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House of Commons

Wednesday 4 March 2009

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—

Consultative Group on the Past

1. Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): What timetable he has set for responding to the report of the Consultative Group on the Past. [259264]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Shaun Woodward): I am taking time to reflect on the consultative group’s detailed report, which deals with some of the most difficult challenges facing Northern Ireland today. We will need to hear the views from a wide range of people before making a response, and we will be interested in the conclusions of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, which is also considering the report.

Mark Pritchard: Does the Secretary of State agree that, by allowing the consultative group to define a victim in the way that it has, the natural scales of justice and, indeed, the moral order of life and death have been upset, and will he give a commitment to the House that he will not accept any recommendations that will cause further distress to innocent victims and reward those who have inflicted loss upon themselves?

Mr. Woodward: May I begin by paying tribute to the work of Lord Eames and Denis Bradley in producing this report? The matter we invited them to explore is extraordinarily challenging, and I am fully aware of the controversy that has arisen about some of the recommendations, not least on recognition payments, which, last week, as the hon. Gentleman will know, I made very clear that the Government will not accept. I am equally aware of the concern that has been expressed about the issue of so-called moral equivalence. Therefore, let me be very clear about one matter in this regard: any terrorist act is utterly reprehensible, and we can all acknowledge that terrorism has led to awful suffering in Northern Ireland, but we now need a way to move forward that meets the needs of victims and helps Northern Ireland society work towards a shared future, and that is why I made it very clear last week that the Government would not consider recognition payments.

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Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): The Secretary of State will be aware of the conviction yesterday in respect of the murders nine years ago of Andrew Robb and David McIlwaine, but does he recognise that there are many outstanding questions in that case, which are typical of all too many other cases from the past, in terms of the need for both truth and justice? Those questions relate to the role of informers and agents and the readiness of the Chief Constable to go for public interest immunity certificates, rather than to pursue full investigation and proper prosecution in due time, leaving too much on the shoulders of families?

Mr. Woodward: First, may I join the hon. Gentleman in welcoming the conviction, which it is extremely important for us to acknowledge? Many issues to do with the past must be addressed in Northern Ireland. In putting all this into context, one of the most important things to say is that an enormous burden is placed on every family who lost a loved one in the course of the difficulties, and that is why, again, I say to the House that we will spend a long time reflecting on the proposals in the Eames-Bradley report. We will also look forward to the report of the Select Committee, whose Chairman, the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack), I am glad to see is in his place. We have many lessons to learn from the past in Northern Ireland, and if we are to be able to move forward to secure an environment of lasting peace and prosperity, we must ensure that Northern Ireland is not held in the grip of its very troubled past, but finds a settled place for a settled future.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): May I thank the Secretary of State for what he said about the work of our Committee? May I also congratulate him on ruling out the misjudged and mistaken recommendation on so-called recognition payments? However, the right hon. Gentleman will know that Lord Eames and Mr. Bradley appeared before the Committee last week and gave some extremely interesting evidence, and I hope he agrees that it would be a pity if their whole report is put on one side because of one particularly mistaken recommendation.

Mr. Woodward: I wholly agree with the hon. Gentleman’s observations on the report. There is no question but that the report itself poses a number of challenges, and there are sections of it that will pose some communities greater difficulty than others. Nevertheless, the lesson of Northern Ireland is very clear: if we have political courage and leadership, and if we are able to confront the challenges, we will find a way through. That might take time, and it is appropriate sometimes to remember that time is our friend.

Dr. Alasdair McDonnell (Belfast, South) (SDLP): I welcome the Secretary of State’s comments of appreciation on the work of the group and the individuals concerned. Does he accept, however, that his off-the-cuff dismissal on a radio programme of that one somewhat contentious recommendation, without giving it the due consideration it deserved, has, to some extent, belittled the work of that group and of those individuals?

Mr. Woodward: First, may I firmly underline again my thanks to Lord Eames and Denis Bradley for producing this report? It is important to remind the House that
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not a single one of the recommendations in this excellent piece of work was simply dreamt up by Lord Eames or Denis Bradley one morning. Even the highly contentious recommendation of recognition payments, for which there is clearly no consensus, was something they had heard suggested from a number of people in the community, and not just from one section of the community. I do not believe that we dismissed it in an off-the-cuff way, because it was perfectly clear from the representations that were made, not just from one community but from across the communities, that there was no consensus on recognition payments.

This is a highly emotive issue, and we are all aware of the very understandable emotions that were invoked, so I do not wish to suggest in any way that it was simply an emotional response. Having said that, the group was asked to find a consensus on how to deal with the past but when it came to the issue of recognition payments, it was patently obvious—it was not an off-the-cuff decision, but a considered one—that there was no consensus on it and therefore it was entirely inappropriate to proceed with that recommendation.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): The Secretary of State has recognised the lack of consensus on the so-called recognition payments, which were obnoxious in drawing a moral equivalence between perpetrators and victims. Will he apply the same principle to the other recommendations of the Consultative Group on the Past: that there must be a consensus on the sensitive issues in that report? There are many concerns, particularly in the Unionist community, about not only the obnoxious recognition payments proposal, but other elements of the Eames-Bradley report. There should never be anything that presents an equivalence between victims and perpetrators, and the Secretary of State must take that need for consensus into account when acting on the other recommendations.

