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Public Bill Committee Debates

Draft Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997 (Amnesty Period) Order 2008

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Dr. William McCrea
Battle, John (Leeds, West) (Lab)
Blackman, Liz (Vice-Chamberlain of Her Majesty's Household)
Donaldson, Mr. Jeffrey M. (Lagan Valley) (DUP)
Goggins, Paul (Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office)
McCartney, Mr. Ian (Makerfield) (Lab)
McGrady, Mr. Eddie (South Down) (SDLP)
Marris, Rob (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab)
Milburn, Mr. Alan (Darlington) (Lab)
Penrose, John (Weston-super-Mare) (Con)
Pritchard, Mark (The Wrekin) (Con)
Reed, Mr. Andy (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op)
Reid, Mr. Alan (Argyll and Bute) (LD)
Robertson, Mr. Laurence (Tewkesbury) (Con)
Smith, Geraldine (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Lab)
Strang, Dr. Gavin (Edinburgh, East) (Lab)
Todd, Mr. Mark (South Derbyshire) (Lab)
Watkinson, Angela (Upminster) (Con)
Glenn McKee, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Fourth Delegated Legislation Committee

Wednesday 30 January 2008

[Dr. William McCrea in the Chair]

Draft Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997 (Amnesty Period) 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 Arms Decommissioning Act 1997 (Amnesty Period) Order 2008.
I welcome you to the Chair, Dr. McCrea. I wish to say, as I did on the previous occasion that you were in the Chair, that I have a dual satisfaction in seeing you there: knowing that you will keep us in good order and that your opportunity to ask me difficult questions will be limited.
A draft of the order was laid before the House on 4 December 2007. Before dealing with its substance, it might help the Committee if I say something about its content and explain the Government’s general position on decommissioning. As the Committee knows, decommissioning has been a key measure for securing the trust and confidence necessary to achieve political stability in Northern Ireland. Without it, we would not have made the significant political progress that we have done in recent times.
The words and deeds of the Provisional IRA enabled the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning—the IICD—to state in September 2005 that it had
“determined that the IRA has met its commitment to put all its arms beyond use in a manner called for by the legislation”.
That historic event paved the way for the considerable achievements of the past two and a half years: the most peaceful parading for many years, Sinn Fein’s commitment to the rule of law, the restoration of devolved government and the end of Operation Banner. It means that Northern Ireland’s politicians can now focus on the future—on the need for investment, jobs and opportunities for all. However, as times become more normalised, it is vital that the commitments to decommissioning made by the Provisional IRA are now matched by loyalist paramilitaries with not only words—we have heard some encouraging words during recent months—but actions. That next step is crucial to securing a peaceful future and a society free from violence.
Although it is important that we further extend the decommissioning amnesty period by passing the order today, Parliament should also send out a strong message that the arrangements will not be around for ever and that progress on decommissioning needs to be hastened. The decommissioning amnesty reflects the special circumstances of Northern Ireland, but as peace becomes embedded, we need to make it clear that the legislation needs to become unnecessary and will not be available indefinitely. It is therefore essential that representatives of loyalist paramilitary groups continue with their engagement with the IICD and make the full transition to peace.
This year has seen progress on the part of the Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force. I encourage them in their engagement and negotiations. This is the time not for delay and deliberation, but for final delivery. I urge loyalists to demonstrate commitment and leadership and to take the next vital steps to move away from violence and criminality. Progress has been made. Indeed, that is why the Government have concluded that it is right to continue with the decommissioning amnesty, but there is still more to be done to secure a peaceful future.
Let me turn to the specifics of the order. The current amnesty period identified in the non-statutory decommissioning scheme appoints 20 February 2008 as the day before which the amnesty period must end. The order would extend that deadline for a further year and appoint 14 February 2009 as the day before which the amnesty period must end.
