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House of Commons

Wednesday 25 June 2008

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

private business

London Local Authorities and Transport for London Bill

Lords amendments agreed to.

Oral Answers to Questions

Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Paul Quinn

1. Dr. Alasdair McDonnell (Belfast, South) (SDLP): What recent discussions he has had with the Irish Government on the murder of Paul Quinn. [212543]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Paul Goggins): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are in regular contact with the Irish Government on a range of policing issues, including the investigation into the murder of Paul Quinn. As recently as last week, the Irish Minister of Justice assured me that the Garda, in leading the investigation, continues to work very closely with the Police Service of Northern Ireland in order to bring those responsible to justice.

Dr. McDonnell: In the discussions, have the publicly stated views of the investigating Garda Siochana—namely, that this case is not, and never has been, a fall-out between criminals but rather that there is clear paramilitary involvement in the planning, execution and forensic clean-up of the murder site—been discussed?

Paul Goggins: What I can confirm to the House is that the Independent Monitoring Commission determined in its most recent report that this act was carried out by local people and arose from a local dispute. However, the detailed investigations, which are being carried out by the Garda in the Republic and the PSNI in Northern Ireland, can continue. I reassure my hon. Friend that the investigation is live and active. I am sure that he will take some comfort from that.

Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): The security situation in Northern Ireland and the border areas has improved immeasurably in recent years, but there are a small number of murders for which no
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one has been brought to justice, Paul Quinn’s being one and Robert McCartney’s being another. Both those murders happened in areas either where Sinn Fein has political influence or where members of Sinn Fein were in the vicinity at the time. What pressure is the Minister bringing to bear on Sinn Fein as a political movement to bring those responsible to justice?

Paul Goggins: Last year, as the hon. Gentleman knows, Sinn Fein made the historic decision to give its full support to policing and the rule of law in Northern Ireland. Indeed, that underpinned and brought about the confidence that enabled the restoration of the institutions of devolution to happen. Sinn Fein representatives speak out whenever there is an unexplained murder. Indeed, as recently as yesterday, Sinn Fein leaders made clear their view that anybody who knows about criminal acts should come to the police and give them the information that they have.

Real IRA/Continuity IRA

2. Mr. Ben Wallace (Lancaster and Wyre) (Con): If he will make a statement on the current activities of the (a) Real IRA and (b) Continuity IRA. [212544]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Shaun Woodward): The most recent complete analysis is set out in the IMC report published last month.

Mr. Wallace: The Secretary of State will know that when he is routinely asked such questions, he replies via the IMC report. Will he tell the House whether he receives different intelligence on the activities of those dissident republicans from that which is published in the report?

Mr. Woodward: First, we rely so heavily on the work of the IMC because it produces a considered report, based on evidence compiled from a number of sources. Most hon. Members would agree that it has been extremely accurate and authoritative over the years since it was set up. I receive, obviously, additional security information. The individual who most closely advises me on that is the Chief Constable, with whom I remain in touch, often on a daily basis.

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): The Secretary of State will be aware that dissident republicans are deemed to be responsible for the murder of Emmett Shiels this week in my constituency—a young man robbed of his life, a baby soon to be born without a father. Does the Secretary of State share my hope that the profound response of the community in Derry offers some comfort to Emmett Shiels’s family? Indeed, it even seems to be having some effect on those who were involved in the murder. Does the Secretary of State share the determination that there should be a united political response to ensure that there is no doubt, difference or difficulty in relation to the politics of policing that can ever be exploited by republican dissidents?

Mr. Woodward: May I join the hon. Gentleman—I am sure that I speak for all Members—in sending our deepest sympathies to the family of Emmett Shiels? What happened yesterday was an horrific crime that should not have happened. It has left a family devastated
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and it does not surprise me to hear that last night more than 1,000 people took part in a vigil to remember the life of Emmett Shiels. I am encouraged to hear this morning that the police have already made two arrests and I understand that more may follow.

On the last part of the question, I believe that it does matter that we complete the process of devolution sooner rather than later for one very important reason: regrettably, there are still some dissident individuals out there who hang on to some obscure hope, with no support in the community, that they can shake that community’s confidence in the future of Northern Ireland. The best thing we can all do is to work together to bring about stability and peace as soon as possible.

