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There has been no greater example of transformation in Northern Ireland than in policing, led by Sir Hugh Orde, who is recognised and admired the world over for his integrity, toughness, plain speaking and professionalism, deserving the support of the whole community, of every party and of everyone. There is increasing evidence that that is happening, shown by the rising numbers of applicants to join the
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Police Service of Northern Ireland from the nationalist and republican communities.

The St. Andrews agreement also included a clear commitment, and a target of May 2008, for the devolution of policing and justice powers to the restored Executive. We expect all concerned to take that target seriously. Indeed, the Bill requires the Assembly to report to the Secretary of State before 27 March 2008 on progress towards the devolution of policing and justice powers. I want to make it clear that, once policing and justice is devolved, there is nothing in the pledge that would remove or unreasonably constrain any future Minister of policing and justice from making legitimate criticism of the police. After all, proper accountability was central to the Good Friday agreement’s vision for new policing arrangements in Northern Ireland and was a core element of the Patten report’s recommendations. Proper accountability, which can sometimes include constructive criticism, is essential in delivering the police service that Northern Ireland deserves. There is a world of difference between that and a failure to support Northern Ireland policing and justice institutions.

I remind the House that, this summer, Parliament legislated for devolution of policing and justice. We want to see that delivered so that the whole of Northern Ireland can better have ownership of the rule of law and policing. That is in the interest of everyone: the old lady who is reluctant to go out at night for fear of intimidation from drunken yobs; the woman, her life shattered, who demands that her rapist be apprehended; the victim of murder; the victim of mugging; and the victim of burglary. It is one thing for republicans to explain why, for historic and political reasons, policing has been so neuralgic for them. It is quite another to turn their back on constituents who, as Northern Ireland has normalised, demand safety and security in their lives and demand that it is provided by the police.

Of course, much of policing has already been devolved and I want to pay tribute to the work of the Policing Board, the police ombudsman and the district policing partnerships for the role that they play in making the Police Service of Northern Ireland more accountable than perhaps any other force anywhere else in the world.

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): The Secretary of State quite rightly points out the magnificent role that those who are on the Policing Board and involved in district policing partnerships have played. Will he give an assurance that, if Sinn Fein is to come on to the Policing Board or the district policing partnerships, the independents who took great risks to serve in those institutions will not be taken off them in order to facilitate places for Sinn Fein members?

Mr. Hain: First, it is important that Sinn Fein support all the institutions of policing, including the Policing Board and the DPPs. There is no question about that. The point that the hon. Gentleman raises is one that the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) and his party have raised with me, too. His party,
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especially, has supported independent candidates. Some of them have been from his party. Those candidates have taken a principled stand in moving forward in the new era of the PSNI and have often had a rough time in their communities. There has been a great deal of intimidation—sometimes threats and sometimes actual violence. The vice-chairman of the Policing Board, Denis Bradley, was attacked in a pub in Derry simply because he had been courageous and had done an excellent job on the Policing Board. I absolutely agree with the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) that those members who stood by the policing institutions deserve support and recognition.

The future of devolution for Northern Ireland rests on twin pillars: if either one collapses, the whole edifice collapses. We must know that the parties want to move forward to 26 March on that basis. That is why 24 November—this Friday—is important. When that deadline was set, well before St. Andrews, I said that we needed to know by then that a deal was on and that we were on track for a lasting political settlement—devolution. That is still the case. Without knowing that, there cannot be a transitional Assembly. Without knowing that, there cannot be an election. Without knowing that, there cannot be devolution. The sequence set out at St. Andrews will not be set aside. No one should see this as some kind of virility test to see who will blink first. If the Assembly has to be dissolved because we cannot move forward, it will be. I sincerely hope that it will not come to that.

As the Preparation for Government Committee showed over the summer, meeting with all parties present for 43 sessions between 5 June and 30 October, the parties can work constructively together when they choose to. Indeed they did so yesterday in the first meeting of the Programme for Government Committee. That was the first of what I am sure will be many meetings, because it is clear that there is considerable work to be done as we move to the point where the people can give their verdict in the election to be held 7 March 2007. There is work to be done on education reform, rates, water charges and rural homes planning; work to be done on the ministerial code; and work to be done on preparing for devolution of policing and justice—work to be done not, as now, by direct rule Ministers, but by locally accountable politicians.