The amnesty period is the time during which firearms, ammunition and explosives can be decommissioned in accordance with the scheme. The amnesty provides immunity from prosecution for the offences set out under the schedule to the 1997 Act—offences that might be committed during the decommissioning process. Most such offences relate to the possession of weapons, but others may stem from a person’s participation in decommissioning. That is not always centred on the weapons involved, but could include the behaviour that may accompany participation, such as the withholding of information or the making of arrangements with terrorists.
Section 2 of the 1997 Act, subsequently amended by the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning (Amendment) Act 2002 and the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2006, required that a scheme must identify the amnesty period and that it must end before 27 February 2003, unless the Secretary of State, by order, appointed a later day. As the Committee will be aware, that was duly extended, and the date stipulated now must not be later than 27 February 2010. However, this power must still be reviewed annually, and the purpose of the order is to extend that period for a further year.
The IICD’s last report confirmed its assessment, made in September 2005, that the Provisional IRA had met its commitment to put all its arms beyond use in a manner called for by the legislation. The IICD’s report also observed that the issue of the arms of loyalist paramilitary groups, as well as other paramilitary organisations, remains to be addressed. Its January 2006 report emphasised its concentration on loyalist paramilitary groups and its wish to engage with them in the pursuit of its mandate. That is why we have introduced the order: the Government are committed to securing the decommissioning of all paramilitary weapons, and it is our judgment that it would be premature to close off that route to achieving that objective.
To that end, discussions with the Ulster Political Research Group, which have also now involved UDA representatives, have continued in an effort to secure decommissioning proposals. It is important to emphasise that work with those groups in ongoing and aimed at helping them to make the transition from conflict to peace and to make a reality of their stated desire, to transform not only themselves, but their wider communities.
I want to acknowledge the UVF’s statement of 3 May 2007 as progress, but putting arms beyond use is not enough. We need to hear confirmation from the IICD that the UVF has engaged with it formally and that that is followed by clear and visible action.
Reports from the IICD that the Loyalist Volunteer Force has authorised informal discussions with intermediaries is, again, a welcome step, but it has not resumed formal contact, and it needs to. The November statement by the UDA and the appointment of interlocutors is another welcome move in the right direction, but they need to use the opportunity of the further extension of the decommissioning arrangements to finish the task.
It is essential that, over the course of the next year, we make further progress on the pathway to peace and prosperity. To make that possible, Parliament should once again provide the statutory framework needed to make decommissioning a reality. The order does that. Extension for one year is a measured and prudent response to the current situation, but the order must be matched by action from the paramilitaries.
2.38 pm
Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): I welcome you to the Committee, Dr. McCrea, and I assure the Minister that, although you will not be firing your very difficult questions to him, I have absolutely no doubt that your colleague, the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley, will be an adequate replacement in that respect.
I do not know how long we will run this afternoon; I have no objection to the order, and I did not disagree with anything that the Minister said. In particular, I agree with his statement that the order should not last for ever: a civilised society should not need this kind of order, and the very word “amnesty” conjures up all sorts of unfortunate images. However, it is important to recognise, as the Minister said, that the situation has moved on dramatically: even reading through the Hansard report of last year’s debate shows that things have moved on in a satisfactory manner, in that the Assembly is up and running, considering matters that we used to have to consider in such Committees every week and, sometimes, twice a week. So things have certainly moved on in that respect.
It is also important to say that, in my view—which has always been the same on this matter—the design of the Assembly is not necessarily the one that I would have chosen. It is not perfect; there are flaws and difficulties in it. I say that because if—we all hope that it will not happen—the Assembly runs into difficulties, such as failing to take the decisions that the people of Northern Ireland expect it to take, and if the Assembly falls, that is no excuse or reason for anyone to return to the kind of violent past that we have seen in Northern Ireland. We must make that clear.
I accept the need for the order, but I should like to go through one or two issues that I am somewhat concerned about. Only recently, we saw a failure of the courts to secure a conviction for the terrible Omagh bombing, which left people in Northern Ireland feeling rather desperate about the situation. Today, I think, the Policing Board is holding a meeting with the relatives of the victims of the atrocity. That is of great concern, because some of the press cuttings—I looked at them just today—alleged that the Continuity IRA carried out that bombing.
