Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

The Northern Ireland Bill is intended to give legislative effect to a political agreement between the Northern Ireland First and Deputy First Ministers and the recommendations of a committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly, which the Assembly have debated and endorsed. It faithfully reflects these agreements and recommendations, which, in response to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, may have something to do with the drafting of the Bill. The recommendations are aimed at paving the way for the future devolution of policing and justice. The Government have to be ready to move forward the parts of the process that are within our gift as quickly as possible. It is crucial that it is not the UK Government or Westminster who are seen to be preventing progress on this issue, but that the political process continues at the pace set by Northern Ireland’s elected representatives. To leave open the possibility of completing the remaining legislative steps in the devolution process during the period between now and the Summer Recess—that is not to say that that timescale will necessarily be used—it is necessary for the Northern Ireland Bill to receive Royal Assent by mid-March. It would not have been possible to publish the Bill in draft or to make it subject to pre-legislative scrutiny and to meet this timetable, although I hear and respect the views of the noble Lord, Lord Goodlad. However, it is fair to say that many elements of the Bill—for example, those dealing with the new departmental model—have been debated in detail by the Assembly.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, suggested that the PSNI is not satisfactorily funded and, therefore, is not up to the job. The noble Baroness, Lady Harris, asked for my assurance that the necessary funding would be made available. The Government have full confidence in Sir Hugh Orde, and in the Police Service of Northern Ireland, to rise to whatever challenge is before them. On devolution, we are committed to transferring the funding required to enable all aspects of policing and justice to operate effectively. It is not in the Government’s interests to do anything differently.

My right honourable friend the Prime Minister has asked Jeremy Heywood to chair a group looking in detail at the funding situation for policing and justice in Northern Ireland. The group brings together interests from Whitehall and the devolved Administration in Northern Ireland to ensure that concerns about policing and justice budgets are properly addressed in the lead-up to devolution. I am confident that, at the point of devolution, we will be handing over a police service that is top rate, on top of the job, and properly funded.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, asked whether, if devolved, the chief constable could ask for support from the SRR. National security remains an accepted matter, and, post-devolution, the chief constable will

9 Mar 2009 : Column 990

continue to be able to ask for specialist support from the military, as he sees fit, in the same way as other police services across the UK.

The noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, and the noble Lord, Lord Bew, also raised the question of national security. I cannot define the term “national security”. It has never been defined in UK statute. However, I am informed that national security is generally understood to relate to the safety and security of the state and its people. I refer noble Lords to paragraph 17 of Schedule 2 to the Northern Ireland Act, which relates to security in Northern Ireland. I ask noble Lords to note that national security is not devolved in Scotland, where policing and justice are already devolved, and it will not be devolved in Northern Ireland.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, expressed concern, as did the noble Viscount, about whether Sinn Fein supports the police. Sinn Fein’s indication that it would give support to the police was a key factor in securing a return to a devolved Government in May 2007. The Government believe that this support is genuine. Indeed, over the past few days, we have seen Sinn Fein politicians speak out about the weekend’s atrocities and urge the public to provide any information that they might have to the PSNI to assist their inquiries. I am sure that the House will endorse that same point made by the noble Baroness—that if anyone has any information relating to the atrocities, they must contact the PSNI. These people have to be brought to book.

Viscount Brookeborough: My Lords, would the Minister therefore tell us whether Sinn Fein’s remarks about the chief constable needing extra support were an indication of its support for the police?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I interpret it as being supportive of the police, but I will have to read that carefully and may well come back to the noble Viscount.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, asked if we met some criteria, which he stipulated. We have seen politics in Northern Ireland develop a position where all parties support peaceful democratic means and the criminal justice system. In relation to community support for devolution, that is one criteria set down by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister in their November statement. It will be for the Northern Ireland Assembly to decide when the necessary confidence exists.

The noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, has great concerns about the Justice Minister and that he or she should not be dismissed by a simple cross-community vote. The noble Lord is right to suggest that the justice portfolio is special, which is why we have provided for a series of alternative models for the structure of a justice department. However, I do not agree that he is right to dismiss the cross-community vote as simple, as if it is a basic norm. It is not. It is a special arrangement put in place by the Belfast agreement which said that, as a safeguard, key decisions in the Assembly would be taken on a cross-community basis. It is not a routine measure, but a safeguard.