David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): On behalf of my party, I join the rest of the House in expressing sincere sympathies to the family of Emmett Shiels, who was so brutally murdered in Londonderry earlier this week. That is a tragedy that should never have happened. The Secretary of State will be aware of ongoing threats against people in Northern Ireland from dissident republicans, including one against one of my constituents who left the security forces more than 10 years ago. Will the Minister assure the House not only that every available resource will be channelled into ridding Northern Ireland of such groups, but that when those people are convicted, they will be given a punishment that will fit the crime?

Mr. Woodward: I warmly welcome the hon. Gentleman’s remarks. I can add little to what he said, other than that I fully endorse the fact that the full weight of the law should be used against those who wish to commit crime in any part of the United Kingdom. I am encouraged to see that all those people who have entered into government in the Assembly and the Executive fully share those views.

Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op): My right hon. Friend will be well aware that the impartiality of policing has been a long-running issue in Northern Ireland. Will he tell me what impact he thinks the devolution of both policing and the criminal justice system will have on dissident groups in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Woodward: I welcome my hon. Friend’s intervention. There is no doubt in my mind that we have reached a point where it is extremely important that the political parties reach agreement on a time scale for the devolution of policing and justice in order to complete the devolution arrangements that were begun last year. It is very much our view that that must be agreed between the parties and that what we can do is to ensure that the arrangements are in place for that to happen as soon as possible.

Last week’s visit of the President of the United States to Northern Ireland, which was welcomed by everybody in Northern Ireland, brought on the back of it more investment and more commitment to the people of Northern Ireland. The President’s message was very clear: it will be easier for him to pressure American companies to continue to make that investment, particularly in a time of international downturn, if devolution is completed sooner rather than later. He was explicit in his remarks about that.

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Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): On behalf of the official Opposition, I condemn the murder of 22-year-old Emmett Shiels and send our profound sympathies to his family after this totally unacceptable and unnecessary murder. On the wider issues, it is very worrying, as we may be seeing a trend towards murder and attempted murder by dissident republicans. Only recently, we saw attempts to blow up and murder police officers. Indeed, the chief inspector responsible at the scene of the crime on that occasion said that the police could not

Everyone would sympathise totally with the police, with masked men lying in wait in the area. That is an unacceptable situation in the Province, which is, of course, part of the United Kingdom. We have to move away from that violence.

Mr. Woodward: I warmly welcome the hon. Gentleman’s remarks. The Chief Constable has been very clear about the position. Regrettably, there is a heightened level of dissident activity in Northern Ireland, probably higher than at any time in the last five years, although that should not be confused with the work being done by the police and the security forces to ensure that we continue to infiltrate these organisations and bring their members to justice whenever we can. We are confident that they are not building support in the community or recruiting in the community, because they find no support in the community, but that does not mean that they are not dangerous. As the Chief Constable has said, as they sense time running out as the parties reach agreement on issues that once divided them, they may unfortunately carry out more and more desperate acts. That is why the extraordinary bravery of the police in Northern Ireland should remain uppermost in our minds.

Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): I join the House in sending sympathy to the family of Emmett Shiels, the victim of this horrific murder.

In its recent reports, the Independent Monitoring Commission has stressed that transition cannot continue indefinitely and that paramilitary organisations cannot continue to expect the comfort of the decommissioning legislation. How close do the Government think we are to achieving normalisation, and what further steps are required before we can achieve it?

Mr. Woodward: The hon. Gentleman has asked an important question, to which I have given careful consideration. In a speech that I delivered in Belfast in May, I made it clear that it was important for all who, for example, continue to retain weapons to recognise that, sooner rather than later, we will inevitably bring institutions such as the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning to a conclusion, because they cannot be part of a normal society. They have helped to bring Northern Ireland to normalisation, but they cannot be there indefinitely.

It is vital for everyone to hear that. I welcome the progress that is being made, particularly by some of the loyalist dissident organisations, but they have to hear the message. What they do is criminal, and what they continue to do will be treated as criminal. The decommissioning process that allows them to hand in
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their weapons will come to an end sooner rather than later, and I urge them to continue to make progress and decommission those weapons now.