Mr. Woodward: I firmly recognise that the hon. Gentleman is absolutely entitled to his point of view, which I suggest to him is not one that is entirely shared across the House or across Northern Ireland. None the less, I respect the fact that his view is strongly and deeply held, although I would beg to disagree with some of his remarks and conclusions. It is clear to me that there is consensus in Northern Ireland on the need to deal with the past. There is clear consensus among many on another issue: to deal with issues of the past by public inquiries, which may lead to some £200 million being spent on one inquiry, deeply troubles not only this House—rightly—but many people in Northern Ireland who genuinely pose a question about whether the public interest is being served by the public inquiry. The Eames-Bradley group was right to address that issue, and it put forward proposals, which this House and those in Northern Ireland must now carefully consider.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con): On 25 February, the Secretary of State said on the BBC online that

Can he confirm that the time will never be right?

Mr. Woodward: I think that the hon. Gentleman needs to be extremely careful here, because it is very easy to pour scorn on the work of Eames and Bradley
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in relation to the concept of recognition payments. He should remember that they did not invent the concept themselves—that proposal was put forward not just by one individual, but by a number of individuals; it was put forward not just by one community, but by a cross-section of the community. Because the idea has failed to find consensus, it is right for the Government to say that, at this time, we rule it out. I simply say to him that he needs to listen to what people are saying and he needs to be careful about the conclusions that he is drawing, because there are people who hold a very deep conviction on the issue. I happen to disagree with it, but that does not mean to say that I am not prepared to listen.

Mr. Paterson: That was a very interesting reply. To pick up on the Secretary of State’s answers to my hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard), we on the Conservative Benches welcome the Secretary of State’s decision not to go ahead with the payments, which we consider to be repugnant. To put it simply, does he agree that there can be no moral equivalence between the two little boys murdered in Warrington and their murderers?

Mr. Woodward: I am particularly aware of the two little boys murdered in Warrington, because the constituency is a neighbouring one to mine and it is an issue about which I know that not only the people of Warrington and Merseyside, but the whole House feels extremely strongly. I simply remind the hon. Gentleman of what Eames and Bradley rightly set out to do: to have the overarching objective of promoting peace and stability in Northern Ireland. As I have said, I personally have condemned totally the activities and consequences of terrorism in Northern Ireland. There is nobody in this House who would sensibly condone the behaviour of terrorists, and there must never be any possibility for us to do anything other than condemn it. But I say to him that we need to understand that there are many people in Northern Ireland who have strong views, and that it is important to listen and, having listened, to learn.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): The comments by the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) and others indicate the difficulties that lie ahead for the Secretary of State if he insists on proceeding on what he terms the basis of consensus. There was a broad consensus on recognition payments, and it was broadly opposed to them. He was right to abandon the proposal, but I hope that he will proceed with the remainder of the Eames-Bradley report, which is excellent in its conclusions. Does he agree that so-called moral equivalence is not what the reconciliation process is about?

Mr. Woodward: The hon. Gentleman puts his finger on the key word of the Eames-Bradley report—reconciliation. They rightly understood that they needed a clear objective, which was to promote peace and stability. In order to promote that, it would be necessary to reconcile people and communities, and that is why they recognised the excellent work of the Historical Enquiries Team and the police ombudsman in investigating the past. Eames and Bradley also rightly—in my opinion—came to the conclusion that the current arrangements probably need to be changed for the long term. That is
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one example of one proposal in the Eames-Bradley report that the Government are considering very carefully. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his careful consideration of the entire report, not just one highly controversial section.

Parades Commission

2. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): What recent discussions he has had with the Parades Commission on parades planned for summer 2009; and if he will make a statement. [259265]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Paul Goggins): I met the chairman of the Parades Commission yesterday when he briefed me on the ongoing work of the commission. I look to all those involved in the 2009 parading season to build on the positive progress made in recent years.

David Taylor: It is now two years since Lord Ashdown was appointed to chair a strategic review of parading in Northern Ireland. Perhaps my hon. Friend would care to update the House about progress in that regard. Does he agree that whatever national recommendations might eventually emerge, the key to peaceful parading is for local organisations and communities to enter dialogue to resolve any difficulties they may have at local level?

Paul Goggins: The strategic review of parading that is chaired by Lord Ashdown issued an interim report last April. Since then, it has consulted extensively across Northern Ireland and it is still compiling its final report. While I cannot tell the House when I expect to receive it, I hope that it will be soon. My hon. Friend puts his finger on an important issue: in Northern Ireland last year there were some 3,800 parades, most of them uncontentious. Where there is a dispute, it is best resolved when the paraders and the protestors sit down together and work out a practical solution to their disagreement. That has been the key to success in recent years, and I hope that it will be the key to success in 2009 as well.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East) (DUP): Does the Minister accept that the issue of parades is inextricably linked to the issue of policing and justice, and that the police expend considerable time and enormous sums of money on dealing with contested parades? There is no faith in Northern Ireland on either side of the community in the Parades Commission. The work of Lord Ashdown is therefore pivotal. I have had the opportunity to speak to Lord Ashdown and real progress is being made with his report. Will the Minister do everything possible to encourage publication of that report and the overcoming of the remaining obstacle that appears to stand in the way of publication?