I am conscious that there was a range of views on how the commitment at St. Andrews to consult the people should be met. There is a case for a referendum, which does have the attraction of being a single issue question, but if a referendum were to be held, an election would follow within a year of the new Executive getting down to work. What the newly devolved institutions will need is a prolonged period of stability in the four years before the next election is due, in May 2011. For the parties to go into election mode almost from day one would inevitably get in the way of MLAs getting on with the business of government on the wide range of challenges that will face them—education, rates, rural planning, water charges and so on. That is what the people want to see them taking charge of. Of course, the fact that the two main parties indicated that, if there was to be a reference to the people, it should be through an election, was another factor to be considered.

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Lady Hermon: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for being so generous in taking interventions from both sides of the House. Does he accept that, by the time the DUP and Sinn Fein have written their manifestos and promised the sun, the moon, the stars and goodness knows what else, the people of Northern Ireland will be being asked to vote in an election to a deadlocked Assembly, not the Assembly that he has just described to the House?

Mr. Hain: With all due respect, I do not see why that should be the case. The parties will be elected to a new Assembly. Their Members, as nominated, will take their place in the Executive in ministerial posts only after taking the pledge of office. Then, they will be able to move forward and govern together. When one looks at the challenges facing Northern Ireland and some of the thorny issues with which we as direct rule Ministers have had to grapple, one sees that it is imperative that responsibilities are exercised, decisions are made quickly and progress is made. That is why the work of the Programme for Government Committee, which met successfully yesterday and will, I am sure, have a programme of regular meetings in the coming days and weeks, is crucial to enabling the incoming Executive to get off to a flying start and, far from remaining deadlocked, to be very dynamic.

Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): The Secretary of State has said several times in the course of his speech that both my party and Sinn Fein have requested an election rather than a referendum. It is, of course, true that we want an election, but Sinn Fein has specifically denied saying that it wants an election. Will the Secretary of State be crystal clear about when Sinn Fein has said that it is against a referendum and for an election?

Mr. Hain: All I can go by is what Sinn Fein told me. Its representatives told me that they would prefer no consultation prior to restoration—that was their preferred option by a long way, to be fair to them—but if there had to be consultation, as I believe there must be if we are to move forward, they preferred an election to a referendum. That was their clear choice. They would have preferred there to be no form of consultation, but I pointed out that there would be consultation, so they joined the DUP in preferring an election.

Following the election, when Ministers take the pledge of office and assume responsibility for government, Northern Ireland will have entered a new era. Between now and March—and well beyond, I have no doubt—there will be difficulties that some will call crises and some will try to make into crises, but those can be overcome if everyone delivers on their commitments. That is what this is all about—not saying it, but doing it, and finding a way to work together so that future generations are not shackled by the past.

Just last week the cutting edge travel guide, “Lonely Planet”, said that Northern Ireland is one of the must-see destinations for tourists. It stated that Northern Ireland was

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There could be no greater incentive for the parties in Northern Ireland to be an active part of that. They can be, and this House trusts that they will be. I commend the Bill to the House.

4.10 pm

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): It is never satisfactory when we are invited to bypass the normal procedures of the House for debate and detailed scrutiny, but this is one of those occasions when I believe that it is right for the House to give the Government the benefit of the doubt and to co-operate in seeing the Bill through all its stages today. It is somewhat ironic that we are being invited to repeal the Northern Ireland Act 2006, which we solemnly debated and passed as recently as July. However, as the Secretary of State hinted, the Government are in a tight spot as regards this Friday’s deadline, whereby the current statutory position is that on Friday he must either restore the devolved institutions or dissolve the Assembly and cease the payment of salaries and allowances altogether. I argued consistently that the November deadline was over-optimistic; the Secretary of State will probably riposte that had he not set the November deadline we might not have moved as far forward as was achieved at St. Andrews.

One thing that is clear is that over the past few months we have at least inched closer to an agreement. We are closer now than we were back in July. The Independent Monitoring Commission has reported that the provisionals have dismantled key departments of their paramilitary organisation and the IRA leadership is working to stop the involvement of its members in crime.

