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Northern Ireland

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, before I repeat the Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, I have been given quite recently some information that your Lordships will wish to know. There has been an attack with explosives on the property of our colleague, the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough. At this stage—I am giving the details, obviously, as soon as I am able—the Army advises me that the Continuity IRA has telephoned a local newspaper claiming responsibility. A recognised codeword was used. I mention this because your Lordships obviously would wish to know and, more fundamentally, we would wish to send a message of unswerving solidarity to a parliamentary colleague.

Noble Lords: Hear, hear!

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I turn now to the Statement, which is as follows:

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    "I cannot emphasise too strongly that it is essential that things should now calm down and that we should have a settled summer. It would be intolerable for the political progress on which the future well-being of Northern Ireland depends to be held to ransom by the murderous activities of paramilitaries on either side. It would be equally intolerable if the progress valued by the many were to become hostage to the few who are committed to violence.

    "People want us to face up to this honestly. It would, I believe, help us and the public to have more transparent information about the involvement of paramilitary groups in such activities and the general pattern of paramilitary activity in the community.

    "In a related area—the involvement of paramilitaries in racketeering and organised crime—I have already asked Professor Ron Goldstock to assist me in assessing the scale of the problem.

    "I can see a case for doing something similar, to shine a light on levels of paramilitary violence in the community, both loyalist and republican, and to supplement the judgments I make about the cease-fires. I will consult widely about this idea and how it might best be done, and make my views known after the summer break.

    "It is now four and a half years since the second IRA cease-fire. The cease-fires have made a huge contribution to reducing the appalling human cost of the conflict. This is the 30th anniversary of the worst year of the Troubles, when 470 people lost their lives. Even 10 years ago, the figure was nearly 100. Last year it was 17. So far this year, six people have lost their lives. We should never forget in the midst of all our problems just how far we have come. But six is still too many. Of course things are a lot better than they were. But that is not the only test. The real test is whether they are as good as people have a right to expect.

    "They expect it of all paramilitaries and all parties. But there is a particular responsibility on any party participating in the government of Northern Ireland. It must appreciate that operating jointly in government, as the agreement requires, calls for a measure of responsibility and trust. Trust depends on confidence that the transition from violence to democracy continues apace, has not stalled and will be completed without delay.

    "The recent statement by the IRA acknowledging the grief and pain of the relatives of those who died at the hands of the IRA and reaffirming its commitment to the peace process was a welcome step in the right direction.

    "We also have to acknowledge, though, that more than four years after the agreement was concluded, welcome as it is, it is simply not enough for paramilitary organisations on cease-fires to have brought an end to their terrorist campaigns.

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    "Confidence in the process requires confidence that there will never again be a return to those dark days; in particular, that preparations are not going on under the surface for a resumption of a terrorist campaign; and that paramilitary organisations will be stood down altogether as soon as possible. Whatever their real intentions—and in the case of the IRA I share my right honourable friend's assessment that it has never been further from a return to its campaign—nothing could be more damaging than the sense that options were being kept open in that way.

    "The judgments I make about the cease-fires have to be made in the round, taking into account all relevant factors, including those which the statute obliges me to take into account. That is what I will continue to do. But with the passage of time it is right that these judgments should become increasingly rigorous. In reviewing the cease-fires, I will give particular weight to any substantiated information that a paramilitary organisation is engaged in training, targeting, acquisition or development of arms or weapons, or any similar preparations for a terrorist campaign in Northern Ireland or elsewhere. I say to the House—lest there be any doubt on the matter—that I will not hesitate to use the powers Parliament has given me if the circumstances require it.

    "There is also still a threat from organisations, both loyalist and republican, which are not on cease-fire. The Irish authorities have already had some notable successes against dissident republicans. Separately and together, we will counter those who cling to violence with all the resources at our disposal.

    "I have made it absolutely clear that violence is unacceptable and pledged once again to do all in our power to achieve its elimination. I will not pretend to the House that it is within the Government's power to solve all these problems on our own or by security measures alone.

    "That is why we must keep in mind the enormous benefits which the political agreement has brought and will continue to bring as we complete its implementation. These include government of Northern Ireland by the people of Northern Ireland, with locally elected representatives in a cross-community administration.

    "The stability of those institutions is not a concession to paramilitaries. On the contrary, it provides a platform for putting their activities in the past, where they belong. The steps I have announced today are most definitely not intended to threaten the democratic institutions, but to buttress democracy against violence. We should never forget how much we have to lose. It is essential that the political representatives on all sides who have done so much to create and sustain the agreement should, by reaffirming and observing their commitment to exclusively peaceful and democratic means, ensure its continuation.

