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Immediately after the attack, fellow soldiers from 38 Engineer Regiment went to the aid of their friends. They tended the wounded and cared for the dying. I had the honour of meeting some of those young men and women immediately after the attack yesterday morning. This morning my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister flew to Northern Ireland, and with him I again met that group of outstanding young soldiers. Let me put on the
record the admiration that we all have for those young men and women. They are the greatest credit to our country, and I know that I speak for the whole House in saying how proud of them we are.
It is now the job of the Police Service of Northern Ireland to conduct the investigation to bring those who murdered and injured these soldiers and civilians to justice. A major investigation is under way. This morning both the Prime Minister and I had further briefings from the Chief Constable, Sir Hugh Orde, from our intelligence advisers, and from Brigadier George Norton, commander of 38 (Irish) Brigade and the Northern Ireland garrison.
The House will wish to know that everything is being done that can be done. It is too early for me to report on the progress of the criminal investigation. However, I should tell the House that yesterday evening the so-called Real IRA claimed responsibility for this act of extreme barbarism. Whatever self-styled name these murderers choose to use, the House will correctly recognise them as barbaric criminals prepared to carry out an act of premeditated mass murdercallously murdering innocent people going about their daily business. They are simply brutal and cowardly killers. It is true that the number of people who make up these criminal groups is relatively low, but they are no less dangerous for their small numbers. We know that they have no community support whatsoever, but their guns are able to murder.
The police have asked for everyone in the community who has information to come forward, and they should do so as a matter of urgency. Anyone in the Antrim area or beyond on Saturday who may have seen anything suspicious, in the vicinity of Dominos or on the Randalstown road close to Massereene Barracks, should contact the police.
The House will want to know that all political leaders and political parties in Northern Ireland have condemned this evil act. They are united not only in their condemnation and in their expressions of condolence to the families, but in their demand that anyone who can help should come forward. They join in those expressions with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and all the party leaders in this House, and they join today in a statement from all the Churches in Northern Ireland condemning the violence and asking those who can help the police to come forward.
It is right for me also to record the expressions of support and sympathy that we immediately received from the Taoiseach and President McAleese, from the United States Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, and from President Obama, who last night made his position very clear, condemning the attack in the strongest terms and making clear his support for the people of Northern Irelandthose people who have chosen a future of peace.
It may be helpful if I take this opportunity to provide the House with further information about the current levels of security threat in Northern Ireland. As the House will know, both the Chief Constable and I have made public our view that the level of threat posed by dissident republicans has recently been higher than at any time in the last six years. Since 2008 they have mounted 18 attacks, 15 last year and three so far this year.
The House will be aware that last week the Security Service raised the level of threat from Irish-related terrorism from substantial to severe in Northern Ireland.
That was a carefully calibrated decision, based on an overall assessment of the last nine months. That period includes the attempted murder of police officers, including one savage attack on a police officer who had just dropped his child at school. Five bullets were put into the mans chest. There was some uncertainty last week about the wisdom of raising the threat level. I believe this was the right decision and entirely justified.
Policing in Northern Ireland enjoys the highest levels of confidence from the public. In my judgment, it is absolutely essential that the Chief Constable has operational independence. Of course, he is accountable to the Policing Board under the Patten arrangements. He will, if he sees fit, enjoy the same rights as any other chief constable in the UK to request further technical back-up, if so needed; that would be the case in, say, a chief constable dealing with a threat from al-Qaeda and any international terrorism. Indeed, we made that clear at the end of Operation Banner. In a statement to this House on 31 July 2007, the Minister of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth), said that after 1 August the vast bulk of military support in Northern Ireland will be broadly comparable to the assistance that is currently provided in Great Britain, but tailored for the particular circumstances in Northern Ireland. He also made it clear that the provision of explosive ordnance disposal would continue; this was, of course, used to deal with the car bomb in Castlewellan in January of this year.
I hope that, whatever concerns may have been expressed by hon. Members last weekand it may be appropriate to comment on the serious distortions and misleading reports in some of the media at that timehon. Members will now feel reassured about the role of any technical support being used to tackle the current threat. This is, as the Chief Constable has repeatedly said, not about the return of troops to the streets, but it is about protecting the public at a proportionate level, and about protecting those who provide that protection, such as police officers and those who work to protect the international community or on international theatre operations.
It has been 12 years since the last death of a soldier in Northern Ireland, and this has been a very dark few days for Northern Ireland, but it is a temporary darkness at the end of a tunnel of considerable light. The peace process and political progress, as part of shared power, have transformed Northern Ireland. The perpetrators of this attack believe they can stall the progress and, in stalling the progress, instil seeds of self-destruction in the politics of today. Indeed, they have clearly chosen to act in this evil way only because the politics of a shared future is working.
