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Westminster Hall

Thursday 15 January 2009

[John Bercow in the Chair]

Policing and Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland)

[Relevant documents: Third Report from the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Session 2007-08, Policing and Criminal Justice in Northern Ireland: The Cost of Policing the Past, HC 333, and the Government response, HC 1084.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Ian Lucas.)

2.30 pm

John Bercow (in the Chair): Before we begin the debate, I have a brief statement to make. Members are reminded that four current inquiries into historical events—the Bloody Sunday inquiry and inquiries into the deaths of Rosemary Nelson, Robert Hamill and Billy Wright—are covered by the House’s sub judice rules. Therefore, references to matters such as the cost of the inquiries are admissible, but references to the substance of what is being considered are not. I would be grateful to hon. Members for their co-operation. To open the debate, I call the Chairman of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs.

2.31 pm

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): Thank you very much indeed, Mr. Bercow. It is a great delight to speak under your chairmanship, and I entirely accept what you have just said. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee’s report is consistent with those remarks. We talk about the cost of inquiries, we have subsequently corresponded with Lord Saville about the length of his inquiry, and I may well refer again to both those aspects, but, as to the substance, it would be entirely wrong of me, or of anyone else, to make any comment. Thank you for reminding the Chamber of that.

I ought to give a collective apology for my Committee, whose members are conspicuous by their almost total absence from the Chamber, with the exception of my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson), who is here although afflicted. He has lost his voice and, therefore, will not be in a position to speak at his normal length, or with his normal fluency and beguiling articulacy. I am, however, grateful to him for being here.

Other Committee members are unwell, some are in Northern Ireland and some are in the House, taking part in the debate about Gaza. Indeed, perhaps you will allow me to say in parenthesis, Mr. Bercow, that that illustrates the difficulties of Westminster Hall sitting at precisely the same time as the House. Without wanting to cast any aspersions on the importance of this subject, because I should be the last to do that, I think that we would all like to be in the House discussing Gaza, which is a matter of such enormous importance. I hope that the appropriate House authorities will have another look at the issue, because effectively to prevent Members from being in the House when a major debate is taking place is unfortunate, to put it mildly.

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This is a very important issue, and I am delighted to say that my Committee was able to produce, yet again, a unanimous report. It is worth putting it on the record that the Committee consists of seven Government Members, another Member from the official Opposition apart from me—I try not to be at all party political in my role as Chairman—and four Members from the Province: two from the majority Democratic Unionist party, one from the Social Democratic and Labour party, and the sole remaining Ulster Unionist Member. For us all to be able to work as we do, amicably, and to produce unanimous reports is not without significance.

We are talking today about a sensitive issue—policing the past and its cost—and I would not want anyone in the Chamber to think that by cost we are referring merely to the financial cost, real and important as that is. There is a real, human cost, and after a period of 30 years, there can be no sane and sensible person who is not delighted at the progress that has been made, particularly in the past two years. It would be appropriate to pay tribute, yet again, to the former First Minister, the current First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, all of whom have helped to make the settlement. Every one of us wishes it continued success, conscious as we are of the difficulties.

Almost everything has been devolved to the Assembly, and rightly so, but policing and justice remain the concern of the Secretary of State and the Minister of State. I am delighted that the Minister is present, and, as I am handing out a few bouquets, perhaps I might pass him one, because he has made a remarkable contribution during his time in Northern Ireland. He is universally respected, even by those who do not always agree with what he says, because he has shown himself totally committed to Northern Ireland, absolutely even-handed and without prejudice or bias. He has made a very real contribution, and I am extremely grateful for it.

The Committee decided that it wanted to look into the cost of policing the past. We made the decision at a time when, yes, that was the right subject for us to look at, although the consultative group under the joint chairmanship of Denis Bradley, former deputy chairman of the Northern Ireland Policing Board, and Lord Eames, former Primate of All Ireland, was conducting its inquiries. When I put in a bid for this debate, I and most of us thought that the consultative group would have made its report by now. Indeed, when the Committee was last in Northern Ireland, a few weeks before Christmas, we met Lord Eames and members of his group, with whom we have had continual contact, and their report was virtually concluded. They thought that they would publish it either shortly before Christmas or shortly after. There has been slippage—I make no criticism of that, because I do not know all the reasons—and the report will be published on 28 January.