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    "I have set out the measures in response to the violence in Northern Ireland. But the success of the peace process will require courage, patience and endurance from everyone involved. It will be a long haul. But that could not be otherwise in what is an historic attempt to end what is at heart an ancient conflict".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

5.1 p.m.

Lord Glentoran: My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal for repeating the Statement. Perhaps, with your Lordships' indulgence, I may be allowed to join with the noble and learned Lord in expressing sympathy to the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, as regards whatever happened this afternoon. The noble Viscount has been outstanding in his courage throughout the past 30 years. He deserves our best wishes.

For those of us who are familiar with the affairs of Northern Ireland, it is not difficult to see why the Government were forced to make this Statement. Over recent months there has been an alarming deterioration in confidence in the agreement on the part of the people of Northern Ireland. Many would say that the Government have completely lost their way and that in many areas the rule of law no longer applies.

While many of the institutions established under the agreement are working well—the Executive and the Assembly, for example—the agreement has failed to deliver in one key area. Despite the fact that all those who signed up to the Belfast agreement pledged to pursue their objective by exclusively peaceful and democratic means, paramilitary violence in Northern Ireland remains a daily fact of life for too many people. The violence is obviously on a lower scale than it was, say, 10 years ago, although in certain parts of Belfast it is very similar. Mothers are afraid to let their children into the streets. Families wonder whether the one who has gone shopping will come back; the fear is permanently present if someone is late. That is happening today in many parts of the Province.

Over the past four years we have seen a number of breaches of cease-fires to which the Government have simply turned a blind eye. In recent months the breaches have become even more blatant. There has been the violence in and around the Short Strand area of east Belfast, clearly orchestrated by republican and loyalist paramilitaries. There have the events at Castlereagh—almost certainly the work of the IRA. We have had evidence of the renewed targeting of politicians and military installations. There have been the revelations of IRA involvement with the narco-terrorist group, FARC, and, as is thought likely, with the testing of new weapons in Colombia. In parts of Belfast, beatings, shootings and mutilations take place on a daily basis. Racketeering, intimidation and smuggling are big business, raking in millions for paramilitary gang bosses. Surely all of this is a far cry from the prospect of the complete end to violence offered by the Belfast agreement.

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Will the noble and learned Lord please define for the House what will in future constitute a breach of the cease-fire? Four years on, there is little sign that we are much closer to what the agreement describes as,

    "the complete disarmament of all paramilitary organisations",

or to what the Prime Minister said would be,

    "the progressive disbandment of paramilitary structures".

Do the Government accept that PIRA is better armed today and a technically more sophisticated force than it has ever been? It is these failings that have created a deep crisis of confidence in the peace agreement, particularly among moderate unionists, many of whom, it should be remembered, were reluctantly persuaded to support the agreement, and such factors as the release of terrorist prisoners, on the basis that it offered an end to violence and after hearing the Prime Minister's pledges.

Unless confidence is restored, we shall face—indeed, I believe we are facing—a real crisis and the possible collapse of the political institutions before we even reach next May's elections. I do not believe that the Statement will do anything to help that situation.

I welcome some parts of the Statement, but I regret that it contains very little of substance. The noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal will forgive me for reminding him that we have been here before. When the Prime Minister defined the cease-fire during the referendum campaign on the agreement in May 1998, he said that a "complete and unequivocal cease-fire" meant,

    "an end to bombings, killings and beatings, claimed or unclaimed; an end to targeting and procurement of weapons; progressive abandonment and dismantling of paramilitary structures actively directing and promoting violence".

I shall not say that he repeated it verbatim, but I heard him almost repeat that statement about an hour ago in another place.

The Prime Minister went on to say that the tests against which the cease-fires would be judged would become "more rigorous over time". Yet the very reverse appears to have happened. The tests have become less rigorous, indeed they are almost non-existent.

So will the noble and learned Lord give an assurance that, following today's Statement, there will be no more fudges and no more blind eyes? Furthermore, will he confirm that the Government will not tolerate any further breaches of the cease-fires; and that, unlike in the past four years, when many breaches have taken place, the Government will act?