Today, I read a report about the Continuity IRA honouring Dan Keating, on his 106th birthday, by firing shots above his grave and about their statement:
“In honouring this life long Republican the”
Continuity IRA
“wish to restate that the armed struggle against British occupation continues despite the sell-out and surrender by some former Republicans who now administer British rule in Ireland.”
The statement goes on to say that the Continuity IRA was vowing that there would be no ceasefire and that “military operations” would be “intensified”. That is rather chilling reading, when we are extending the order and hoping that everything in Northern Ireland is moving back towards normality.
A further press report refers to:
“Londonderry hard-liner, Gary Donnelly, a key figure within dissident circles, said the Real IRA and Continuity IRA should join forces... The Real IRA claimed responsibility for shooting and injuring two off-duty”
Police Service of Northern Ireland
“officers in separate attacks late last year.”
The said republican hard-liner is reported as saying that the Real IRA
“was rearming and actively recruiting new members.”
Donnelly is also reported as going on to say:
“More and more people are returning to republicanism because of what...Adams and...McGuinness have done”
“these support the (Real) IRA.”
Again, that makes rather troubling and concerning reading.
On the other side, as the Minister rightly said, there has been insufficient progress, particularly by the UDA and the UVF. They need to give up their arms, but—again as the Minister said—that in itself is not enough. They need to give up criminal activities.
We are celebrating the last few months, with the Assembly being up and running. We have had the rather incredible sight of the leader of the DUP sitting down with Martin McGuinness and working together—the DUP and Sinn Fein working together. However, against that, we have a background that is unsatisfactory, with reports this week of an armed interception in Lithuania. I am not sure which organisation the person belonged to—I think that it was the Continuity IRA, but the Minister might correct me if I am wrong—but, again, that demonstrates an attempt to bring weapons into the United Kingdom, into Northern Ireland, to carry out various activities. That cannot be right.
No one has been charged over the murder of Paul Quinn. We hear reports of intimidation. A press report today said that
“his family are very concerned about a ‘threat’ against a potential key witness in the case.”
I accept that there is a need for the order. I recognise the progress that has been made in Northern Ireland, both in the politics of the situation and getting the Assembly up and running and in terms of the marching season, which is a good example of how things have moved on. But there is an awful lot of other activity that needs checking by the Government, by the security forces and by the police, because it would not be happening in a normal society.
We want to move Northern Ireland towards normality. We want the private sector to increase in size and in activity. That is very important for the Province, and it can only be impeded by the kind of things that we read about and that seem to be on the increase at the moment. Having made those few remarks, I shall support the order, but I hope that the Minister will take account of the issues that I have raised.
2.46 pm
Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): It a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Dr. McCrea. As the Minister and the hon. Member for Tewkesbury have said, tremendous progress has been made in Northern Ireland in recent years. The setting up of the Assembly and the Executive is the most obvious example of political progress. Obviously, terrorism and violence have decreased significantly in recent years. The decommissioning of the IRA weapons was also a significant milestone in the political progress. However, the issue of the loyalist and dissident republican groups that have still not decommissioned their weapons must be addressed.
As the Minister have said, there have been encouraging statements in recent months from loyalist paramilitary groups. Despite those encouraging statements, they still have not seen their way through to the completion of the process in the decommissioning scheme that is set down in legislation. Although we welcome the progress, the decommissioning scheme still needs to be place. The order extends that scheme and sets down in legislation a process whereby the paramilitary organisations can decommission their weapons. It is important that the Government send a strong signal that the decommissioning process will not be in place for ever and that there has to be an end date some time soon. I hope that the Government will send that strong signal. I shall certainly support the order today to allow the process to be extended.
2.48 pm
Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down) (SDLP): Once again, Dr. McCrea, I have the pleasure of serving under your enlightened chairmanship.
