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House of Commons

Wednesday 14 November 2007

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Sectarian Crime

1. Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): If he will make a statement on sectarian crime in Northern Ireland. [161978]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Paul Goggins): Before I answer Question 1, the whole House will want to join me in expressing sadness and sympathy for the family and friends of the seven family members, including five children, who perished in the fire in Omagh yesterday. I reassure all hon. Members that a full investigation will take place into the cause of that tragic event.

The total number of recorded sectarian crimes in Northern Ireland for 2006-07 was 1,217—some 17 per cent. lower than the figure for the previous year.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: I am sure that the whole House joins the Minister in his expression of grief on behalf of the family of those who were killed.

I am deeply concerned that a young man in Northern Ireland was brutally beaten to death—every bone in his body broken—and that two policemen, one in Londonderry and one in Dungannon, have been shot and badly wounded. Does not that indicate that sectarian crime is rearing its ugly head again? Is not it important that the Administration in Stormont act fiercely against such crime? What are the Government doing to help the coalition Administration in Northern Ireland overcome sectarianism, which appears to be raising its head again?

Paul Goggins: Any crime motivated by hatred is to be condemned. The hon. Gentleman will have noticed that condemnation of the Quinn murder and of the attacks on police officers have come from all quarters in Northern Ireland. All political leaders have made clear their unequivocal condemnation of the events and implored the public to come forward with information that can be turned into evidence that will stand up in court and see these people where they belong—behind bars. The Quinn murder and the attacks on the police officers have shown a community
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in partnership with law enforcement to a level that has never been seen before in Northern Ireland. That is an encouraging sign for democracy and peace in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): Further to the issue of the continuing sectarian attacks, will the Minister outline what the political consequences would be if condemnation of the shooting was forthcoming—as he said, it has been, albeit not from the Member of Parliament for the Dungannon area—but not sufficient information or evidence to prosecute those who carried out the attacks?

Paul Goggins: There is an ongoing police investigation into the issues that I have mentioned. Furthermore, the Independent Monitoring Commission reports regularly on such matters. A distinguishing feature of the last few weeks has been the way in which the political parties in Northern Ireland have been drawn together in their condemnation of the dreadful events and their determination to make democracy work.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): May I associate myself and my party with the expressions of condolence with which the Minister opened his remarks?

Does the Minister accept that the conflict transformation initiative has an important role in tackling sectarian crime, and that the administration of funds from the initiative is a wholly devolved matter? What representations did his Department make to the Minister of Social Development before her recent decision to withdraw funding from a programme because of concerns about possible links between it and the Ulster Defence Association?

Paul Goggins: The conflict transformation initiative is a devolved matter, and it was for the Minister of Social Development to decide whether to continue to fund the organisations involved. I had discussions with the Minister of Social Development, because one of the criteria that she set in her decision on funding was in relation to decommissioning, which remains a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and me rather than being a devolved matter. We have always been clear, however, that the issue concerned was entirely for her to decide, and she has decided.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con): On behalf of Her Majesty’s official Opposition, I fully endorse the Minister’s comments on the terrible tragedy in Omagh, and we send our deepest sympathies to the relatives of those involved.

In the light of the hideous murder of Paul Quinn, the two attacks on policemen in recent days and the refusal of loyalist paramilitaries fully to decommission, the Minister of State will agree that the key to a stable peace is for local communities to work with the police at all levels. What additional steps does he propose to improve that engagement?

Paul Goggins: The strong message from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and me, from the Chief Constable, and from political leaders in Northern Ireland in the wake of the events that the hon.
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Gentleman outlines has been that the community should come forward, stand shoulder to shoulder with their police officers, and ensure that the small number of people who are responsible for those dreadful events are brought to justice and put behind bars.

I believe that in recent days it has become ever clearer that there is a determination in the community to provide such evidence and to come forward with statements. Only yesterday, during my visit to Dungannon, the police commented to me on the unprecedented co-operation from the community, along with an absolute determination among front-line police officers to ensure that those responsible are brought to justice. I think we should all be encouraged by that determination.

Mr. Paterson: Does the Minister agree that the police must focus every existing resource on defeating criminal organisations? Given the enormous load imposed on the police by the continued retrospective inquiries, would he consider changing police priorities to allow the police to concentrate more resources on current dangers until the fuller co-operation of local communities is more evident?

Paul Goggins: Of course, every pound spent on investigating the past is a pound not spent on policing the present. I think we should emphasise the importance of dealing with the problems of the here and now. However, we have commitments in relation to inquiries, and they will continue to be honoured. We also have commitments in relation to the funding of policing in Northern Ireland, and we will continue to honour those as well.