The noble and learned Lord said that the Government would use the powers that Parliament had given them should the circumstances so require. Can he assure the House that, in the event of IRA breaches, the Government will not hesitate to use their powers under the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to table a Motion before the Assembly seeking the exclusion of Sinn Fein from the Executive? That is not a very strong threat, particularly if it is likely that the SDLP would not support such a Motion. It would be valueless in that situation.

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Regarding those paramilitaries without political representation in the Executive or the Assembly, republican dissidents and the loyalist groups, will the noble and learned Lord undertake to consult with the Dublin Government and those in the United States Administration to see what further effective penalties can be imposed so that specifying an organisation has some real rather than merely symbolic meaning?

Will the noble and learned Lord state clearly that any party in breach of the agreement or linked to a paramilitary group not maintaining a complete and unequivocal cease-fire will not be allowed to sit in the Executive following next May's elections?

I welcome what the noble and learned Lord said about the need to tackle the appalling street violence in Belfast and other parts of Northern Ireland. Only this week we saw another sickening murder—of a young Catholic, Gerard Lawlor, which I am sure we all deeply regret. However, it was one of many attacks on both Protestants and Catholics. Any initiatives to deal with this will have our support.

Does the noble and learned Lord not agree, however, that the most effective counter to violence is a well-motivated and full-strength police force? Does he therefore share my alarm at the current strength of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, which is already below the levels envisaged by Patten in infinitely more favourable security circumstances? Will he now give a categorical assurance that police numbers will not be allowed to fall any further, and that in the foreseeable future there can be no question of phasing out the full-time reserve who are literally indispensable?

The Conservative Party continues to support the Belfast agreement. We desperately want it to succeed. However, the situation is now critical. The Government have a short window of opportunity to rebuild confidence and restore momentum in the political process. I urge them to grasp it. I seriously fear the consequences if they do not do so.

5.11 p.m.

Lord Smith of Clifton: My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for repeating the Statement by his right honourable friend in another place. I should like first to say that we on these Benches unequivocally condemn the murder of Gerard Lawlor and extend our sympathies to his family. Similarly, we would associate ourselves with the sentiments expressed about the explosion on the property of the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough.

We absolutely agree that there are no acceptable levels of violence, and accordingly welcome the steps that have been announced today by the Government. We particularly underline the need to promote further local dialogue and partnerships. The most effective way of dealing with terrorism and general mayhem is for the local communities to come together to make clear that they will dissociate themselves from it and do all they can to stop it.

I have two questions for the Lord Privy Seal. First, how will the Secretary of State aim to progress his intention to supplement the judgments he makes about

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the cease-fires? Will he be introducing some facility for the objective independent assessment of paramilitary activity in relation to the cease-fires? We particularly welcomed that part of the Statement which said that he sought to supplement the judgments he made about the cease-fires, and that he was willing to consult widely on the idea of how it might best be done and make his views known after the Summer Recess.

We think that that is an important way forward. So often in Northern Ireland, it has been necessary to bring in both internal and external assessors to make objective statements about situations which were otherwise contentious. It helps to take some of the contention out of debate. We would welcome that if the Secretary of State were so minded.

Secondly, does the noble and learned Lord agree that political party leaderships should redouble their efforts to influence the paramilitaries on both sides of the community? Very often in this House—I have no reason to disagree with it—it is invariably assumed that Sinn Fein can exercise great influence over the IRA. Rarely, however, is it assumed that the various Unionist parties have the capacity effectively to constrain the dissident loyalist paramilitaries. Does the Minister agree, given the greater degree of violence exhibited by the loyalist groups recently, that much greater efforts should be made by the elected Unionist leaderships to lessen these recent outbreaks of violence which are becoming a regular feature in the Short Strand area among many others?

5.14 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords who have spoken.

I shall, if I may, respond immediately to the questions put by the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton. The step of asking Professor Goldstock was a very imaginative one; a subtle step where subtlety is required. Professor Goldstock is of course internationally known as an expert on organised crime. As my right honourable friend said, he sees a case for shining a light on levels of paramilitary violence, which is, I think, what was endorsed by the noble Lord, Lord Smith. My right honourable friend is certainly perfectly open-minded. He is happy to consult widely and wants to come to an informed conclusion in about the timescale that the noble Lord mentioned.

I think that the noble Lord is absolutely right on party political leadership. There has been very significant—allegedly loyalist—violence. It is not simply elected politicians who have a duty; of course, there are community leaders. I have to say that, on the information available to me, some community leaders from both sides have been trying to calm tempers. One needs to bear in mind also, I think, that some crime is deeply and desperately anti-social but is not necessarily politically based or motivated. Organised gangs may pretend to have a political motive and motivation, but what really drives them is the thought of vast amounts of cash. It is an extremely attractive proposition to them, if they can get away with it.