When we put in for this debate, however, we thought that it would be against the background not only of the Committee’s report, but of the Eames-Bradley report. It is a pity that we do not have the benefit of its conclusions and recommendations, because we were diffident about making recommendations in certain areas ourselves and did not want to appear to pre-empt what Eames-Bradley were doing. Theirs was essentially a complementary but different exercise from ours: they travelled the length and breadth of the Province, meeting
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all manner of people from all communities and walks of life, amassing an enormous amount of information and taking considerable time—quite rightly—to do so. We await with great interest what the group has to say, but that does not prevent us from making a few points today.

I shall not give a series of votes of thanks today, but I am absolutely delighted, as I am sure most people are, that one of the international assessors, Marti Ahtisaari, former President of Finland, has just been awarded the Nobel peace prize. I can think of no more appropriate recipient. When the Committee was in Northern Ireland last summer for a full meeting with the Eames-Bradley consultative group, Marti Ahtisaari was there and took a real part in our discussions. He is a truly remarkable man.

Our report looks at how the past is being dealt with, and we must remember that we are doing so against a background of more than 30 years of real tragedy in part of the United Kingdom. More than 3,000 people lost their lives and countless thousands more were injured, some of them grievously. Most of those people were victims of terrorist violence; some were terrorists themselves. Even when a terrorist is killed, be he or she from the republican community or the so-called loyalist community—it is an insult to the rest of that community to call any terrorist a loyalist—they still leave families behind, often families who did not approve of their nefarious activities.

How does one come to terms with the fact that many of those people were slain at the hands of those who had not been brought to justice? The Historical Enquiries Team, which was the brainchild of Sir Hugh Orde, Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, was established to look into the killings, stretching back over a period of more than 30 years.

During a visit in the summer, which was one of several made last year, we went to see the HET at work. We met its members, examined their methods and had the moving benefit of meeting the relatives of some of the victims from both communities. What struck us was that those victims’ families whom we met were all very complimentary about the manner and sensitivity with which the HET had worked. One was conscious, however, of a number of things that one had to bring to the attention of Parliament. For instance, every single case is being investigated, regardless of when it happened, the circumstances in which it happened and the evidence available to investigate it. We must remember that there were many attacks on police stations during the troubles. There were two devastating attacks on the forensic science laboratory, which virtually destroyed it. In some cases there are reams—indeed, rooms—of evidence, and we saw some of it; in others, the evidence is scant.

In some cases, there is a grieving family who want an opportunity to come to terms with the past, but in others people do not particularly want an investigation. In some cases, no one knows whether people want an investigation or not. I was talking to the police officer in charge of a case concerning a bachelor in his late 60s or early 70s, who was killed in 1972 or 1973, with, so far as the police knew, no next of kin or anyone to whom they could refer.

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One begins to wonder whether all that is absolutely necessary, which is why paragraph 26 of the Committee’s report states:

That has to be taken on board seriously.

The Minister’s reply to the Committee’s report, which on the whole was positive, does not sufficiently tackle that point and perhaps he will say something about it this afternoon. Perhaps, too, he will want to await the comments of Eames-Bradley, and I shall understand if he does, but this is an issue that one has to address.

What also came across in many of our evidence sessions and private meetings—we had both, with victims and families and so on—was the range of difference. On the one hand, the widow of a police officer, married for 40 years, whose life was devastated when he was killed, said “I want to move on. I don’t want to rake up the past. What happened, happened. It was terrible, others suffered too, but if Northern Ireland is going to have real normality in the future, we cannot go on living in the past.” She was a most persuasive lady. That was part of a private session, so I will not give any indication of her identity. In a public session, we had the widower of a young woman who was killed in an atrocity on the Shankill road. One of the talks was on memorials, and when I asked him whether he would be prepared to see the name of the person who killed his wife on the same memorial as his wife, which is a difficult question, he paused and said, very simply but quietly, “Yes.” That is a degree of forgiveness that I personally do not think I could emulate, and I know that many others could not.

Another young man came to see us, whose father and grandfather were both killed. All he is interested in—I do not say this accusingly—is seeing the perpetrators brought to justice. There is a range of feelings and responses: some who never want to let go, others who want to let go; some who are prepared to see every victim commemorated and all commemorated together, and others for whom that solution is utter anathema. The difficulty is that one can understand them all and, to a degree, relate with them. That is one of the things that makes it so very difficult. Of course, although it is not easy for any of us, it is easier for those of us who do not and have not lived in the Province of Northern Ireland to talk objectively than it is for those who do.