The determination and resolve of all political leaders in the face of this brutal act are working proof of a unity of purpose. We are all united in our resolve that these criminals will not succeed. Our confidence must be stronger, our resolve even greater; and while the House will understandably be sombre as a result of this murderous attack, the greatest memorial to Patrick Azimkar and Mark Quinsey and their families will be in our determination to unite behind the peace process and the political progress in Northern Ireland.
So let us make sure that those responsible for this attack are not given any opportunity to stall or prevent the progress of the people of Northern Ireland. Let us join together, and let this House send this afternoon an unequivocal message: the men of violence will not succeed; these criminals will not succeednot now, not ever.
Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con): I thank the Secretary of State for giving me advance sight of his statement and for his call yesterday. I also join him in sending our deepest sympathies to the families and friends of Sapper Patrick Azimkar and Sapper Mark Quinsey, and to those injured in this cowardly attack. The murdered men were about to travel to Afghanistan to serve their country and to support the Afghan people. The horrific events of this weekend bring into focus the bravery of all those who serve the armed forces, the PSNI and the security services. We should also thank the emergency services and medical staff. We are all indebted to them.
The Independent Monitoring Commission review confirmed our concerns about the dissident threat. We raised this again in the Chamber last Wednesday. This attack follows a succession of near misses on police, and the Chief Constable has been consistent, and increasingly public, about the severity of the threat posed by dissident republican groups. I would like to confirm our firm support for the operational independence of the Chief Constable. Like every other chief constable in the UK, he must have the right to enlist the help of specialists. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the decision of the Chief Constable to call in reconnaissance experts would not have been affected had criminal justice and policing been devolved?
The aim of these attacks was to try to disrupt normal policing, forcing police into barracks and armoured vehicles, and away from the public. Will the Secretary of State confirm that a balance must be struck between the need for the increased protection of officers and ensuring that police are visible and known to their communities? The Government raised the threat level from substantial to severe last week. Was the change due to specific intelligence that had been received, or was it a response to the general security situation? Were civilian guards briefed on the current threat level, and were individual establishments chased up to ensure that this was understood and that appropriate measures had been taken to take account of it? Given the understandable pursuit of normalisation, will he conduct an immediate review of the security arrangements at police stations and military installations? Has he had any discussions with the Defence Secretary about the consequences for defence installations in the rest of the UK?
The attackers showed a devastating ruthlessness in shooting their victims a second time on the ground. Does the Secretary of State believe that that cold brutality suggests that these were experienced terrorists? The crime scene will reveal valuable ballistic and forensic evidence. Experience from previous investigations shows that speed is of the essence, so will he confirm that these category A murders will receive top priority? Will he also confirm that the most competent and experienced officers will be in charge of the investigation?
I would like to confirm that we will support the Governments efforts to bring these ruthless murderers to justice. We believe that they have no support in the
wider community, and the support for the police investigation from all political parties is welcome. The key to defeating terrorism in Northern Ireland lies with all parts of the community. I endorse the Secretary of States appeal yesterday for anyone with information on these criminal acts to come forward: even the smallest piece of information could be vital and might help to bring this investigation to a swift conclusion. We welcome the public statement by the Irish Justice Minister and the Garda Commissioner and their commitment to help.
Although huge progress has been made, Northern Ireland still has some way to go before normal security arrangements are appropriate. Thanks to the peace process, which was begun by the previous Government and continued by this one, Northern Ireland has been transformed. An unrepresentative minority of dissidents are determined to undo the good work of the past 15 years. It is incumbent on us all to respond to this shocking attack by going about our business normally, but with increased vigilance. The good work of recent years must continueterrorism, in any form, must never succeed.
Mr. Woodward: The decisions of the Chief Constable to call in technical back-up support, to which the hon. Gentleman was referring, would, of course, not change under any arrangements in the future for devolution; those are decisions for the Chief Constable. On the balance to be struck between enabling the police to continue normal policingagain, I pay a huge tribute to the work of the PSNI, as it has ensured that it is, indeed, normal policing that takes place in Northern Ireland todayand addressing the huge risks taken by the men and women of the PSNI, I can confirm that the Chief Constable always has the interest and welfare of the PSNI at heart and I believe that the balance is very carefully struck. That is a matter for the Chief Constable, but I have full confidence in the decisions that he has made.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether there had been specific intelligence about the threat last Saturday evening and the connection of any such intelligence to the decision by the Security Service to raise the level of threat last week. The reasons for raising the threat level last week were a carefully considered calibration of the events of the past nine months and the fact that although it is a small number of people who self-style themselves as the Real IRA, there was, none the less, an indication that they were intent on perpetrating further violence and criminal acts. We did not have specific intelligence about a threat last Saturday evening at the base.
I am pleased to report to the House that of course the guards were briefed and that special arrangements were put in place at the base following the decision to raise the military threat level in Northern Ireland. Of course, the young men and all those serving there were spoken to and reminded of the change in the security threat level. As for the implications for other military barracks and police stations in Northern Ireland, of course the Chief Constable and Brigadier Norton separately undertake reviews as a matter of course. I am certain that in the light of the tragic events of Saturday evening further reviews will be conducted in the course of this week.