It goes without saying that the SDLP and I will support the order today, but it is proper to remember that this is the 11th year in which we have given those who still hold weapons, and who are engaged in violence, the opportunity to avail themselves of an amnesty. It is an amnesty not only for those who hold weapons, but for those who associate with such people and those who help them.
After 10 years, one would like to think that there was a limitation clause somewhere. If we keep renewing this measure year on year, there will be no impetus, no push and no threat involved with regard to not decommissioning in these present circumstances. The Provisional IRA has basically decommissioned. We have been informed, as the hon. Member for Tewkesbury pointed out, that the IICD has reaffirmed that and that the IRA is fully engaged in let us not say normal, but peaceful politics. There is a subtle difference between the two.
The hon. Gentleman also referred to the dissident IRA and the Real IRA. We must not put them in the same context as the Provisional IRA, because they have very limited community support, if any. As far as I can gather—I do not have access to any privileged information—they have very little weaponry. Remember also that they are fairly well infiltrated by the security forces, both regular and irregular, in that their former colleagues in the Provisional IRA are also presumably keeping an eye on them in their communities. The situation is much more complex than before: they can still kill people and they can still plant a bomb, although I would not overemphasise their importance. After 30 years, it is impossible for any community to switch the violence off automatically, and unfortunately there will be a hangover—I would like to say for a generation, but it will be for a period to come.
The Minister made encouraging noises about progress being made by the UDA and the UVF. I do not share in those encouraging noises at all, because nothing has happened in the past year. There is one series of events that he carefully avoided talking about—or maybe he did not avoid it, but simply did not remember it. In April, his office produced £1.28 million to entice the UDA into good citizenship, to put it mildly. It was given three years, from 1 April 2007 to 31 March 2010, to become good boys and get paid by the Government—my money, your money—£1.28 million.
The purpose of that funding—that stratagem, if it can be called that—was to promote the end of paramilitary acts and to ensure a measure of reduction in crime and antisocial behaviour. Failure to comply with those two conditions will lead to the withdrawal of funds. That comes to the crux of the matter, because when the devolved Government and the devolved Minister for Social Development took over, that scheme was on her table. Therefore, she had to decide whether compliance was happening, and all the information from the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the Independent Monitoring Commission and other sources indicated that there was no abatement in the activities of the UDA and the UVF and their imposition on their communities in loyalist areas, which, by all judgments and all standards, have totally rejected their control of them.
On 21 July, a policeman was shot on the Castlemara estate in Carrickfergus. That was confirmed by the PSNI as UDA activity. On 1 August, on the Kilcooley estate in Bangor, shots were again fired in riot situations by the UVF and the UDA. Again, that was confirmed by the Chief Constable. Some weeks ago, two men were forced to don placards describing them as base criminals and paraded up the Shankill. That is not a normal practice by any standards. There was an enormous silence from the human rights organisations about the human rights of those people, but that is another story altogether.
The Minister for Social Development decided to give the UDA and others 60 days to comply or the funds would be withdrawn under the terms of the original conditions. Having taken further information, assessed the commitment or lack of it, and taken note of what was said on 11 November, Jackie McDonald of the UDA said there would be no decommissioning whatever. Another spokesman said, “These are the people’s guns, and they will not be handed in.” That is the background, and in that context I felt that the response of the Northern Ireland Office was rather muted, and was interpreted as faint-hearted. The Secretary of State said, “We want to see actions, not words,” as several speakers have pointed out. Grand, but that also applies to the NIO—we want actions, not words.
The NIO message to the illegal loyalist and other organisations has not been strong enough—that this is not going to go on for ever, that they will face the full rigour of law and order, and penalties and trials and imprisonment, whatever is required, unless they abide by the wish of the vast majority of our community—nationalist and loyalist—and get off its back. Those organisations are still engaged in extortion, protection rackets, drug trafficking and all the rest. The UDA and the LVF in particular are controlling communities, and that cannot be allowed any longer. It is noticeable that we have had a dearth of arms finds, and a dearth of prosecutions for membership of illegal organisations. In fact, although I may be wrong, there is almost a blank sheet. Are we holding back and allowing this scenario to evolve?