St. Andrews was a step forward. I welcome the clear statements from the Democratic Unionist party, particularly from the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley), that it is willing to take part in a power-sharing Executive that includes Sinn Fein, provided that the basic democratic ground rules are accepted and observed by all parties. It is important that we all acknowledge that that commitment from the Unionists is a remarkable and generous step for them to take, given the bloody history of the Provisional IRA and the personal bereavements that so many people in the Unionist parties and the democratic nationalist tradition have had to bear.

However, one key element is missing. There is a gap in the framework of arrangements that would allow devolution to proceed. If Sinn Fein is to be accepted, as it claims, as a normal democratic political party, and if its leaders are to serve as Ministers in Northern Ireland, it must say and show by its actions that it supports the police and the courts of the place that it will be helping to govern. Doing so does not mean that Sinn Fein, or anyone else for that matter, needs to stop campaigning for votes on a manifesto that seeks further reforms to the police service or the criminal justice system—we frequently have such debates in this Chamber and campaign on those issues out in the country—but it does mean requiring that the republican movement accept that the authority exercised by the Police Service of Northern Ireland and by the courts is legitimate. It means people showing its practical support by reporting crimes to the police, by giving evidence to police inquiries, and by acting as
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witnesses in court cases—in other words, it means accepting the basic responsibilities held not only by Ministers, but by all citizens in any normal democracy. Those are responsibilities that all Members of the House of all parties, and every mainstream political party in the Republic of Ireland, take for granted.

Mr. Gregory Campbell: The hon. Gentleman outlined the bloody history to which the IRA has subjected the people of Northern Ireland, and he is graphically illustrating the move that Sinn Fein must make towards giving support to the rule of law and the police. Does he understand that, given that background, we need to set a credible period of time in which Sinn Fein must go further than just saying that it supports the rule of law? We need to see practical examples of that support on the ground, once it has given that commitment, before we can move forward.

Mr. Lidington: There must be both a clear statement of commitment and evidence on the ground, and I look to bodies such as the Independent Monitoring Commission and the Police Service of Northern Ireland itself to provide evidence of that change on the ground. If it is possible to achieve devolution by next March, that sort of regular co-operation with the police, constructive participation in district policing partnerships and co-operation with the Policing Board will be very important, especially if the Assembly is to be persuaded to ask the Secretary of State and the House to devolve policing and criminal justice to the institutions in Stormont.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East) (DUP): I almost apologise for asking this question, because it is an awkward one to bowl towards the shadow Secretary of State. He has heard the Secretary of State avoiding answering, and cringing under, sedentary comments from colleagues asking him the “when” question. Clearly, if a date of 26 March is set, there must be a point along the road from the St. Andrews agreement to that date at which it becomes ludicrous to ask people to accept the bona fides of Sinn Fein. Does that point come at 7 March, in February, or in January? At what point along that line must Sinn Fein make that statement and that commitment?

Mr. Lidington: I see no reason why Sinn Fein should not make it tomorrow, but I preface my answer by remarking that I genuinely do not want to say anything that will hem in the Secretary of State when he comes to make that difficult judgment. However, looking at the evolving political situation in Northern Ireland, it seems that if the transitional Assembly is to be dissolved on 30 January, and if parties are then to go to the electorate and ask people to vote for their candidates, there must, by then, be certainty about Sinn Fein endorsing policing. In practice, it will be very difficult to persuade voters to support at the ballot box a package based on St. Andrews in the absence of such a commitment. To ask people to seek election on the basis of a “perhaps” or a conditional promise is asking a lot. The electoral process will start to impose its own pressures on the timetable.

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Sir Patrick Cormack: Does my hon. Friend, who is making an excellent speech, agree that unless an assurance is given by the turn of the year at the very latest, it will lack all credibility?

Mr. Lidington: As I said, I do not want to impose arbitrary dates, particularly because, as an Opposition spokesman, I am not party to the details of conversations between Ministers and the various political parties, but the thrust of what my hon. Friend says is correct. We are looking for some sign of clear movement within a period of weeks, rather than of several months.