I hold regular conversations with the Defence Secretary on matters related to these issues and I am sure that uppermost in his mind will be the need to review the
security arrangements for those people serving with the MOD, not only in the light of last Saturday but always. As for the investigation, it is too early for us to speculate as to who might have been responsible. On the subject of who is in charge of the investigation, I reassure the hon. Gentleman and this House that it is being personally overseen by the Chief Constable and those at the highest levels in the PSNI. I hope that sooner rather than later we will be able to bring these people to justice.
Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): May I, too, thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement today and for the briefing he provided yesterday? I associate myself and my right hon. and hon. Friends with the expressions of condolence expressed to the friends, families and comrades of Sapper Patrick Azimkar and Sapper Mark Quinsey, who were killed yesterday, and extend to those who were injured our very best wishes for their recovery. We also join the Secretary of State in his forthright and unambiguous condemnation of this senseless and barbaric act.
May I also echo the sentiments that have been expressed elsewhere by the right hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) as First Minister and by Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minister? In particular, they have called for all communities to co-operate fully with the police investigation. For Martin McGuinness in particular to be able to make a call of that sort is an indication of just how far we have come in this peace process as well as of how much we have to lose. The communities in Northern Ireland have been well served on this occasion by both the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister.
On behalf of my colleagues, I place on the record our admiration of and support for Sir Hugh Orde, the Chief Constable, and his officers in the PSNI. As has already been recognised, they have been the subject of a number of aborted attacks. I am reassured by the Secretary of States comments about the availability of every resource for their investigation, and I think that in time this event might give us some pause for reflection on the correct level of support and resourcing for policing in Northern Ireland from hereon in.
Many will see this event as a threat, but I think we should see it not just as a threat but as an opportunity. It is an opportunity for the people of Northern Ireland to come together, as they did last night in Antrim, with a remarkable quiet dignity and determination, to show that nothing will turn this process backwards and that what we saw on Saturday night was not a glimpse of the future but a reflection of the past.
Mr. Woodward: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support. It is extremely important that the House sends a united message today, and that support is extremely valuable. I thank him for it. On the issue of resources, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made it crystal clear in the briefing to Sir Hugh Orde this morning that Sir Hugh should be absolutely certain that every resource that he needs for the investigation will be made available.
Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East) (DUP):
May I, too, express to the Secretary of State and the Minister of State my appreciation for the help and support that they have given me in fulfilling my responsibilities in the past 48 hours? May I associate with my remarks my
hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea), who, as the Secretary of State will know, regrettably cannot be here as he was admitted to hospital today? He was in the constituency, at the base, on Saturday evening and again on Sunday, when he accompanied me to the site. He was with the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister this morning, on his way to the hospital.
May I join with the Secretary of State in expressing our condolences to the families of the two brave young men who were slain at the Massereene base on Saturday evening? It is a very sorrowful and devastating time for those families, and our hearts and prayers go out to them. We express our sympathy for the families of the two other soldiers injured, and the two members of our local community also injured.
Does the Secretary of State welcome, as I do, the remarks made by all Unionist leadersand indeed by representatives of the Ulster Political Research Group and the Progressive Unionist party who will be associated with the loyalist paramilitary associationsthat the matter should be left entirely to the PSNI, that people should give their support to the police service, that due process is the way forward, and that all information that is available should be given to the police, so that they can apprehend those responsible?
Does the Secretary of State agree that there is no such thing as a mindless terrorist attack, and that every terrorist attack has a purpose? The purpose of this attack was to drive our community apart, to cause division and to drag us back to the bad old bloody days of the past. Those terrorists can never achieve that unless the people of Northern Ireland allow them to. Does he agree that there is a spirit in Northern Ireland characterised not by the evil we saw on Saturday, but by the good we saw on Sunday and since? People in Northern Ireland are saying together, loudly and clearly, Were not going back.
Mr. Woodward: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his support, and I wish to commend to the House the very strong leadership that he and the Deputy First Minister showed yesterday to the people of Northern Ireland. I also want to mention his support for the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea), whom the Prime Minister met this morning to discuss the barbaric events of Saturday evening. I absolutely agree with the right hon. Gentleman that there should be no cover provided by putting the event under the heading of a terrorist attack. It was a criminal attack of the most callous, brutal and evil kind, and I absolutely join him in recognising the contrast between the evil of Saturday night and the good shown by the public yesterday. One small example is that of a local Catholic church: the priest led the entire congregation out on to the street, near where the evil act was committed, and everybody in that Catholic church prayed for the souls of those who had died. There could be no greater distinction between what is good in people on the one hand, and the evil of Saturday night, and what is terrible, on the other.
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