I have been a Member for a long time and have lost colleagues to IRA violence. The late Robert Bradford, who was a Methodist minister and MP for a Northern Ireland constituency, had an office next to mine. I said to him, “Goodbye, see you next week” one Thursday and, over the weekend, he was gunned down in his surgery—killed. I was friendly with the late Ian Gow. The late Airey Neave was the brother-in-law of a constituent, and he became a close friend. My wife and
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I were toasting the defeat of the Callaghan Government in the House on, I believe, a Wednesday night. On the Friday, as Airey Neave was driving out of the car park here, he was killed. I was briefly on a hit list, because the IRA had several targets in Staffordshire.

One has had some experience, but it does not begin to compare with what the people of Northern Ireland have been through. It does not even begin to compare with the detailed, intimate knowledge of tragedy that my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann has. There can be few of us who have listened to our colleagues from Northern Ireland in the Chamber who have not felt moved by their accounts of relatives slain, and families absolutely devastated as a result.

All that has to be taken into account. However, we have to move on. We will have to see what the Eames-Bradley consultative group’s report says and recommends, but, whatever the difficulty, we cannot go on indefinitely—our report makes that plain—because of the cost, not just the financial cost, which, as I have said, is real and significant, but because of the human cost of keeping wounds open. When is the right time to stop? I do not know, but I do know that it has to come. I am glad that my hon. Friend is indicating his assent to that proposition.

We made several significant recommendations in our report, to one of which I have already alluded. With your permission, Mr. Bercow, let me refer to one or two more. We recommended that

We also recommended a mid-term project review.

We had conversations, both formal and informal, with the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland. The ombudsman’s office was established to give the people of Northern Ireland confidence in the policing of the present, but it is in danger of being overwhelmed with its responsibilities of investigating the policing of the past. The ombudsman himself, in evidence to our Committee, said that he wanted the role to be divided. We concluded that

We also called on those running the statutory inquiries to recognise that the future safety of certain people—indeed, possibly their lives—who supplied sensitive information could well depend on their decisions. We called for a review of the inquiry information management procedures—rather a mouthful—particularly because, even as we were deliberating on our report, a sensitive disc was stolen from the Rosemary Nelson inquiry. We must remember that some people will always fear for their safety, because of their bravery in giving and sharing information in the past. I refer not only to those whom one would normally call informers, although they played an important role.

On the subject of inquiries—but not, indeed, on their substance—we felt that because they are so time-consuming and costly, no more should be established unless there was real consensus among the political parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly that they should be established. That is eminently sensible.

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We were concerned to learn after the publication of our report and just before Christmas that Lord Saville wanted another year. I wrote to him on behalf of the Committee and invited him to come to talk to the Committee, not about the substance of the inquiry but about why an extra year was necessary. I received a firm, polite refusal. Of course, no Select Committee, although it can send for persons and papers, can compel the attendance of a Member of the other place, so he was entirely within his rights in refusing to come before us, but I felt that it was a pity that he did not come and put on the record some of the reasons for the extra year.

The inquiry has gone on for a very long time. The earliest we can now expect the report is the end of this year. The event took place well over 30 years ago, and, by the time the report is delivered, public expenditure will have reached some £200 million. The costs are running at well over £180 million at present. Those are big sums. Obviously, one cannot pre-empt the report—one does not know at all what it will say—but one wonders what its value will be when, by the time that it is published, so many of the principals will not only be long retired but several, including the then Prime Minister, will be long dead. Those issues must be addressed.

I hope the Minister agrees that we should have no more inquiries unless there really is a consensual demand from within Northern Ireland, in which case, of course, that would be different. I believe that he has indicated that he does more or less agree with that.

It is crucial—this was another of our conclusions—that the Northern Ireland Office

Sir Hugh Orde made it plain to us both publicly and privately that the time of some of his most experienced officers that is devoted to providing evidence and giving assistance to inquiries is prodigious and that that has an effect on the efficiency with which he can give Northern Ireland the police service that it deserves.

I shall conclude, because it would be interesting to hear what other hon. Members have to say. I hope that the report, limited as it inevitably is because we are waiting for Eames-Bradley, gives a few pointers. I hope that it serves to underline the fact that we understand the sensitivities of the issue and that we are unanimous in more than the report and its conclusions. We are unanimous in wanting Northern Ireland to be a normal part of the United Kingdom in the same way that England, Scotland and Wales are normal parts of the UK. We want it to be freed from the burden of its recent past, which has been bloody and tragic, and we want its people from all communities—I resist using the term “both communities”—to look forward to a bright future.

In particular, we want the young people of Northern Ireland not to be obsessed by what happened to their parents and grandparents, but rather to concentrate on living and working together to create a harmonious society for their children and grandchildren. If, in what we have said in the report, we have assisted in the development of that thought process, we will be well content.

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