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House of Commons

Wednesday 20 December 2000

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


City of Newcastle upon Tyne Bill [Lords]

Read the Third time, and passed.

Alliance & Leicester Group Treasury plc (Transfer) Bill [Lords]

Read a Second time, and committed.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked--

Lisnarick Bomb

1. Mr. Jeffrey Donaldson (Lagan Valley): Which terrorist organisation was responsible for planting the booby-trap bomb at Lisnarick in County Fermanagh on 27 November; and if he will make a statement. [141751]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Adam Ingram): The Royal Ulster Constabulary assesses that the attack at Lisnarick, County Fermanagh on 27 November 2000 was carried out by dissident republicans.

Mr. Donaldson: I thank the Minister for his answer. He will be aware of the case of Joe Fee, who has been identified as a leader of Continuity IRA. He was employed by the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin as a consultant working alongside aid agencies in Croatia, and is alleged to have been involved in gun-running activities. What representations has the Northern Ireland Office made to the Department of Foreign Affairs on this matter and on the allegations of collusion involving retired Sergeant Eoin Corrigan of the Garda, which I understand are currently being investigated?

Mr. Ingram: The question raised by the hon. Gentleman is a matter for the Irish Government. I understand, however, that investigations by the Garda into arms importation from Croatia are continuing. Clearly, there will be close co-operation, and discussions between the Garda Siochana and the RUC will continue.

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We cannot comment on current investigations. Furthermore, it would not be appropriate to comment on an individual who has not been convicted of any offence.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): Can the Minister explain how the Government distinguish between dissident republicans and IRA-Sinn Fein, whose representatives sit in the Northern Ireland Assembly? What links are there between Messrs McGuinness and Adams and dissident republicans, and what assessment has the Minister made of the links that members of the IRA army council have with so-called dissident republicans and the Continuity and Real IRA?

Mr. Ingram: The difference is that we judge one group to be on ceasefire, while dissident groups are not. Those dissident groups have carried out some of the attacks in recent months; and I pay tribute to the RUC and to the Garda Siochana for the way in which they have resolutely tackled those groups and have been able to stop their worst attempts to commit atrocities.

RUC Redundancy Scheme

2. Mr. William Thompson (West Tyrone): If he will list by number and rank the serving members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary who have applied for redundancy under the scheme to reduce police numbers; and if he will make a statement. [141752]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Adam Ingram): I have placed the detailed information that the hon. Member requests in the Library. In total, 496 officers across the ranks have applied for voluntary early retirement under the scheme. The Government are committed through the early retirement scheme and the planned recruitment process to meet the composition targets of the new police service as set down in the Northern Ireland Office public service agreement.

Mr. Thompson: Given the increase in dissident republican activity and capability, and the failure, as yet, of nationalists and the republican community to endorse and support the new police service, is it not of grave concern to the Minister that so many senior and experienced policemen are opting to take the early redundancy scheme? Would the Secretary of State consider it prudent to postpone the early redundancy leaving date until matters become more clear?

Mr. Ingram: Of course, we take seriously the current threat--of which we see all too many manifestations. Earlier, I paid tribute to the efforts and successes of the RUC and the Garda in thwarting many attempted atrocities by particular groups.

As for the officers who have applied for inclusion in the voluntary redundancy scheme, that is clearly a matter for the Chief Constable and his management of resources. He has to make difficult and fine judgments as to when during the period in which they apply for early retirement he can allow his officers--senior and other--to leave the RUC.

Mr. Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green): Can my right hon. Friend tell us when the implementation plan for the new police service will be published? Does he

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surmise that now that the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000 is in place, we might begin to see the gap in confidence between the two communities over policing start to narrow?

Mr. Ingram: We are consulting all the parties on the forward implementation of the Police (Northern Ireland) Act and we have been involved in intensive discussions with all the parties who could find themselves in a position to nominate to the new policing board. In recent days, the leaders of two of those parties--the Ulster Unionist party and the Social Democratic and Labour party--have made it clear that if good will prevails on both sides, progress can be made. It is down to those parties, with the Government, to find an answer to these very difficult issues.

Mr. John M. Taylor (Solihull): Is it not a great pity that a senior officer of the reputation of Superintendent Anderson, who is leading the Omagh bombing inquiry, has felt it necessary to take early retirement because he is disillusioned with the changes in Northern Ireland policing?

Mr. Ingram: That is not the reason why he is leaving the RUC.

Helen Jones (Warrington, North): In considering the need to maintain the numbers in the police force in Northern Ireland, will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the recent statements made by Dr. Maurice Hayes, a former member of the Patten Commission, and by Monsignor Denis Faul, urging Catholics to join the police force in Northern Ireland? Will he assure the House that he will continue his efforts to ensure that the police service there represents all sections of the community?