If that is the case, I return to my point once again: that is not a scenario for delivery of decommissioning, but a licence for those people to continue doing what they are doing now. They need the guns and the weapons to threaten communities, and to engage in protection rackets, extortion and trafficking. If they do not have guns, they will face the same fate as thugs. They are not paramilitaries in the Che Guevara or urban guerrilla sense. They are simply thugs and criminals. We have got to stop them now, and while I will again, on behalf of my party, support the passing of the order, I would like to think that by the next time we talk about it, we will either have completed decommissioning or had action by the devolved authorities and authorities here to make it impossible for those organisations to operate.
2.58 pm
Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): I welcome you, as a colleague, to the Chair this afternoon, Dr. McCrea. It is a mark of the political progress that has been made in Northern Ireland that I find myself agreeing with so much of what the hon. Member for South Down said. Indeed, we might yet find a place for him on the DUP Benches, along with the Minister for Social Development, who joined us in the Lobby in the Assembly when we were voting on the programme for government and the budget. South Down seems to be a good place for members of the SDLP to exercise some wisdom.
I agree with the hon. Member for South Down: the time is coming for the Government to set a deadline. I know that past deadlines have not always been observed in the politics of Northern Ireland, but that was for a good reason. We need to consider seriously whether it is time to draw a line under these amnesties. I have good reason for suggesting that. We meet here every year and the debate is almost the same as the one the previous year, save for the political change that has taken place. The difficulty is that most paramilitary organisations simply have not moved on the issue. Yes, the Provisional IRA has decommissioned in a manner verified by the independent decommissioning body, although not as satisfactory as one would have liked—there was a lack of transparency in the process. I suppose that the evidence is that at least the guns that have been decommissioned are not being used, which we all welcome.
As the hon. Member for Tewkesbury reminded us, there has been a lot of political progress in Northern Ireland. With the passing of the programme for government, the investment strategy and the budget in the Assembly just this week, we can see that devolution is working and delivering for the people of Northern Ireland. That does not mean that it is without its difficulties—challenges lie ahead, and big decisions will have to be taken. It is difficult for people to accept the power-sharing arrangement at Stormont if the backdrop to it is continuing violence.
People were prepared to pay a price to see stable government established in Northern Ireland. They were prepared to make a degree of compromise, but they are not prepared to accept the continued existence of paramilitary terrorist organisations in Northern Ireland, continuing their campaigns of violence against the police and the civilian population. That does not and cannot pass for a stable society. There can be no toleration of that paramilitarism and no acceptable level of it.
The Chief Constable of the PSNI is on the public record as saying that there is a time coming when a line must be drawn, after which we will no longer accept the creature that is known as paramilitarism. We must treat the groups that have previously been designated paramilitary organisations for what they are and what they have become: pure criminal organisations.
The loyalist paramilitary groups—mainly the UDA and the UVF, but also the LVF—set themselves up as defenders of the Unionist and Protestant community. No one could seriously suggest, not that it was ever justified, that they have any mandate today for holding weapons to defend anyone. That is not what they are doing; they are killing Protestants and Unionists, and threatening and intimidating the people whom they say they are defending. They have done enormous damage in those communities and are holding back their progress in the context of a new, more stable Northern Ireland. They are getting in the way of that progress, and it is their criminality that marks them out for what they are, yet the amnesty accords those groups special status.
In the prisons, prisoners from those groups are given special status in that they have separate accommodation and association with each other in a special wing. The Chief Constable is right that there is coming a time when we have to draw a line and say, “No. This is not permitted any longer. If you engage in criminality, you will be treated as criminals and dealt with accordingly.” The Government must consider the matter carefully and listen to the Chief Constable. We cannot continue indefinitely with a scenario whereby every year we extend the amnesty and allow the existence of paramilitarism. The hon. Member for South Down is absolutely right: it is unlawful to be a member of a paramilitary organisation, yet members of those organisations go into meetings with Ministers, representing the organisations that are unlawful and banned in law.