Another important feature of recent times that has been evident to me, as police Minister, is the high level of co-operation between the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Garda Siochana, which is essential in bearing down on the remaining criminality in Northern Ireland.

Paramilitary Groups

2. Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the activities of dissident republican groups in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement. [161979]

6. Mrs. Nadine Dorries (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the activities of loyalist and republican groups in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement. [161984]

9. Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): If he will make a statement on the security situation in Northern Ireland. [161987]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Shaun Woodward): Hon. Members will be aware of the report published last week by the Independent Monitoring Commission that outlined the activities of all loyalist and republican groups, but I am sure they will want to join me in condemning the two attacks in the past week on two police officers, Paul Musgrave and Jim Doherty. Those cowardly attacks are in stark contrast to the professionalism and dedication of the PSNI.

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Mr. Mackay: I endorse the Secretary of State’s remarks about the attacks on the two police officers. Is he satisfied, first, that new police recruits are being given the right training to avoid assassination attacks and, secondly that mainstream republicans are really coming forward and helping the police to deal with dissident republicans who might well have been responsible for those two attacks?

Mr. Woodward: The answer to the first question is yes, I am satisfied, but that is of course a matter for the Chief Constable. I regularly discuss these matters with him, and he has never indicated to me that it is a problem. As for the second question, I think we must look at the immediate statement made by republicans in response to all the attacks that have taken place in the past few weeks. They have been unequivocal in their condemnation of the attacks and have, with absolute clarity, asked everyone across the communities to come forward with evidence.

I can also tell the right hon. Gentleman that I have had discussions with the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform in the Republic. He tells me—as, indeed, does the Chief Constable of the PSNI—that in all three of the investigations that are under way, there is an unprecedented level of co-operation by the public in all communities. That stands in marked contrast with the position just a few years ago, and is being encouraged at every level of leadership in Sinn Fein.

Mrs. Dorries: Does the Minister agree that there is a difference between decommissioning and putting weapons beyond use? The Ulster Freedom Fighters have said that they will put their weapons beyond use, but if stability and peace are truly to exist in Northern Ireland do we not need to see the destruction of all weapons and full decommissioning?

Mr. Woodward: The hon. Lady is absolutely right. When it comes to decommissioning, I think that every Member would like to see every weapon put beyond use and destroyed this evening—not tomorrow, not next week, not next month, not next year. The fact is, however, that decommissioning is a process. I am glad to report that groups such as the UDA are now engaging with the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning in a way that they have not done before. This weekend’s statement by the UDA is to be welcomed, but I agree with the hon. Lady that—and I think that all Members will agree with this—it will be actions, not words, that count. We want to see these weapons decommissioned, and decommissioned now.

Mr. Vara: The recent monitoring commission report said that individuals and communities have suffered a lot as a result of paramilitarism. What do the Government propose to do to help those individuals and communities to rebuild themselves and their society?

Mr. Woodward: There has undoubtedly been a great deal of suffering in communities during nearly four decades of troubles in Northern Ireland. However, it is clear that people in Northern Ireland are now living in a new era. The activities of a very small, limited number of people are being entirely condemned by every decent
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person north and south in Ireland. A number of things can be done to bring the communities out of the grip, in some remaining areas, of paramilitary activity, but part of that work is now the devolved responsibility of the new Administration and the Department for Social Development. I commend the work that is being done by Minister Ritchie to help those communities that are in the grip of paramilitary activity to come out of it. In the end, co-operation between all of us across the community, the Government here and the Government in Northern Ireland will ensure that we can help everyone to leave the past behind.

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): All of us would wish to associate ourselves with the expressions of grief and shock at the Omagh fire tragedy.

I join the Secretary of State in condemning the murderous attacks on the two police officers. One of them was on a constituent of mine and the attack happened while he was taking a child to school. Does the Secretary of State agree that, by its violence and by the vicious terms of its statement, the Real IRA is showing that it is out not just to attack and threaten individual police officers, but to intimidate the wider public, particularly the nationalist public, who are increasingly demonstrating that they see the PSNI as acceptable, accessible and fully accountable—unlike the Real IRA, which they totally reject?

