the Welsh police service should be merged. However, in comparison, the problems in Northern Ireland policing dwarf the difficulties faced anywhere else.

We have heard much about community restorative justice schemes. We have heard criticism as well as support. My judgment is that they have an important role to play in dealing with the low-level crime that most commonly concerns local communities. Such schemes can sometimes provide a more effective and productive route for both the offender and the victim. A more victim-oriented solution is possible that brings to the attention of some offenders the reality of their actions. There is some evidence to suggest that well-run CRJ schemes reduce the risk of reoffending.

In addition, CRJ may be useful in preventing young people from taking a more formalised criminal path. Such schemes seem to work well in places such as New Zealand, United States and Canada.

However, as we have heard, there must be safeguards. They were set out in the review and included upholding the human rights of all participants, receiving referrals from the criminal justice system—I shall return to that—being open to inspection by the independent criminal justice inspectorate of Northern Ireland and adhering to high standards. The real danger is of such systems operating outside the law, and we heard strong arguments about that.

I am sorry to say that many schemes seem to have fairly clear-cut, albeit indirect, links to paramilitaries, in that they employ individuals with terrorist records. They rationalise the role of paramilitaries in society and take referrals from such organisations. A recent Independent Monitoring Commission report highlighted the dangers of CRJ schemes operating without proper guidelines, or weak and ineffective ones. Therefore, any firm proposals must be accompanied by rigorous safeguards and proposals.

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It is fair to say that over the past few years the Police Service of Northern Ireland has become the most heavily scrutinised and accountable service anywhere in the world. Therefore, it would be totally unacceptable for policing functions to be devolved to the community, which has much less demanding procedures in place, in a way that appears to bypass the police.

I have good news for hon. Members: in October 2005, Northern Ireland’s finest political party, the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland—I believe that I can say that without fear of contradiction—[Interruption.] Perhaps not. I seem to have created the greatest controversy in the debate so far with that comment.

The Alliance party put forward several key principles that should guide any formal state co-operation with or recognition of community-based restorative justice schemes. Whether or not hon. Members vote for the Alliance party, I hope that they will consider the five key elements of the recommendations. First, there must be protections to ensure that neither the victim nor the alleged perpetrator is coerced into participating with any scheme, and must have the right to exit the process at any stage. Coercion can be actual or perceived, and some schemes, particularly those with perceived paramilitary links, can carry with them the undercurrent of threat, based on who the people involved are or with whom they are associated. That is unacceptable.

Secondly, statutory agencies including the police must be represented on the boards of such schemes. Thirdly, the police must be informed of all referrals and should be able to make an independent judgment regarding whether a particular suspect would be better processed through the formal criminal justice scheme or through the scheme.

Fourthly, those running CRJ schemes must receive formal training. It is not good enough for them to say, “I will deal with this, I have plenty of experience”, not least because often that experience itself can lead to concerns that a paramilitary operation is functioning under the cloak of legitimacy. Fifthly, the operation of CRJ schemes and their funding must be subject to annual review by the Northern Ireland Office to prevent any risk of corruption in respect of funds.

CRJ schemes must not be an alternative to the existing policing and criminal justice system but a complement to it. That point was made by the hon. Member for East Antrim and others, and I very much agree. Indeed, I would not support any proposal that allowed a CRJ scheme to bypass contact with the police, for all the reasons that we have heard. However noble and thorough the Probation Board of Northern Ireland or the Youth Justice Agency may be, they are not the police.

Many people have swallowed bitter pills in the re-formation and restructuring of the police specifically to make it easier for Sinn Fein and others to participate in the police service. We can go as far as saying that if certain people are not prepared to accept the legitimacy of the police, it calls into question their fitness to operate CRJ schemes. CRJ can operate only in conjunction with the PSNI. There can be no equivocation on that point, as anything else or anything less gives succour to the argument that the police in some way are not legitimate. We must leave that thought behind.

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It is also objectionable to recognise any scheme that places or entrenches paramilitary organisations in a position to control the procedure in any part of Northern Ireland, thereby subverting the interrelated values of respect for human rights, democracy and maintenance of the rule of law. We have heard good arguments about that which I shall not repeat. I am committed to maintaining the highest standards of justice and the rule of law in Northern Ireland, and, as we form the details of CRJ schemes, I am concerned to ensure that we take seriously the issues that, with the best will in the world, could create the unintended consequence of entrenching paramilitarism within the state structures. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about that.