Mr. Ingram: I can give my hon. Friend that absolute guarantee. Of course, that is what the Police (Northern Ireland) Act sets out to achieve with the 50:50 representation principles that are enshrined in that legislation, which was approved by both Houses of Parliament. We obviously welcome the views expressed by Maurice Hayes, who has been a long-time contributor to the debate on policing, and the views expressed by Monsignor Faul, because he has also been a major contributor to this debate. We also welcome Chris Patten's contribution to the debate. All those contributions point to the way forward for a new and better future for Northern Ireland; a new type of policing is an essential feature of that new society.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster): Pursuant to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor), what does the Minister believe Superintendent Anderson's reason was?

Mr. Ingram: I do not think that it is appropriate to--[Hon. Members: "Ah."] I was asked a direct question as to the precise reason on the basis of press reportage. I am able to confirm that what was reported in the press, as far as I am advised--accurately advised, I believe--is not the case. [Interruption.] I am not prepared to discuss

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individual officers across the Dispatch Box, even with Members of the House as eminent as the right hon. Gentleman.

Peace Process

3. Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): If he will make a statement on the peace process. [141753]

6. Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North): If he will make a statement on developments in the peace process in Northern Ireland. [141756]

7. Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury): If he will make a statement on the peace process in Northern Ireland. [141757]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Peter Mandelson): Much has been achieved since Good Friday 1998. Progress has been made on key measures such as normalisation, the reviews of policing and criminal justice and the establishment of the devolved institutions. We still have some way to go, and the British and Irish Governments are working with the Northern Ireland political parties to ensure that progress continues on all fronts.

Mr. Winnick: Would not this be the appropriate time to thank President Clinton warmly for the time and commitment that he has given to the peace process in Northern Ireland? Is my right hon. Friend confident that the incoming United States Administration will also devote time and commitment to trying to bring a lasting peace to the people of Northern Ireland?

Mr. Mandelson: In the context of President Clinton's visit, I take the opportunity to thank the House for agreeing to the deferment of Northern Ireland oral questions until today. I especially thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales for taking his oral questions a week early. All this allowed my colleagues and me and Northern Ireland Members to meet President Clinton, who gave a very welcome impetus indeed to the continuing efforts to resolve the difficulties being experienced in the peace process. He received a very warm and justified welcome from people across the community in Northern Ireland.

I also take the opportunity to offer a welcome to President-elect Bush. I believe that he will have a serious interest in the affairs of Northern Ireland and will adopt an even-handed approach, and I look forward to working closely with members of his Administration.

Mr. Gardiner: While my right hon. Friend says that there is still some way to go, does he agree that the level of violence now in the Province is substantially reduced and incomparable with what it was a few years ago? Will he join me in paying tribute to the courage and vision of those who signed up to the Good Friday agreement? Does he agree that the House should give them all its support?

Mr. Mandelson: The reason why the security situation is transformed in Northern Ireland is that politics is at long last working there. That is due to the political parties and their leaders, who have shown great courage in taking

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the risks that they have for the sake of peace. For all the ups and downs that we have experienced in the past year, this has been a very good year indeed for Northern Ireland. The Good Friday agreement is at last being fully implemented. We have devolved government for the first time in 25 years. We have inclusive political, devolved government in Northern Ireland for the first time in its history. We have the human rights and the equality agendas firmly established. We have radical policing reform under way and criminal justice reform on its way; security has been normalised in most areas of Northern Ireland.

All that we need now is for a little bit of attention to be paid by the IRA and the loyalist paramilitaries to arms decommissioning. On that, I travel in hope, but let us not look on the downside because we have a lot to celebrate at the conclusion of this year.

Mr. Baldry: Surely decommissioning must involve more than the IRA simply storing arms that are still under its control in holes in the ground. Is the Secretary of State content with that situation? In the run-up to Christmas, would it not be in the spirit of Christmas and the real meaning of peace if Sinn Fein-IRA were at last to start a genuine programme of decommissioning?

Mr. Mandelson: I agree with the sentiments expressed by the hon. Gentleman. I do not take away from the IRA the significance of its opening up certain of its arms dumps to international inspection and allowing the reinspection of those arms dumps, which has confirmed that those arms have not been used in the meantime. But that is a start, not a substitute for decommissioning. It is very important for everyone to realise that, if politics is to work permanently and if we are to normalise security in Northern Ireland permanently, nothing will give us greater confidence than serious moves towards decommissioning on the part not only of the IRA but of the loyalist paramilitaries.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann): While I fully appreciate the interest of President Clinton and his support for political developments in Northern Ireland, does the Secretary of State not share with me a certain disappointment at the dilatory approach of the US Administration to including the Real IRA on the State Department list of terrorist organisations? Will he call again for further progress on that? Does he agree that it will not be possible for the Government to look at security levels in south Armagh until effective action is taken against the Real IRA so that the threat that it poses has been removed?