Mr. Woodward: I had the opportunity yesterday to speak to the hon. Gentleman’s constituent, Mr. Doherty, who was wounded in the attack last week. He suffered considerable damage, but he is in very good spirits and he is a great example to everyone of stoicism and commitment to the police force. He said to me last night that he could not wait to get back to work. I hope that he does not return too quickly and that he has some time with his family, who, we must remember, are also innocent victims of such attacks.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the community. The Chief Constable tells me that we are seeing more co-operation from the community to try to bring those criminals to justice. This is going to be a choice for the community: we can leave the past behind, or we can move forward into a new future. That new future means that we have to support witnesses who come forward. Again, I am glad to say that the Chief Constable has made the position clear. He says that there is more co-operation than ever before from witnesses, and, critically, that he will give every protection he can to ensure that those witnesses can produce signed statements, that those signed statements can go into court and that the limited number of criminals who commit such crimes will be brought to book and put in jail, where they belong.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): I entirely endorse what the Secretary of State has just said and accept that there has been real and commendable progress since the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs produced its report on organised crime last July, but is it not still very disturbing that, clearly, a number of former paramilitaries are involved, are intimidating people and are taking part in crimes such as fuel smuggling in particular?

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Mr. Woodward: As the Minister of State said earlier, any crime must be condemned. Last year, the hon. Gentleman’s Committee produced a very important and useful report on organised crime. It rightly identified a number of problems. Criminality, of course, remains a problem. However—I was discussing this with the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform in the Republic yesterday—there is no question but that the unparalleled levels of co-operation between the communities, the Gardai and the PSNI are leading to a net being drawn more and more tightly around those who would peddle their criminality. Whatever disguise they may be using, they are criminals. It is the determination of the Chief Constable and the commissioner in the south to close the net on those people. I am glad to say that we are seeing that in action now.

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): In welcoming Sunday’s UDA statement, will my right hon. Friend join me in urging the Red Hand Commando to follow suit?

Mr. Woodward: I entirely agree: it is extremely important that not only that paramilitary group but all paramilitary groups follow suit. I can only reiterate what I said earlier: decommissioning should happen now, not next week or next month. We want all the weapons to be handed in, we want an end to criminality, and we want the people of Northern Ireland to be allowed to have the peaceful and prosperous future that everyone else can enjoy.

Dr. William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): In the light of the statement of IMC member John Grieve about the murder of Paul Quinn, will the Secretary of State categorically assure the House that no stone will be left unturned in exposing Paul Quinn’s murderers? They must be brought to justice, no matter how unpalatable that might be to some, and irrespective of any political consequences. Will the Secretary of State also tell the House that the Government will demand a clear statement that the IRA army council will be totally dismantled?

Mr. Woodward: As the hon. Gentleman knows, there is an ongoing investigation into the crime he mentions. However, I can say this: I was, of course, aware of John Grieve’s statement of the beginning of this week, and I raised it yesterday with the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform who told me that there is no information available to the Gardai suggesting that the attack was authorised by, or carried out on behalf of, any paramilitary grouping. I can, however, reassure the hon. Gentleman that nobody is above the law, and I am absolutely prepared to give him this commitment: this Government and the Irish Government believe that whoever did this needs to be investigated and charged in full accordance with the law, and brought to book.

Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op): The UDA statement of the weekend is obviously welcome, but it is relevant in the context not only of paramilitary violence but of the level of overall criminality in the Province. What is my right hon. Friend’s assessment of the potential impact of that statement on criminality in Northern Ireland?

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Mr. Woodward: I refer my hon. Friend to the 17th report of the IMC, which looked at such issues. It was extremely important that the UDA statement called on all its members not to be involved in crime and to withdraw immediately from criminality. Let us be clear that such organisations have been front organisations for intolerable levels of crime, racketeering, prostitution and drug selling, which have brought destruction to entire communities and ruined the lives of young people. We have seen too many young people lose their lives as a consequence of the activities of such groups. I welcome the UDA statement—I take it at face value—but, in the end, it is essential that the House recognise that actions and not words will be what count. We want the UDA to ensure that its commitment is translated into action on the streets.

Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): Will the Secretary of State assure the House that the Police Service of Northern Ireland will receive the resources it needs to deal with the dissident republican threat? In addition to evidence gathering, we need a proactive approach to prevent such attacks in the future, which requires more police officers on the streets and more resources for the PSNI—not a cut in the policing budget, as is envisaged.

Mr. Woodward: I acknowledge and welcome the important work that the right hon. Gentleman does with the PSNI. The PSNI budget for the next three years is a fair settlement, and it represents an increase. Let us also look at the numbers on the ground: in Northern Ireland there is one police officer for 220 of the population. We know why that was and is necessary, but I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would agree that many other Members would love their constituency to have the high number of officers that the Chief Constable in Northern Ireland enjoys. The Chief Constable needs them, but it is right that we continue to ask him to justify why we should spend so much money on the PSNI. It is money well spent, but we must ensure that there is value for money.

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