The noble Lord suggested that it would be unfair for members of the Alliance Party to be voted out by a system that did not count their votes as equal to those

9 Mar 2009 : Column 991

of designated unionists or nationalists. That is to misunderstand the origins of the cross-community vote. It was to ensure that, unlike in the past, it would no longer be possible for one side of the community to impose measures on the other side, against their wishes. It was a safeguard designed to meet the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland which derived from its history. It is not a routine tool but designated for special circumstances, such as the appointment and removal of a Justice Minister.

This Bill is not the place to unpick the safeguards of the Belfast agreement. If the current definitions of cross-community support were acceptable in 1998, at a time when trust was in its most embryonic state, the Government believe that it remains right to have that test today.

The noble Lord, Lord Morrow, was right last week to sound a note of caution about devolution, in view of the atrocities at the weekend. However, we cannot and must not allow the evil actions of a few to derail the peace process, which is so strongly supported and desired by the vast majority of the population and its elected representatives. I am grateful to the noble Lord for clearly explaining what the Bill does not do. It is right that the Government will not and must not impose the devolution of policing and justice. This can happen only when a Motion for the transfer of powers has been moved by the First and Deputy First Ministers and approved by the Assembly on a cross-community basis. It will then be brought to this House in the form of orders.

Various noble Lords have asked me to ensure that adequate time is given to the debating of those orders. Adequate time will be given to the debating of those orders, and I will do my utmost to ensure that the orders are available well before the debate that takes place in this House so that noble Lords have an opportunity to consider them.

I hear and respect the views articulated by the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, but do not agree with many of them. The noble Lord referred to the lack of discussions in Northern Ireland relating to the devolution of policing and justice under the votes in the Executive and the Assembly. The votes were taken, and the majority view was that the report from the Executive, which followed up the agreement between the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, was acceptable and should be followed. That is democracy.

This Government, as I said earlier, are not complicit in any deal and are not working to any timetable. As I mentioned, the elected representatives of Northern Ireland, are driving the timetable here, not this Government.

In relation to the chief constable, as I said earlier, the Government have complete confidence in Hugh Orde. I know that his focus, and that of his officers, is on the safety of the people of Northern Ireland and their having great confidence in the PSNI.

Lord Maginnis of Drumglass: My Lords, it strikes me that law-abiding people cannot have confidence where a chief constable and his constabulary suggest that they will not continue with investigations into

9 Mar 2009 : Column 992

what until recently was Britain’s largest bank robbery, and perhaps still is, and where the murder of Mr McCartney and the Omagh bomb are to be put on the back burner. What faction within Northern Ireland are they put aside in order to please?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I think with respect that the noble Lord misunderstands the chief constable’s statements on these issues. There is a world of difference between suggesting, as does the noble Lord, that the police have abandoned the investigations and explaining, as did the chief constable, that the police have followed all their existing leads as far as they can and that taking their investigations further requires new evidence. The police remain as committed as ever to bringing the perpetrators to justice and I know that noble Lords would support me in asking, as I did earlier, that anyone with information, relating not just to the atrocities this weekend but to the previous serious attacks, should bring it forward to the police precisely so that they can continue with their investigations and the perpetrators can be brought to justice. The noble Lord suggested earlier that he has not had the opportunity to discuss some of these issues with the Secretary of State, but, as he knows, I am happy and willing to facilitate such a meeting.

I am grateful for the views expressed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, and his general support. I shall read his views carefully, especially those in relation to the Attorney-General, because he is an esteemed former Attorney-General. I completely agree that the response to this weekend’s atrocities must be calm and well judged, and that we must be resolute.

I entirely endorse the desire of the noble Lord, Lord Browne, to ensure that there will be confidence in future to allow the early devolution of policing and justice to the locally accountable legislative assembly. This must not be a mere aspiration; we have to make it a reality.

The noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, raised a series of issues, a couple of which I have dealt with. I should stress that the orders that I mentioned earlier will of course be affirmative. The noble Viscount suggested that the weapons used should have been decommissioned. The source of those weapons is an intelligence matter, and it is the long-standing practice of successive Governments not to comment on such matters. However, more generally, the IMC has made it clear that small quantities of weapons were held back by local groups in defiance of the instructions of their leadership. The noble Viscount raised the use of intercept evidence and its disclosure to the defence. He may be aware that the law in Northern Ireland is the same as that in England and Wales in both these areas. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary has established a programme to look at the intercept-as-evidence issue following receipt of the Chilcot report last summer. That work will reach its conclusion in the coming months. On disclosure, there is an important principle of ensuring a fair trial. However, if there were clear evidence of a problem, I am sure that this is an area which would be considered further. The noble Viscount asked also about the disparity between prosecution and defence disclosure under the 1996 Act.

9 Mar 2009 : Column 993

The arrangements for prosecution and defence disclosure, which are the same in Northern Ireland as in England and Wales, were amended recently by the Criminal Justice Act 2003. I note the noble Viscount’s comments on ensuring a level playing field in relation to disclosure in the context of an overall right to a fair trial. The disclosure provisions of the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act 1996 are kept under review, and I shall of course convey the noble Viscount’s concerns. On the disclosure arrangements for the Omagh trial, the conduct of individual trials is a matter for the independent presiding judge, which includes applications of the disclosure arrangements. As I mentioned, the legislative basis for disclosure was reviewed as recently as 2003.

The noble Lord, Lord Goodlad, rightly brought to our attention the report of his excellent committee. I shall respond more fully to the report in Committee if I may. I also very much look forward to giving evidence to his committee as it looks into emergency legislation. The report asks about the role of the Prime Minister in relation to senior judicial appointments. The Northern Ireland Bill will essentially remove the post-devolution roles of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister in these processes, which were set in the Justice (Northern Ireland) Act 2002. The legislation under which appointments and removals are currently governed, the Judicature (Northern Ireland) Act 1978 and the 2002 Act, already provide significant roles for the Prime Minister. The Northern Ireland Bill does not substantively change the role of the Prime Minister as set out in the 1978 and 2002 Acts.

The noble Lord, Lord Bew, raised many interesting issues. He is right that it is natural that all parties here and Northern Ireland approach devolution issues nervously. It is therefore quite extraordinary, as he said, that we have moved so far forward and so fast. I must read his contribution with care. I think that I have dealt with many of the issues raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Harris.

The noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, is absolutely right that we have to ensure the best possible deal for devolution and to get it right: it is our duty to get it right. These are constitutional issues and we must have confidence that we are acting correctly. I am grateful for the noble Lord’s support for the changes in relation to the Lord Chief Justice.

With regard to the perceived politicisation of the appointment of the Attorney-General, it is clear that the appointee must be an excellent lawyer with the ability to put the law first. The First Minister and Deputy First Minister will of course be from different parties, so we can be confident that the person in question will be independent, of excellent reputation and not political.

The Justice (Northern Ireland) Act 2002 on the relationship between the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Attorney-General provides that it should be consultative. That was seen by the criminal justice review as the best way of ensuring visible independence of prosecutorial decisions. As a matter of law, a statutory duty of consultation requires meaningful consultations. It ensures that a wide range of matters will be discussed, including the code of practice for prosecutors. The

9 Mar 2009 : Column 994

Attorney-General, under Assembly standing orders, will be able to speak in the Assembly and answer questions. The DPP will also be answerable to the Assembly for financial and administrative matters, but of course the DPP can consult the Attorney-General who himself will be able to answer questions in the Assembly.

We look forward to discussing and debating these issues further when amendments tabled by noble Lords are before us. I am extremely grateful to the noble and learned Lord for informing us that he will not be pressing his amendments to a Division. I thank noble Lords for their considered contributions to today’s debate. I welcome the concern expressed because it is right and it is our duty to be honest, but I also welcome the active interest that noble Lords continue to take not only in this specific issue but in Northern Ireland in general.

I apologise for the fact that not all noble Lords were aware of the meeting that took place earlier today. There will be a meeting on Wednesday and I shall strive to ensure that all noble Lords are informed accordingly.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

Northern Ireland: Massereene Army Base


5.51 pm

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. The Statement is as follows.

“Mr Speaker, with permission I should like to make a Statement about the horrific attack last Saturday at Massereene army base in Antrim. The focus for this sickening crime was civilians and young soldiers of the 38 Engineer Regiment, part of 19 Light Brigade.