We are opposed to the efforts of paramilitary groups to police communities through beatings and shootings. We must recognise that, whatever a person’s view about CRJ schemes, paramilitary beatings must become a thing of the past. Such attacks are wrong in all circumstances and should in no sense be tolerated on the spurious grounds that they fill a vacuum, pending the formation of a more legitimate police service. We have a legitimate police service. Now is the time for Sinn Fein and others to adhere to the rule of law and to participate within a law enforcement process that is there for all to see. We must recognise that paramilitary beatings constitute actual or grievous bodily harm under criminal law and are offences in themselves, not restorative justice by any stretch of the imagination.

To that end, I make a direct appeal to Sinn Fein. If there is to be public confidence in the IRA’s statement of last July, Sinn Fein must demonstrate its declared commitment to exclusively peaceful and democratic means by participating in the policing arrangements of Northern Ireland. Although I have a lot of respect for many in Sinn Fein and the long journey that they have made, it remains a bald fact that Sinn Fein must show that it has truly broken its links with the IRA. The best way to do that now is to indicate that there are no alternatives to the Police Service of Northern Ireland by henceforth participating in its management.

10.41 am

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) on securing this debate and on the typically passionate and eloquent way in which he spoke. Policing in Northern Ireland is obviously a subject close to his heart, as it is close to my heart and those of many in Northern Ireland. I do not intend to speak for long, as I want to give the Minister a chance to answer the many points that have been raised, but I entirely endorse the points that the hon. Gentleman made about the requirement for Sinn Fein to support the police.

A few weeks ago, I and the shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), sat in front of Mr. Adams and Mr. McGuiness and made that very point. Mr. Adams responded by saying that he was not sure that he could take his community along with him. If that is the case, I really do not know where we go from there. How can we have someone sitting in government who not only does not support the police, but does not recognise their legitimacy? The reason those in Sinn
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Fein do not recognise the legitimacy of the police is that they do not recognise the legitimacy of the British Government—as they refer to them—in Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein does not even call Northern Ireland Northern Ireland; it calls it the north of Ireland and talks about the British Government, as if they were nothing to do with them at all.

I hope that we can get the Assembly kick-started again, because this afternoon this place will have to deal with yet another statutory instrument, which covers a number of issues. We shall have to take all of it or leave all of it—we cannot amend any of it—yet most of us on the Committee do not even live in Northern Ireland.

I hope that the Assembly can get up and running again, but is it fair to ask my hon. Friends in the Democratic Unionist party to sit alongside people who have committed dreadful crimes in the past? People can repent and move on; but moving on is the requirement, and that means that people should accept the legitimacy of the Government and the police and do everything that they can to support them. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim said, that does not just mean joining police boards—we can all go and join a club tomorrow—but going with hearts and minds. Until the hearts and minds are right, we will not get the Assembly up and running, and we will not make progress.

I mention my hon. Friends in the Democratic Unionist party, but on Monday and Tuesday I was in Belfast for meetings with all the political parties, apart from Sinn Fein; it is not that I do meet Sinn Fein—I do—but it was not possible on that occasion. I spoke to the leader of the Ulster Unionist party, who said that he very much hoped to get things up and running. I asked, “Well, would you go into Government with Sinn Fein with the situation as it today?” His response was, “I think I’d want to see some movement on policing first.” So, it is not just my hon. Friends in the Democratic Unionist party who say that. All legitimate parties recognise that there must be some movement—the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) came at the issue from a different angle, but he has also been concerned about the situation for a long time.

On my previous visit to Northern Ireland, I went to south Armagh and spoke to the police there, who are very concerned about the proposed reduction in the Army numbers. They told me that their police officers cannot even go into shops in the area and be served, and that the MP for the area will not even speak to them, never mind support them or encourage his people to go to them if they have witnessed a crime. Is he to sit in the Government? In my judgment, it would be difficult for him to do so.