The approach taken at the moment is that we do not want to rock the boat and push things too hard, and that those people should be given time and space, but 11 years on time and space are narrowing significantly. Therefore, we must heed what the Chief Constable is saying, and I echo what the hon. Gentleman rightly said—we must consider drawing a line here.
The Government have set a time scale of May this year for the devolution of policing and justice powers to Northern Ireland. We made it clear that, because this is such a sensitive issue, it can take place only in the context of there being sufficient confidence and support for it in the community. There is good reason for that.
Devolution is a very tender plant in Northern Ireland, and if we expect the devolved Government to take on the huge and sensitive issue of policing and justice, we need to be sure that that Government are stable, that the political environment is correct and that there is support in the community. We are not at that point at present because of the continued existence of paramilitaries and because of the fear factor that they bring into the community and the poison that they spread. We must deal with that.
If the Government are serious about devolving those powers, they must complete the unfinished business, which means that the structures of the Provisional IRA must be dismantled. We cannot accommodate within a normal political society, or a more normalised one, a private army that is linked to a party that is in government. That cannot be accepted.
When devolution occurred in May last year, Gerry Adams, the president of Sinn Fein, was on the public record as saying that it would deal with the army council issue in a way that was satisfactory to Unionists, but we are still waiting. In the meantime, as the hon. Member for Tewkesbury reminded us, Paul Quinn has been murdered and we have had to consider the serious issues of whether the IRA was corporately involved in that murder, whether it sanctioned it and whether individual IRA members were involved.
These are big issues and we cannot be complacent about where we are. Yes, we welcome the progress that has been made, and we are working to ensure that it is locked in and remains stable, and that the institutions of government in Northern Ireland continue to work successfully, but if policemen are being shot on the streets and paramilitary organisations are pushing drugs and corrupting our young people—in some circumstances, killing them—and people hold on to weaponry that presents a risk to the communities in which they operate, we have a level of criminality that is completely unacceptable. That is not a normal society. We need to address that unfinished business and we are willing to work with the Government to do so.
We support the extension of this amnesty for a further period, but we will do a disservice to the people we represent if we do not lay down a clear marker and echo the comment of the hon. Member for South Down—this cannot go on indefinitely. We need to finish the job that we set in hand in 1997 to remove the gun from the politics of Northern Ireland once and for all.
3.10 pm
Mr. Ian McCartney (Makerfield) (Lab): I want to make a brief contribution, because it is important to reinforce the message that has come from both sides of the Committee, and from the Conservative spokesman and my colleague the Minister.
Those of us who do not live in Northern Ireland but have an interest in it—some of us still have family there—feel that it is important that from today onwards there is a sign that the decommissioning process is coming to an end. That process has been critical—a silver thread that ran through every phase of the reconstruction of political, social and environmental life in Northern Ireland. However, as hon. Members have said, there comes a point when there needs to be certainty about what is politically difficult and what is criminally unacceptable behaviour.
We have seen a continuation of that behaviour in relation not only to the Shankill road, the death of Robert McCartney and the death of Mr. Quinn, but to the real danger that lies behind all that. That real danger sends a message to the community, not that it is empowered, but that the paramilitaries have control and power over it. Such communities are desperately trying, across political and social divides, to secure a modern, effective, democratic and accountable society in which people make decisions based on their work and worth in that community, not on the threat of the gun or other weapons.
It is critical that, at some point in the next 12 months, we are able to separate the politics of decommissioning from the unacceptable continuation and growth of the activities of paramilitaries who have special arrangements. I do not think that there is anything special in drug dealing or all the other activities that so undermine the long-term opportunities that this phase has provided for the community of Northern Ireland and the UK in general.
I genuinely hope that my colleague the Minister will take seriously the points that have been made about the need to apply further pressure and to do further work. It is dead easy to make a statement of intent and thereby tie the hands of the politicians and the police force so that they have to allow the continuation of certain actions, whether murderous actions or ones that bring slow death to communities by poisoning young people with drugs and other activities.