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The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, asked about the Secretary of State's powers under the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Of course, the Secretary of State has certain statutory obligations in Section 30(7) of that Act. If he is minded to come to a conclusion that would require his serving a notice on the Presiding Officer requiring a motion to be moved for the removal from office of a Minister or junior Minister, he has particularly to take into account whether the Minister, junior Minister or relevant political party,

    "is committed to the use now and in the future of only democratic and peaceful means to achieve his or its objectives . . . has ceased to be involved in any acts of violence or of preparation for violence . . . is directing or promoting acts of violence by other persons . . . is co-operating . . . with any Commission of the kind referred to in",

the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997.

The Secretary of State is resolute. He intends to use those powers if they seem to be appropriate. He is bound, of course, by those statutory considerations. However, it is useful, as the noble Lord, Lord Smith, said, for his judgment to be supplemented by the sort of material that has been described.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, put the proposition that the Provisional IRA is better armed today and more sophisticated than ever before. I personally would not be in a position to comment on that. I know that various views are held, and they may be rightly held. My proposition, however, is that there has been the maintenance, by and large, of an effective cease-fire. The numbers that I spoke of in the Statement are not used for forensic or political advantage. However, the decline from 470 to six—six too many, this year—is something that has been worth an enormous struggle and great patience.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, quoted the Prime Minister's words, with which of course I entirely agree. He is quite right that the Prime Minister has spoken them on a number of occasions. I think that the noble Lord is right in saying that we can not have fudges or blind eyes. The law has to apply to all.

As for the question on Dublin and the United States administration, I can happily reconfirm that relations between the White House, Her Majesty's Government and the Government of the Republic of Ireland in Dublin have never been more co-operative. It is heartening indeed to see the successes that the republic's forces have achieved in their fight against terrorists. It may be necessary to remind ourselves that the powers that obtain in the Republic of Ireland in relation to the seizure of assets have historically been much more vigorous and draconian than anything that we have had, which is why the Secretary of State made reference to the Proceeds of Crime Bill, which is to receive Royal Assent today.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, asked me about the judgment that the Secretary of State might come to following the May elections for the Assembly in Belfast. I repeat that he will discharge his statutory duty on the grounds set out in Section 30(7).

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As regards Patten and the police force, I agree entirely with the noble Lord that a fully equipped and supported police force is essential. It is a great cause of regret that although the Roman Catholic Church has encouraged its members to join the police force, Sinn Fein has not. I believe that on previous occasions the noble Lord asked why Sinn Fein has not done so. I have no answer to that save that I agree with him. I refer to the review by the oversight commissioner announced on 30th April. The commissioner can report on any aspect of the new policing arrangements.

I believe that I have answered the questions that were asked. I am particularly grateful that both noble Lords who spoke endorsed what all your Lordships feel about the cowardly attack on a good parliamentarian who serves on the police board and discharges his duty admirably.

5.21 p.m.

Lord Maginnis of Drumglass: My Lords, I, too, endorse what has been said by noble Lords in respect of the cowardly attack on the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough. I condemn all killings and all violence whether that violence emanates from loyalist or from republicans in Northern Ireland. It is a scourge on our community. Does the noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal accept that we must be more specific in the analysis of the problem if we are to tackle it in an effective way? Does he agree that loyalist violence—although I condemn it totally—emanates largely from independent action by thugs who are set about with sectarianism and whose main objective is to kill a member of the Roman Catholic community? That particular violence could be dealt with much more effectively if Sinn Fein was willing to promote among its supporters support for the Police Service of Northern Ireland. That lack of support and the inability of the police service to operate without fear of attack on its members inhibit the war against loyalist terrorism which could be controlled. There is comparatively little support for that kind of terrorism.

The failure of Sinn Fein members of the Executive to condemn the attempted murder of a young Roman Catholic police officer a few weeks ago is tantamount to support for that crime. It is by that attitude that Adams and McGuinness stand condemned. Do the Government recognise that through their inactivity in regard to implementing promises that were made four years ago they are hanging a millstone around the neck of David Trimble? He cannot be expected to carry alone the burden of the Belfast agreement. Will the Government stop ignoring the small infringements which mount up to the extent that we are now reaching a point where perhaps the whole edifice of democracy could crumble around our heads?

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