When I went past Magennis’s bar on Monday, I was reminded of the IRA’s continued activity. At the very time when it was negotiating to sit in Government, 18 or so months ago, it was planning the Northern bank robbery, the money from which has not been fully recovered. There was the dreadful murder in Magennis’s bar, which the IRA cleaned up to hide the evidence, rather than taking it to the police, and there was the dreadful gang rape of a young girl shortly after that. Was evidence taken to the police? No: an attempt was made to clean up the scene. Although I share the desire for the Assembly to be up and running again, for the
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reasons that I have given, the more often I visit Northern Ireland, the more I am convinced that Sinn Fein-IRA have to support the police in their hearts and minds.

Something odd about going over to Northern Ireland regularly is that one reads the local newspapers, which one does not much see in this country. They report much that is not reported over here, which is significant. It is easy for Members to sit in this Chamber and say, “Oh, they should join the Assembly and sit in Government—they should give it a go”, but it is very different over there and much more difficult than we perceive to say such things.

I entirely endorse everything that my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim and other hon. Members have said. I congratulate the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) on making a robust speech, as well as my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mr. Fraser) on his telling remarks about the reduction in support that the Army will be able to give to the police, which is a worrying development.

I have gone on for slightly longer than I intended, but I wanted to express, on behalf of Her Majesty’s official Opposition, our entire agreement with the words that the hon. Member for East Antrim so eloquently put to us.

10.48 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Paul Goggins): I congratulate the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) on securing the debate. He has a significant track record on such matters and was an assiduous member of the Policing Board for a number of years. Just as his presence is felt here, so I am sure his absence is equally felt there.

The hon. Gentleman raised issues of local policing, which are top priorities for our constituents wherever we are in the United Kingdom. He focused on a number of issues in relation to Northern Ireland, with which I shall deal in a moment. I am sure that he would join me in paying tribute to the fine work of police officers in Northern Ireland and their continuing success in tackling crime at all levels.

Hon. Members have referred to publication of the report later today on organised crime in Northern Ireland. The tenacity with which the police and other agencies are dealing with that threat is commendable. Equally, dealing with community policing issues is important. During meetings with the Chief Constable and senior colleagues, as well as with officers in a number of locations, such as Omagh, Foyle, Newry and south Armagh, I have been struck by their absolute commitment and dedication to ensuring that the communities of Northern Ireland can live in safety and security.

The context for policing is changing, as I think we would all acknowledge. The political and security contexts have improved. The symbolism of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs publishing its report in Armagh today speaks volumes for the progress that we have made, notwithstanding the fact that it will highlight some of the remaining challenges. The organisational changes that have emerged from
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Patten are also highly significant. We know from the oversight commissioner’s report that three quarters of those recommendations have been implemented.

I was struck by the comment from the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) that the policing structure in Northern Ireland is probably one of the most accountable in the world. With the Policing Board, district policing partnerships, the police ombudsman and so on, the system is very transparent. It is far too early to be sure, and it would be utterly naive to describe Northern Ireland as normal in relation to policing, but we should not be over-pessimistic either. We are moving to a situation in which things that we might take for granted in other parts of the United Kingdom, such as police being able to police in their own areas, where they live, should become the norm in Northern Ireland. In the past, that has not been the case.

I shall deal briefly with points made by the hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mr. Fraser) and his Front-Bench colleague, the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) on the reduction in the number of Army personnel in Northern Ireland. We have made it clear that as we move down the path of normalisation there will be fewer military in Northern Ireland. From August next year, there will be a garrison presence of 5,000, which will represent a reduction from current numbers. We should take encouragement from what is happening. No military personnel at all were engaged with the Whiterock parade just over a week ago. We need to acknowledge that that is a move forward.

I am sure that all hon. Members present would join me in congratulating the police officers acknowledged in the recent community policing awards, which take us to the very essence of effective local policing. I pay particular tribute to Constable Chris Murdoch in Coleraine, who received the top award for being the community police officer of the year. He was recognised as a highly visible, accessible police officer who makes a contribution to improving the quality of life in his area. He is also very good at catching criminals, which is a rather good characteristic for a police officer.

Public confidence is high. Some surveys reveal that more than three quarters of people in Northern Ireland have confidence in police and policing arrangements, and Northern Ireland is, despite all the difficulties and challenges we face, one of the safest places in the United Kingdom in which to live in terms of crime.

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