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The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Lord Rooker): My Lords, I am grateful for the supportsometimes measured, sometimes almost unqualified, as the noble Lord just saidfor the Bill. I shall do my best to answer some of the detailed points. We can address in Committee in the new year those that I do not cover.
In one respect, we are continuing existing law. We are not making major changes today. Therefore, I shall confine my remarks to the contents of the Bill, which maintains the status quo in some respects. There would have had to have been a deterioration of some substance if we had had to talk about even a one-year extension to 2008. On the basis of the significant progress that has been made, we are confident that 2007 is fine; 2008 is a longstop. Beyond that, fresh legislation would be needed to deal with what would be a fresh situation, because, quite clearly, things would not have worked out in an acceptable way.
The International Monitoring Commission's seventh report recognised the IRA's statement as being very significant. The report also states that initial signs, following the Provisional IRA's statement, are encouraging. The Secretary of State has drawn his conclusions from that. As has been said, it is not the end game. The report in which we will really be interested is due before the end of January, because that will cover a longer time span. The first report dealt only with the first few weeks following the IRA's statement of 28 July. The later report will deal with a further three months, so some important points are yet to be taken on board. Nevertheless, the IMC judged the IRA's statement to be significant.
We are putting what pressure we canif "pressure" is the right word to useon the loyalists to decommission. We want all groups to decommission, simply because we want to return to the rule of law, and not the rule of the gun and intimidation. We call regularly on those with influence to help bring this about. I fully accept that the Liberal Democrats agreed to five years in 2000, as the noble Lord, Lord Smith, said. The situation has been regularly scrutinised since then, and that has been useful.
I fully accept what has been said about the Diplock courts. There is no question that they have served the people of Northern Ireland well. The noble Lord, Lord Carlile, has recommended on several occasions that a three-judge court would be a potential replacement for Diplock courts, but no firm conclusions have been drawn. We are committed to the return of jury trials. That was implicit in what the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, said, and it has obviously got to be the long-term aim. Subject to an enabling environment, the Diplock system will cease to have effect by the end of July 2007that is, the expiry of Part VIIbut we are looking actively at what may be required after that period for paramilitary-type trials
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where jurors could be subject to intimidation, because we want to ensure the effectiveness of the criminal justice system as we go forward. We do not want to prejudge, certainly not during the passage of this Bill. I freely admit that I will not be in a position in Committee to elaborate on what might be the replacement for Diplock courts. But we are mindful that to move from Diplock to no-Diplock for everything will not be possible. Therefore, we are actively reviewing the situation and looking at potential replacements.
The noble Baroness, Lady Park, spoke strongly about the devolution of the criminal justice system. We could not devolve policing and justice to the Northern Ireland Assembly if it returned tomorrow. The conditions are not right. Legislation will be required. That commitment was made as part of the peace process. In the early part of next year, the Government will indeed bring forward legislative proposals, and they will be subject to scrutiny in both Houses of Parliament, but they will lie unused until the conditions are absolutely right. So it does not automatically follow that if the Assembly returned tomorrow, we would devolve those functions. We need to pass the legislation first. The conditions would have to be absolutely right before both Houses of the Westminster Parliament devolved the criminal justice system to Northern Ireland. In the mean time, we are strengthening the criminal justice system so that it can tackle the issues of intimidation and organised crime which the noble Baroness mentioned, but a broader devolution will not happen overnight. Separate primary legislation will be brought forward for that. It will be given Royal Assent and then parked until the situation is more satisfactory.
"Section 108 allows for the oral evidence of a police officer, of at least the rank of superintendent, to be admissible as evidence that the accused is or was a member of a specified organisation. The accused cannot be committed for trial, found to have a case to answer or convicted solely on the basis of this statement".
In moving towards a normalised security environment, as we hope we are in Northern Ireland, it would not be necessary or appropriate to maintain any of the special provisions contained in Part VII. As the House knows because of other legislation going through on a UK-wide basis, the UK has strengthened terrorism legislation. It is some of the strongest and most effective in the world, so we are fairly confident that the permanent counter-terrorism powers that apply throughout the UK will be sufficient to deal with any residual terrorist threat that may linger, because these things will take a while. I suspect the tail will be quite long when it comes to the total elimination of terrorism, but we are making good progress to date.
I shall respond briefly to what the noble Lord, Lord Laird, said about sleepers and spies in the Republic of Irelanda European Union partner, but for practical purposes a foreign country, for which I do not speak at this Dispatch Box. Neither the British
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Government nor this Parliament have any responsibility at all for counter-terrorism measures in the Republic of Ireland. That is a matter for the Irish Government to address. As I have said, though, here in the UKand obviously we work with our European partners and neighbourswe have some of the strongest and most effective counter-terrorism legislation in the world. We are satisfied that it is sufficient to protect the people of this country.
I have one more general point, following the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran. In renewing this legislation, including dates when it will completely expire, the Government and Parliament are sending a signal that things have changed; that progress has been made, substantially over the past 10 years and very substantially in the past five; and that the security situation has shown, in the words of the IMC, "significant improvement" since 28 July last year. But there is still a massive need to build trust across and within the communities. There is no question about that. To bring about a normal civic society in Northern Ireland, as well as a normalised security situation, will need men and women of substance in positions of leadership. They are needed to operate the normal processes that we take for granted in the rest of Great Britain, which either Northern Ireland has not been able to do, or for which, in recent years, only people of non-sufficient substance have been available. This will require many changes and many pressures.
As the Secretary of State has said, there are some corners to be turned. As we know from what is happening at the moment in the other place, there will be some legislation that is difficult to stomach. It is evil, but it is necessary because of the process we are engaged in. We hope that, at the end of the parliamentary process, and with the other actions taken, that extra trust can be in place. Without it, progress will not be madeit will be superficial. Nevertheless, I am grateful for the widespread support for the continuing of this legislation, and I look forward to debating in greater detail the contents of the Bill in Committee in the new year.
Lord Glentoran: My Lords, before the Minister sits down and my noble friends get settled, will he try to persuade his colleagues, the Secretary of State and No. 10 Downing Street, to improve the spin so that, when we read the press about Northern Ireland and the Government's activities, we get more confident? We are still reading a negative press from the Unionist/Conservative point of view that the Government are doing deals all the time with Sinn Fein. I am not charging the Government with that at this time, but I am charging them with failing to communicate the real messages, if they are as I hope they might be, to the population.
Lord Rooker: My Lords, I will transmit that request. The Government do not run the press. The press in Northern Ireland is fairly new to me, but I have gone into it in detail in the past seven months, and it has to be seen to be believed. You have to see itthat is the
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point. There is sometimes an obsession with the past, and with issues that people thought had been put to bed years ago; and a reluctance in some ways, even in the media, to debate normal society and normal issues.
Led by the Secretary of State and the Northern Ireland team there, we are pushing on with a normal civic society reform programme. We are pushing on with the reform of local government with a new system of raising local government finance, the legislation for which will come to this House early in the new year, and water chargesall the normal things that happen. There is reform of the health service and the education service: all these transcend the issues around security and the constitution. We are going to get on with it. We hope that the penny will drop for the media in Northern Ireland that there are other things to report than the tittle-tattle from various street corners about which group is getting what over another, and that they can be debated in a more normal fashion. The Government do not own or run the pressheaven forbid that they didbut I will make sure that the "spinmeisters" in No. 10 are well aware of the noble Lord's request.
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