The House will know that Operation Banner—the deployment of troops in Northern Ireland—was brought to an end in July 2007 and that 38 Engineer Regiment is part of the Northern Ireland garrison. These men and women are part of the new arrangements in which soldiers are based in Northern Ireland for deployment anywhere throughout the world. They are not about a garrison to replace Operation Banner.

These soldiers were in the process of being deployed for active service in Afghanistan, to support international efforts, to stabilise and to bring peace to that region. At the time of the attack, most of their colleagues had already left for this deployment. A small number remained, awaiting their deployment to begin within hours. While waiting, a small number of soldiers decided to order food from Domino’s Pizza in Antrim. At about 9.40 pm, the delivery arrived in two separate cars. The soldiers came out of the main gate of the barracks. The cars delivering the pizzas were parked fewer than 10 yards away. As they did so, two masked gunmen opened fire.

9 Mar 2009 : Column 995

The initial volley of shots was followed by a second. The attackers clearly were intent to kill the soldiers and the civilians. They continued firing at the men even when injured; even when some had fallen to the ground. The firing lasted for more than 30 seconds. More than 60 shots were fired. Neither the soldiers nor the civilians had a chance against the premeditated attempt at mass murder. Two of the soldiers were killed. The families were informed yesterday and this morning the MoD released their names.

Sapper Patrick Azimkar and Sapper Mark Quinsey were held in the highest regard by everyone in their regiment. Patrick Azimkar was just 21. He was looking forward to facing the challenges of his first operational tour in southern Helmand. Mark Quinsey, who was 23, was equally looking forward to the operational challenges that he would face in Afghanistan. Two more soldiers were seriously injured. The attack was just as barbaric on the civilians from the pizza company. Both were injured—one extremely seriously. There can be no doubt that those responsible were intent to take the lives of all of these men. Before commenting further, I know that the House will want to join me in expressing our deepest condolences to the families of those who were murdered and to send our sympathy to the injured and all those families, who too are victims of this act of terrible violence which has rightly been described as evil.

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 these young men and women yesterday morning. Today my right honourable friend the Prime Minister flew to Northern Ireland and with him I met this group of outstanding young soldiers. I put on the record the admiration that we all have for these 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 we are of them.

It is now the job of the PSNI to conduct the investigation to bring to justice those who murdered and injured these soldiers and civilians. A major investigation is now under way. This morning both the Prime Minister and I had further briefings with the chief constable Sir Hugh Orde, our intelligence advisers and Brigadier George Norton, Command 38 (Irish) Brigade and NI Garrison.

The House will wish to know that everything that can be done is being 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 brutality. Whatever self-styled name these murderers choose to use, the House will correctly recognise them as barbaric criminals who are prepared to carry out an act of pre-meditated mass murder—callously murdering innocent people going about their daily business. They are simply brutal and cowardly killers.

The numbers of people who make up these criminal groups are relatively few. However, they are no less dangerous for their small numbers. We know that they

9 Mar 2009 : Column 996

have no community support whatever, but their guns are able to murder. The police have asked for everyone in the community who has information to come forward. 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 Domino’s Pizza or on the Randalstown Road, close to Massereene Barracks, should contact the PSNI.

The House will want to know that all political leaders and political parties in Northern Ireland have condemned this evil act. They are all united not only in their condemnation and their expressions of condolence to the families but in their demand that anyone who can help should come forward. They join in these expressions with my right honourable friend the Prime Minister and all the party leaders in this House. It is only right for me to record the expressions of support and sympathy that we immediately received from the Taoiseach and President McAleese. Indeed, messages of support and condolence have come from the United States, including from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and President Obama last night made his position very clear, condemning in the strongest terms the attack and making clear his support for the people of Northern Ireland who have chosen a future of peace, reconciliation and prosperity.

It may be helpful if I 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 past six years. Since 2008 they have mounted 18 attacks: 15 during 2008; 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. This was a carefully calibrated decision, based on the overall assessment of the past nine months. This period includes the attempted murder of police officers, the savage attacks on those dropping their children at school and the failed car bomb in Castlewellan on 27 January 2009.

There was some uncertainty last week about the wisdom of raising the threat level. I believe that 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, dealing with a threat from al-Qaeda and international terrorism; so, too, for any terrorist threat.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page