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Public Bill Committee Debates

Draft Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 (Specified Organisations) Order 2008

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Dr. William McCrea
Baldry, Tony (Banbury) (Con)
Battle, John (Leeds, West) (Lab)
Blackman, Liz (Vice-Chamberlain of Her Majesty's Household)
Blunkett, Mr. David (Sheffield, Brightside) (Lab)
Dowd, Jim (Lewisham, West) (Lab)
Fraser, Christopher (South-West Norfolk) (Con)
Goggins, Paul (Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office)
Holloway, Mr. Adam (Gravesham) (Con)
McGrady, Mr. Eddie (South Down) (SDLP)
Marris, Rob (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab)
Prosser, Gwyn (Dover) (Lab)
Reid, Mr. Alan (Argyll and Bute) (LD)
Robertson, Mr. Laurence (Tewkesbury) (Con)
Sharma, Mr. Virendra (Ealing, Southall) (Lab)
Simpson, David (Upper Bann) (DUP)
Stoate, Dr. Howard (Dartford) (Lab)
Watkinson, Angela (Upminster) (Con)
Wright, Mr. Anthony (Great Yarmouth) (Lab)
Hannah Weston, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee
The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118:
Durkan, Mark (Foyle) (SDLP)

Tenth Delegated Legislation Committee

Wednesday 2 July 2008

[Dr. William McCrea in the Chair]

Draft Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 (Specified Organisations) Order 2008