Mr. Mandelson: The right hon. Gentleman makes a very good point about the need to designate the Real IRA in terms of the anti-terrorist legislation in the United States. I am glad to say that, after an initial misunderstanding or lack of information--I do not know which--the United States Administration have now listened to, and considered rather more carefully, the representations that I have made. Given that the Irish Government have now decided to add their voice to that call, I am confident that the American Government will indeed designate the Real IRA. All that I can say is that, during President Clinton's visit, it was agreed that there should be a combined effort against the Real IRA by

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the security forces not only of the British and Irish Governments but of the American Government. I think that that will lead to the most sustained and intensive political and security effort against dissident republicans that we have seen to date.

Mr. John Hume (Foyle): Does the Secretary of State agree that, in spite of our difficulties, substantial progress has been made and the atmosphere on our streets has been transformed by peace? We have made progress that no one could have forecast years ago; we have an Assembly that is representative of all sections of our people working positively together; and we have an executive Government of all sections of our people working together and making a positive impact. The atmosphere that that has created will strengthen the resolve to tackle the current difficulties.

Mr. Mandelson: The hon. Gentleman is justified in striking such an upbeat note at this time. The political will exists to carry us forward and to resolve the difficulties that relate to decommissioning, to the current sanction against Sinn Fein's participation in the north-south institutions and to the reform of policing. On that last point, it is important for the continued stability of Northern Ireland and the security normalisation that we want to take place that we make a good start to the new beginning that we are determined to make for policing. Some uncertainties on the new beginning remain, but I believe that they are temporary uncertainties. The Government's bottom line is that nothing should be done to deter the fresh recruitment that we want in the police service of Northern Ireland. That was Patten's bottom line; it remains mine, too.

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): How will the Government be willing to assist former paramilitaries who are now establishing social inclusion projects in republican and loyalist communities to try to nurture more positive attitudes and to develop skills that are more in keeping with the more prosperous and peaceful environment in the Province today?

Mr. Mandelson: The provision of social and other support for ex-paramilitaries falls to the devolved Administration, but I have nothing but encouragement for former prisoners who have turned their backs on violence and who seek to put something back into the community. Through an intermediary funding body, I am responsible for the European Union's special support programme for peace and reconciliation that deals with ex-prisoners with paramilitary associations. Since 1995, more than £4 million has gone from the fund to support projects for ex-prisoners on both sides of the community.

Mr. Tony Clarke (Northampton, South): On decommissioning, much has been said and reported about the inspection of dumps of paramilitary weapons that are held by the republican community. However, will my right hon. Friend pass comment on the lack of progress on decommissioning in the loyalist paramilitary community? The issue is often misinterpreted when we debate decommissioning, and it would be unfair not to mention the fact that, among loyalist paramilitaries and terrorists, decommissioning has not taken place and no progress has been made. [Interruption.]

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Mr. Speaker: Order. Before the Secretary of State replies, may I ask for quiet in the Chamber?

Mr. Mandelson: I always couple my calls for decommissioning by the Provisional IRA with a demand for loyalist paramilitaries to do likewise. Progress on decommissioning is essential and it is an essential part of the Good Friday agreement. That is not because I seek to humiliate anyone or extract a sense of surrender, or because I wish to appease Unionist demands. I am not trying to avoid the further normalisation of security, either--quite the reverse. Progress on decommissioning is important precisely because it would create the very confidence that we need for normalisation to take place. By reducing the level of threat and the capability of terrorist organisations, decommissioning creates the circumstances in which further much-needed security normalisation can take place.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell): Will the Secretary of State confirm that there is still a grave security threat, especially in south Armagh, from the Real IRA and other dissident republican groups?

Mr. Mandelson: Yes, which is precisely why we have to be careful and cautious in our approach to normalisation. Yesterday, Martin McGuinness denounced me on the radio for having a militarist mindset, but far from being a militarist, I am a demilitarist. In the season of good will and, with Christmas spirit, I say to Sinn Fein and the IRA that the same standard of demilitarisation must apply to them equally if we are to make the progress that we want in normalisation. I hope that they will heed that and act on it without further delay.

Mr. MacKay: So did the Secretary of State share our concerns at weekend press reports that the Irish Government are putting pressure on him to reduce the security presence in south Armagh, which would be very dangerous? Will he again give an undertaking, on the Floor of the House, that there will be no change in security arrangements without the full consent and agreement of the General Officer Commanding of our forces in Northern Ireland and the Chief Constable? Does he agree that it is not a political issue, but entirely a security issue?

Mr. Mandelson: Yes, I can give that categoric assurance. I act on the advice of the Chief Constable with the GOC in support. While the working of politics is imperfect in Northern Ireland, the need for proper protection and security remains. Of course, judgment calls will need to be made on what is needed and what is possible in terms of normalisation in south Armagh and elsewhere, and I will not shy away from making those judgments. However, we must not lose sight of reality and the risks that we take in getting those decisions right.

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