Paul Goggins: The right hon. Gentleman is right that the costs of policing contentious parades are unacceptable, and that money could be spent on neighbourhood policing across Northern Ireland. I know that he seeks a resolution to this problem every bit as much as I do. Lord Ashdown and his review body have come up with an alternative to the Parades Commission, which I hope will command support across all sections of the community in Northern Ireland and offer us a way forward. I give the right hon. Gentleman my assurance that I will
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continue to work with the review body to resolve any disagreements that may still exist, because he is right to say that we need a resolution to this issue within the context of the devolution of policing and justice powers.

Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): In answer to the previous question, the Secretary of State talked about the grip of the past and, in many ways, the parades reinforce the prejudices of the past. If the Minister agrees that Northern Ireland is moving into a new era and needs to move on from its sectarian past, does he also agree that the Labour party should follow the lead of the Conservative party and field candidates in national elections in Northern Ireland?

Paul Goggins: That is a very interesting way of arriving at the final question. The Labour party has now established a membership in Northern Ireland and that has been agreed within the rules of my party. The hon. Gentleman is quite right—we need to leave the past behind as regards parading as well as all other aspects of the past conflict. Indeed, it is now more than three years since the dreadful events of the Whiterock parade. We have had a number of years of very peaceful parading and the key to that success has been the local dialogue and the local agreement between people who have a fundamental disagreement about parading. It is possible to find solutions and I encourage people to do so this year, too.

Peace Process

3. John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): What assessment he has had made of the level of threat to the peace process from dissident groups; and if he will make a statement. [259266]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Shaun Woodward): The Chief Constable and I have made it clear that the dissident republican threat has risen significantly in recent months. As a result the Police Service of Northern Ireland has proportionately increased its response. It is important for the House to note that these criminals have absolutely nothing to offer the people of Northern Ireland and this House should send an unequivocal message that we reject their attempts to threaten the community.

John Robertson: I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. A car bomb was placed near a school in County Down in January following a warning from the head of MI5 that republican groups had been growing in number in the area. Will my right hon. Friend tell me what has happened in relation to that car bomb and attempts to track down the perpetrators? What is being done about those groups, which seem to be on the rise again?

Mr. Woodward: The House will wish to know that from May to the end of the period of the recent Independent Monitoring Commission review there has been an increase in the number of attacks from dissidents and that that number is now higher than at any time in the past five years. My hon. Friend asked about the specific events at Castlewellan at the end of January. It is right to report to the House that several controlled explosions were carried out on 29 January, leading to the discovery of a timer power unit and a viable explosive
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device in the boot of the vehicle. That was the second dissident republican improvised explosive device so far this year.

I want to join all local politicians in Northern Ireland in utterly condemning that senseless act. It is crucial that we should recognise, however, that the police response will be proportionate. They have upped their response, but we have to recognise something extremely—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I know how strongly the Secretary of State feels that this information should be put across to the House, but we are in Question Time. He is really making a statement and I have to consider Back Benchers who want to ask questions.

Dr. William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): No one could deny the Secretary of State’s statement that dissident republican terrorists have nothing to offer the community. Thirty years of Provisional IRA terrorism did not have anything to offer the community, either. We can condemn terrorism for as long as we like, but what active steps will the Government take to ensure that we defeat terrorism and allow Northern Ireland to move into a genuinely peaceful and tranquil era?

Mr. Woodward: It is important to tell the hon. Gentleman that we can do two things. We can back our Police Service of Northern Ireland and the security forces, and we should congratulate them on foiling this terrible attempt by a small group of criminals with no community support to threaten that community. It is also important to send the message to Northern Ireland that politics is winning and that that is the only way forward.

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down) (SDLP): Did the Secretary of State read the in-depth interview in the Irish News of 16 February with the leader of Oglaigh na hEireann, the group that claims responsibility for the bomb at Castlewellan in my constituency? The leader of the group claimed that the intent was to cause the maximum murder of civilians and military personnel in Ballykinler. Some of my local residents are concerned about the considerable delay between the bomb being found abandoned in the morning and the detonation of its contents. Will the right hon. Gentleman assure the House that there will be no restraint in giving intelligence information to the operating security forces, even to protect the sources of that information?

Mr. Woodward: It is important to recognise that this is now very much an ongoing police investigation. It is also important for me not to make a running commentary on that investigation, but I believe that I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurances that he seeks.

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): As has been mentioned, there has been an increase in dissident activity that has included a brutal murder, the use of pipe bombs and a petrol bomb. Dissident weapons have also been discovered, including sawn-off shotguns and pistols, and in particular there have also been attacks on the police. I welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement that the police response will be proportionate, but what protection can he give to the police? Like the communities, they too are the targets.

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