In some communities, those people try to create a norm not of normality, but of criminality. It is not the rule of law; it is mob rule, and it is unacceptable in all circumstances. The reform of the police force will succeed only if there is a sense that the reason for those reforms is to see those criminals and their activities dealt with within the rule of law.
Therefore, it is important that agreeing to the order, which we all want to do, does not make it a fig leaf for the continuation of those murderous activities. There has to be a point where the community’s voice is heard and people have to be able to get out from under those who are dedicated to what they deem to be their cause. Their one, simple cause, wherever they are, is to protect their criminal, financial and social interests, and the ability to use sweet statements about decommissioning is not acceptable any more.
It has been difficult for many people to come the way that they have come, and many have been brave with regard to where they have come from and where they have reached today. That is why it is important to keep faith with them with regard to the order. Truly to keep faith with them and truly to allow the order an opportunity to enable the politicians to do their work and the communities to regenerate, we need to do something to address the criminal activities that go on each day.
I want to finish on this point. I used to be the Minister for human rights and I spent a great deal of my time talking to Governments in other parts of the world about their failure to protect the human rights of their citizens from paramilitary forces. I will not go into detail, but whether that involved trade unionists being murdered in Colombia or in other countries, the abiding rule from our point of view was to get rid of the paramilitaries and to ensure the rule of law and that criminal activity was punished by the criminal justice system, not by mob rule.
If that is the principled position that we take in international discussions, surely it is vital that it must be the position we take on what we want to do in Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom. Therefore, I wish my colleagues well with regard to the speeches that they made. The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley asked my hon. Friend the Member for South Down to join his party, but may I suggest that they both join little Labour?
3.15 pm
I thank the hon. Member for Tewkesbury for his support. As I said in response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield, extraordinary measures have worked in extraordinary times, but as we move to normality those measures will cease to have a place. The warning goes out from the Committee that those provisions cannot last indefinitely, and that parliamentary patience will continue to wear thin unless we see positive signs of action, as well as words. However, we should take encouragement from the normalisation that has taken place; the end of Operation Banner was a huge step forward. It passed almost unnoticed in Northern Ireland, because it developed gradually over time, but it was highly significant. Now, there is only a garrison force of fewer than 5,000 soldiers, many of whom are on active service in Afghanistan and Iraq, but no longer on active service in Northern Ireland. The hon. Member for Tewkesbury is absolutely right to say that there is no excuse for going back. Again, we should be encouraged by the progress that has been made by the Assembly.
The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley spoke of events that took place as recently as this week, including the passing of the budget. He said a real programme for government was taking root, and that there was a sense of optimism. That is to be welcomed and he and his colleagues are to be congratulated. I reserved most of the comments in my opening speech for the subject of loyalist paramilitaries, because there are signs that some of them at least are prepared to move in the right direction. I wanted to send a message of encouragement to those who are moving in that direction, but they need to move faster, and redouble their efforts to ensure that decommissioning actually takes place.
I did not mention dissident republicans, because they are beyond the pale. They show no interest in engaging with this kind of scheme. Their stated objective is to undermine it and still to pursue a violent path. They are fragmented and few in number, but we should not interpret that as a sign that they are ineffective, because they showed in their recent attempts to kill two police officers—thankfully neither officer was killed, and are both recovering from their injuries—that they are still determined to kill, maim, injure and undermine normal life. We must not allow them to do so. I am confident that the Police Service of Northern Ireland has the capacity, determination, intelligence and will to deal with them.
We made it plain in the St. Andrews agreement that May 2008 is a reasonable point at which to carry out the devolution of policing and justice powers. From the moment of the agreement onwards, Ministers and officials in the Northern Ireland Office have worked with that date in mind. However, we are quite clear that we cannot force the devolution of policing and justice on the people of Northern Ireland. Morally, politically and procedurally, it has to be something that is willed there, and we have a process in place to ensure that it can happen. The Committee on which the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley serves will report to the Assembly, and the Assembly to the Secretary of State. Over the coming months, I look forward to constructive discussion about that issue.