Mr. Dodds: The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely important point, as he is dealing with the nub of the issue. For people in Northern Ireland it is vital that there be a credible period in which to test individuals who have engaged in the butchery that has been under way for 30 years. They need to move pretty soon—any time now, in fact—on policing, criminality and paramilitary structures in order to be credible. There is a 10-week period from today until an election is called, so most people think that that condition cannot be met.

Mr. Lidington: The sooner that that happens, the better. In considering the points made by Northern Ireland Members, I am reminded of the draft comprehensive agreement of 2004. Both the British and Irish Governments expected that, within two months of that agreement becoming a firm one, Sinn Fein would take the necessary steps to endorse policing. In July this year, Members on both sides of the House took steps to make sure that the legislation to permit the devolution of criminal justice and policing completed its passage through Parliament and received Royal Assent before the summer recess, when we expected significant moves forward by the republican movement. I am dismayed that, so far, it has failed to take those steps.

Andrew Mackinlay: From my perspective in Essex, there is an elephant trap for the constitutional parties—the Ulster Unionists, the Democratic Unionist party and colleagues in the Social Democratic and Labour party. If Sinn Fein does not deliver in a short time, surely it faces a dilemma. It may wish to maximise its strength, but it will go to the electorate without delivering or being prepared to play ball. There is a danger that ambiguous and confused signals will be sent to the various electorates. The parties want elections, and they want to maximise their seats to show their strength, but they will not enter a coalition with people who have not signed up to the police and court services.

Mr. Lidington: I can only repeat that the electoral timetable will impose its own pressures on political developments, precisely because candidates at those elections must decide what to include in their election addresses, and what they will say on the doorstep to the people whose support they are trying to secure. They must answer the kind of questions from electors that the hon. Gentleman suggested. It is a shame, to put it mildly, that Sinn Fein failed to move over the summer.
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The Secretary of State touched on the following point. When I talk to Sinn Fein politicians, I sometimes wonder whether they fully appreciate the nature of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. I believe that much of the criticism of the Royal Ulster Constabulary was based on an unfair caricature, so it is disappointing that, even today, Sinn Fein spokesmen appear to resort to that ancient caricature to describe the PSNI of the early 21st century.

A few weeks ago, with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, I visited Garnerville, where we met a number of police recruits. All the senior police officers left the room, leaving my right hon. Friend and me alone with those new recruits. We both left the meeting inspired by a group of young men and women from both traditions in Northern Ireland who were committed to delivering modern, effective community policing to the men and women of Northern Ireland, whatever their political or religious or cultural traditions. We heard young men and women from the Ardoyne and other nationalist and republican heartlands saying that whereas their parents’ generation would certainly have shunned the police and would never have contemplated a career in the police, they believed that they were helping to build something that was new, exciting and in the interests of everyone in the whole of Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein leaders need to wake up to the reality of what is going on. I also hear from police officers on the ground that ordinary men and women in republican heartlands increasingly want to see effective neighbourhood policing, and they want their political leaders in Sinn Fein to lift the ban on co-operation with the PSNI that I am afraid it still seeks to impose through the threat of intimidation.

Mr. Hain: I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman. He is describing accurately—and eloquently, if I may say so—the pressures on the ground. The paramilitary grip on many of the communities—involving punishment beatings for drug dealing and all that kind of thing—has receded and has, in many respects, been completely withdrawn by the Provisional IRA, although dissident republicans are acting in a different way. The people are now bringing pressure to bear, and they are saying to their Sinn Fein representatives, “I want this burglary dealt with. I want this rape dealt with. I want you to do your job and to co-operate with the police so that my safety can be protected in the absence of alternative forms of protection.” The fact that those changes are happening under the rule of law puts enormous pressure on Sinn Fein, which knows that it is moving in that direction in any case.

Mr. Lidington: I completely agree with the Secretary of State. I hear those views expressed on the streets, even in west Belfast and south Armagh, and I believe that the time for Sinn Fein to act on that shift of mood is now overdue.

Lady Hermon: In the light of the severe criticism that the hon. Gentleman has rightly levelled at Sinn Fein for dragging out the period in which it is prepared to give its acceptance to policing and the criminal justice system, and of the Secretary of State’s assurances that there will be nominations this Friday, 24 November, does the hon. Gentleman believe that the DUP is jumping too soon by nominating by Friday?

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