2.30 pm
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Paul Goggins): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 (Specified Organisations) Order 2008.
It is good to see you in the Chair, Dr. McCrea. The Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 provides that the Secretary of State must specify an organisation that is concerned with terrorism connected with the affairs of Northern Ireland or in promoting or encouraging it, and that has not established or is not maintaining a complete and unequivocal ceasefire. In applying his judgment to the second limb of that test, my right hon. Friend is obliged in particular to take into account the following four criteria: first, whether an organisation is committed to the use now and in future of only democratic and peaceful means to achieve its objectives; secondly, whether an organisation has ceased to be involved in any acts of violence or preparation for violence; thirdly, whether an organisation is directing or promoting acts of violence by other organisations and, fourthly, whether an organisation is co-operating fully with the Decommissioning Commission.
In coming to a judgment in the round, the Secretary of State will take into account briefings from the Security Service, in consultation with the Chief Constable. The following organisations are specified at the moment: Continuity IRA, the Loyalist Volunteer Force; the Orange Volunteers, the Real IRA, the Red Hand Defenders, the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Red Hand Commando. The Secretary of State keeps the status of all specified organisations and those purporting to be on a ceasefire under continuous review and takes advice from the Security Service and the Chief Constable on the robustness of all ceasefires.
Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): Given his interpretation of a specified organisation, does the Minister consider that, since it was despecified, the Ulster Defence Association has lived up to that reputation?
Paul Goggins: Our assessment of the UDA is that it needs to go further, but that those leaving the UDA are intent on making progress. As the hon. Gentleman and I have made clear in debates earlier in the year on the decommissioning amnesty, a message has to be sent loud and clear from the House that the days of special or abnormal arrangements for any loyalist paramilitary organisation are coming to an end. It is important that the UDA moves rapidly to full decommissioning in full engagement with the Decommissioning Commission. Our assessment is that some progress has been made and that some are intent on delivering sustainable peace in the long term, but that there are elements or individuals within that organisation who still engage in criminal activity. I deprecate that, and it is important that they move to a peaceful lifestyle as soon as possible.
The consequence of the order is that certain prisoners may be eligible for early release under the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998, although I can confirm to the Committee that currently no prisoners will benefit from despecification of the UVF and the Red Hand Commando. The order despecifies the Ulster Volunteer Force, referred to generally as the UVF, and the Red Hand Commando. The latter organisation is associated with the UVF and has been used as a flag of convenience for UVF activity in the past. The order also specifies "glaigh na hEireann.
I will turn first to the specification of "glaigh na hEireann. This is the first time that the organisation has been included in a specification order. It is a dissident republican splinter group that has no public support. It is operating under the pretence that the progress of recent years in peace, politics and economic development never took place. The Independent Monitoring Commission says that the organisation
“remains a continuing and serious threat”,
and it is clear that it meets the terms for specification.
"glaigh na hEireann engages in activity that is targeted on members of the security forces, and it has been involved in serious criminal activity. It was linked to the murder of Andrew Burns, a 27-year-old Strabane man, who was abducted and taken across the border to County Donegal where he was shot twice. The IMC classed that as a paramilitary murder and attributed it to "glaigh na hEireann. Like other dissident republican groups that have set themselves on this dangerous path, "glaigh na hEireann represents no one but itself. It has no cause, no mandate and nowhere to go except out of business. While the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland have moved well beyond the dark days of conflict, a threat remains from those dissident groups that have yet to grasp that the world has moved on. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the work of the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the security services in tackling that threat both professionally and consistently.
The order despecifies the UVF and the Red Hand Commando, which were specified in 2005 following a violent feud with the Loyalist Volunteer Force, including rioting at the Whiterock parade. Significant progress has been made since those events. Indeed, this year’s Whiterock parade passed off peacefully last Saturday. A reduction in activity and a change in direction have been documented by the IMC in its reports, the most significant step being the statement on 3 May 2007, which announced an end to the terror campaign. The statement said that the
“UVF/Red Hand Commando will assume a non-military, civilianised role”
and that all ordinances would be “put beyond reach”. That announcement indicated a major turning point for the organisation, and the then Secretary of State committed to review its status.
David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): The Minister will be aware that right across the Province, paramilitary organisations on both sides of the community are moving away from what we would term terrorism, and into criminality—the selling of drugs to our young people, or whatever. Will he outline how the Government intend to monitor that situation when we move to despecify these organisations? How does he plan to assess the activities of the despecified groups and the way in which they encourage terrorist activity?
Paul Goggins: It is important to recognise that any group that is despecified is still proscribed, so the activities of that organisation are under the constant attention of the Security Service and the PSNI. Just because an organisation is despecified, that does not mean that it is no longer of any interest to the forces of law and order. The hon. Member for Upper Bann has been supportive of the action that we have taken in this regard. As he will appreciate, the work of the Organised Crime Task Force in Northern Ireland, bringing together all the forces of law and order and linking up with those in the Republic of Ireland and across the rest of the United Kingdom, is very important. Those people who move away from paramilitary activity into organised criminal activity are still a major threat to communities in Northern Ireland, and it is important that that threat is dealt with. We shall continue to be vigilant in that regard.
As the Secretary of State said at the recent Mitchell conference, which was held to mark 10 years since the Good Friday agreement, structures such as the IICD and the IMC are
“time limited, and will not be here forever.”
The IICD represents a legal route to decommissioning, but as others and I made clear in February when the decommissioning amnesty was extended for a further year, loyalist paramilitary groups must make a full transition to peace, and soon. Nevertheless, it is right to recognise progress to date. The evidence from the IMC report is there for all to see. We have weighed it carefully, and concluded that the tests for despecification are met in the case of the UVF/Red Hand Commando.
2.38 pm
Mr. Robertson: Welcome to the Committee, Dr. McCrea. The problem with orders such as this, as has been said many times, is that there can be parts one disagrees with and parts one agrees with. We have been in that position many times on orders regarding Northern Ireland. I am afraid that today is another such occasion. Let me speak briefly about the part with which we agree and then turn to the slightly more tricky bit, with which we do not agree.