I thank the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute for his support. He underlined the need to turn hopeful words into real action. He also underlined the fact that this situation cannot go on for ever. I agree with him. The Government need to send out a strong signal, and it is encouraging that the whole Committee is sending out that strong message. As ever, my hon. Friend the Member for South Down offered wise counsel, and it would be very sensible for Ministers and others to listen to it. I wish to respond to two of the points that he made. First, he made the profound point that while high-level politics in Northern Ireland has been hopeful, optimistic and progressive in recent months and years, deeper down in society, much greater change has to happen. Sectarianism is still too deeply embedded in society in Northern Ireland, given that activities such as the so-called walk of shame on the Shankill road still take place with a surrounding sense of collusion. We therefore know that there is still a considerable way to go. The majority of people know that that is no longer acceptable behaviour, and they support the police when they try to deal with it. The police investigation into that incident is ongoing, even though no specific complaints were made.
Secondly, my hon. Friend accused me of being rather optimistic in the things that I said about the UVF and the UDA. I hope that I was measured in saying that what they have said over recent months gives us some cause for hope. However, they have done nothing. We need to see the actions that back up those words. My hon. Friend also mentioned the conflict transformation initiative, as I half-guessed he would. It began under direct rule from the Department for Social Development. Before devolution, my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), who is now Minister of State at the Ministry of Justice, was responsible for it. Now, Minister Ritchie, a colleague of my hon. Friend the Member for South Down, is in charge. Our motive in setting up the scheme—my hon. Friend was right to say that £1.2 million was involved—was not to fund or give cash to terrorists. It was a genuine attempt to make sure that those who live excluded lives in loyalist communities are be brought back into the mainstream, and see democracy, rather than paramilitary activity, as the way forward.
The beauty of devolution is that such issues are no longer the responsibility of direct rule Ministers, but of devolved Ministers. Minister Ritchie has had discussions with her colleagues in the Executive. I will not say more than that, because there is a legal challenge relating to her decision to withdraw that funding. In a sense, it underlines the importance of devolution that local Ministers are taking those decisions, rather than Ministers in the Northern Ireland Office. May I praise the work that the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley is doing on his Committee? I know that it involves a lot of detailed work, as the Committee is taking evidence on the state of readiness for the devolution of policing and justice. We look forward to the forthcoming report. Although he invited me to set deadlines—I thought that that was an interesting proposition and one to which I may return to in subsequent debates—I think that it is probably premature to name a specific deadline in relation to this measure. We know that we can extend it year by year until 2010, but we have to return to this Committee each year if we wish to do so. We expect to see action, and that is what we are making absolutely clear; the mood of the Committee this afternoon could not have been clearer in that respect.
The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that there is absolutely no place in Northern Ireland for paramilitary activity. Increasingly, paramilitaries will be described with reference to the criminal behaviour—that is what it is—in which they engage. Their behaviour must increasingly be seen in just that way, rather than as being in some way glamorised by the attachment of that paramilitary label. The right hon. Gentleman is right that the moment for the devolution of policing and justice is when there is sufficient community confidence. I hope that he believes, as I do, that that confidence has grown in recent months, as the community has seen the politicians of Northern Ireland begin to get to grips with the programme for government, and make some of the tough decisions that have to be made to bring in the investment, create the jobs and to make Northern Ireland a modern, vibrant society. I hope that he believes that the people of Northern Ireland are encouraged by the leadership that has been shown by the politicians, and will increasingly place faith in them—faith sufficient to sustain the devolution of policing and justice powers in due course, and when that is requested.
With those final remarks, I thank Committee members for their contributions, and I hope that there will be full support for the order and the extension for a further year.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the draft Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997 (Amnesty Period) Order 2008.
Committee rose at twenty-six minutes past Three o’clock.

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