Alcohol-related Crime (Young People)

3. John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): What steps he is taking to reduce the incidence of alcohol-related crime among young people in Northern Ireland. [212545]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Paul Goggins): We are working closely with the devolved Administration in Northern Ireland to tackle the issues associated with alcohol misuse by young people, including alcohol-related crime. A young people and alcohol action plan will be published later in the year.

John Robertson: My hon. Friend will be well aware that alcohol-related crime is a problem not just in Northern Ireland but in the United Kingdom as a whole, but the fact remains that there has been a 26 per cent. rise in drink-fuelled crime in Northern Ireland. He told us about measures that he has taken, but does he agree that it is time for us to do more? What will he do not only to reduce the increase in crime of this sort, but to reverse the present trend?

Paul Goggins: My hon. Friend has identified an important issue, to which we are responding. The young people and alcohol action plan is being led by the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, but with full co-operation from the Northern Ireland Office and, indeed, other Departments in Northern Ireland. It is important for us to have an effective action plan. In the meantime, the Police Service of Northern Ireland is enforcing the law relating to alcohol, not least by cracking down on consumption of alcohol during parades. Last Friday evening during the Tour of the North parade, 500 bottles and cans, including bottles and cans of alcohol, were confiscated by the police.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): I welcome what the Minister said about the Tour of the North, in which I took part with great pleasure. I noted the police’s active role in confiscating alcohol and so on.

The chief medical officer for Northern Ireland has revealed the shocking statistics that the average age of those having their first alcoholic drink in Northern Ireland is 11, the greatest increase in drinking occurs between the ages of 11 and 13, and 2 per cent. of all young people in Northern Ireland admit to binge drinking. Can the Minister be more specific? Will he introduce laws to ensure that a two strikes and out rule applies to those who sell alcohol to youngsters, and will he consider introducing dispersal zones in Northern Ireland like those in the rest of the United Kingdom to tackle directly the problem that we are experiencing in the Province?

Paul Goggins: There is widespread concern across Northern Ireland following Dr. McBride’s report of earlier this week on the prevalence of alcohol use among under-age children. In principle, we are supportive of dispersal zones; I will issue in the near future a consultation on community safety issues generally, and we will consult on that specific proposal. On the hon. Gentleman’s
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other suggestions, let me assure him that as the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety leads this work on the action plan, we will consider what enforcement powers and legislation are necessary to underpin the strategy.

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): Alcohol-related crime and serious crime in Northern Ireland will be truly tackled only if the local neighbourhood policing teams have the full confidence of their local community. To that end, will the Minister update us on what progress is being made on the devolution of policing to Northern Ireland?

Paul Goggins: The development and roll-out of neighbourhood policing is an important issue in Northern Ireland, as it is elsewhere in the United Kingdom. Indeed, it is a high priority for the Police Service of Northern Ireland this year, and the evidence in Northern Ireland is the same as it is everywhere else, which is that where we have good, strong, local neighbourhood policing working in partnership with local people and local organisations, we get very effective results.

Defence Expenditure

4. Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): What recent discussions he has had with the Northern Ireland First Minister on expenditure on defence in Northern Ireland. [212546]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Shaun Woodward): Operation Banner ended in July 2007. Expenditure on defence in Northern Ireland is, of course, a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence.

Mr. Bone: I thank the Secretary of State for that unhelpful answer. Will he confirm that all the proceeds from the sale of redundant military establishments in the Province will go to the Ministry of Defence to help our forces overseas at a time when they are stretched beyond capabilities?

Mr. Woodward: My answer may not have been helpful, but it was actually an answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question. I shall, however, try to help him with his second question as well. It might be helpful if I assist him in understanding the background to the sale of sites in Northern Ireland. Five sites were gifted and transferred to the Northern Ireland Executive in 2002 to use to generate investment and create other opportunities. The 2003 joint declaration makes reference to further sites that

There are currently nine disused sites that could fall into that category. As the sites are owned by the MOD, the proceeds raised by the sale of those assets will, of course, fall to the MOD, and it is for the Secretary of State for Defence to decide how those proceeds should be used.

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab): Would it not be odd if there were not discussions between Ministers at Westminster and Ministers in the devolved Assembly about the disposal of assets, and, for that matter, about any other policies on which the two Administrations have a common interest? I find it odd that this should be raised as an issue at all.

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