On that basis, we have to agree that the organisation should be specified. As the Minister said, such dissident republican organisations will not threaten to derail the peace process because they do not have the public support. Nevertheless, they are very dangerous and we have to take that into account.
Let me turn to the slightly tricky issues with which we do not necessarily agree. As the Minister said, the ONH does not have public support, but organisations such as the Ulster Defence Association and the UVF have some support within their own communities, regrettable though that may be. I, therefore, think it a little inconsistent to despecify the UDA. It was despecified in 2004. That was a matter of judgment, but it could easily be said that the UDA has continued to operate as a paramilitary organisation. It has not decommissioned its weapons. Therefore, should we not learn some lessons from the fact that despecification has not encouraged it down the road that we would like it to take?
The Minister might be saying, although he did not, that it would be right to despecify the UVF to bring it into the process. If it had not been for the UDA analogy or example, that may have been a persuasive argument, but based on the example before us I cannot accept that we should despecify the UVF. Will he explain his position on decommissioning weapons when it comes to despecifying? I do not believe that it is weak, but it is rather concerning when an organisation can retain its arsenal and yet be despecified. Its arsenal has not been got rid of completely; we do not know what has happened to it. The IMC has said that the UVF has put its weapons “beyond use”, but the IMC regrets that that the UVF did not do so by working with the IMC. The UVF is working independently, and as far as I know such facts have not been verified.
As the Minister said, if an organisation is despecified, its members who are in prison could qualify for early release under the Good Friday agreement. That means that people could be freed to join in the criminal activities of such organisations. They may even have access to weapons that we have been told have been destroyed, but about which we have received no verification. We therefore have several worries in that respect.
The Minister also touched on the UVF statement of May 2007, in which the organisation called
“on all violent dissidents to desist immediately”
and urged
“all relevant governments and their security apparatus to deal swiftly and efficiently”
with that threat. Rather menacingly, the next paragraph stated:
“Failure to do so, will inevitably provoke another generation of loyalists towards armed resistance.”
That has to be wrong.
That is a chilling statement. It is a threat. We should not be despecifying that organisation when it is—in its own words, not mine—effectively threatening the Government and the security forces of the country. That is not acceptable.
I shall quote a little more from the IMC, which says that
“in some places the organisation might seek to retain a small residual capability to respond to future attacks”.
That is in exact accordance with the organisation’s own statement that it is minded to be in a position to do that. The report continues that
“its members had been responsible for about a third of the paramilitary attacks attributable to loyalists. We also said that the question of decommissioning remained... some UVF members continue to be involved in serious criminal activity.”
It goes on:
“We are satisfied that the leadership is committed to further development in this direction. But more remains to be done, above all in respect of decommissioning... Individual members of the organisation have sought to procure weapons.”
To me, that is not a recipe for peace; it is a strategy of arming oneself just in case the need arises. That coincides with what the group said in its statement.
I am rather torn on the order. I want to support the Government’s decision to specify the ONH, but unless I am persuaded otherwise, I will oppose the order because it will despecify what I see as still a dangerous organisation that has killed more than 500 people since the late 1960s. I will seek a Division on the matter and urge my hon. Friends to support me.
I am happy to listen to contributions from others and from the Minister, but, as things stand, and given what I read in the IMC report and the UVF’s own statement, I remain unconvinced that now is the right time for such a measure, especially when we also have the example of the UDA to consider.
2.48 pm
Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): I appreciate your tolerance, Dr. McCrea. As you know, my hon. Friend the Member for South Down is a member of the Committee but unfortunately he was unable to attend. I would like to pick up a couple of points that emerged from what the Minister and the hon. Member for Tewkesbury said.
The process that we are going through today is part of the twilight zone arrangements in the context of the peace process. A system has been created that makes many of us uncomfortable, as we appear to deem some paramilitary organisations as new and improved by virtue of their being despecified. There is a strong sense of cynicism about some of that, just as there is a deep sense of scepticism about the motives and activities of some of the despecified organisations. The UDA, which has been despecified for some time, continues to be unclean in its motives and activities, both within its community and at other levels. Similarly, as the hon. Member for Tewkesbury reflected, there are still serious questions about the UVF.
As well as removing excuses, we need to provide firmer incentives for organisations, including for meaningful engagement with the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning. A number of organisations that are despecified do not engage meaningfully with the IICD, to the end of decommissioning or of anything else. We have the right to ask and expect that of those organisations, if we are expected to tolerate their despecification.
I also want to touch on the specification of "glaigh na hEireann. “"glaigh na hEireann” is not a new name. It is the traditional name that the IRA has always used for itself. If the Provisional IRA army council meets, it meets as the army council of "glaigh na hEireann—that is how it styles itself. At the weekend, there was a commemorative event for IRA volunteers who had died or been killed on active service. It was addressed, in a significant and well-covered address, by the Deputy First Minister, but all the people who were honoured were the dead of "glaigh na hEireann. What I am wondering is, legally, if we specify a group that we call "glaigh na hEireann, and which calls itself "glaigh na hEireann, how are we not also specifying those other groups that call themselves "glaigh na hEireann? The Real IRA and Continuity IRA also call themselves "glaigh na hEireann. No matter what other descriptors have been applied in the English language to the various permutations of the IRA, they have all styled, organised and presented themselves as "glaigh na hEireann. How do we distinguish between them? I ask an honest question, because there is more than one group calling itself "glaigh na hEireann, which will meet, or whatever it decides to do, in the name of "glaigh na hEireann. I wonder about those issues. Would the Minister provide some clarity on that?
As a result of the uncomfortable nature of our proceedings on specification and non-specification, will the Minister indicate whether or not the Secretary of State’s powers, reflected in the order, are to be devolved when policing and justice are devolved, or are those powers to be reserved? It would become a significant issue, I would imagine, for a local Minister or, indeed, a Committee in the Assembly if such proceedings were conducted there. That would be a further point of interest on which clarity might be helpful.
2.54 pm
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