HC Deb 17 May 2000 vol 350 cc315-7
1. Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North)

What steps he is taking to create a more normal security environment. [121142]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Adam Ingram)

The Government are committed to the normalisation of security arrangements in Northern Ireland, consistent with the threat level. Major progress has already been made. On the basis of his assessment of the overall threat level, and following the recent IRA statement, the Chief Constable last week announced a series of normalisation measures. A further review of possible normalisation steps will be conducted in three months' time.

Mr. Savidge

Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the many casualties of the troubles, particularly those among our armed services? Does he take heart from a recent BBC poll which showed, for the first time, that a majority of people in Northern Ireland believe that the war is over? Can he assure the House that the improved climate of peace can take us a long way to ensuring that the tragic losses of the past need not be repeated?

Mr. Ingram

I thank my hon. Friend for his questions. He was right to say that there have been far too many deaths and casualties over the past 30 years. We take encouragement from opinion polls showing that the people are heartened and determined to see the peace process through. They are clearly calling on their politicians to find a resolution to the difficulties. People want the improved climate of peace, and they want that peace to last for themselves, their children and the children of future generations.

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)

Does the Minister agree that the recent sad increase in paramilitary beatings underlines the importance of progressing with and implementing the main thrust of the Patten proposals, to ensure that the rule of law replaces the lawless, brutal rule of paramilitary groups in some parts of the Province?

Mr. Ingram

Paramilitary assaults are a gross abuse of human rights and a denial of civil liberties. They have no place in a democratic society and everyone committed to a peaceful future must roundly condemn them. I echo the sentiments expressed by the hon. Gentleman.

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim)

Is the Minister aware of grave concern in my constituency following the announcement that the Progressive Unionist party office was harbouring terrorist weapons, including batons that could be used to beat up people? Will he announce that he is reconsidering the Government's talks with the PUP as a Belfast agreement party? Will he take steps to censure the PUP for its terrible breach of security?

Mr. Ingram

First, it is correct to congratulate the Royal Ulster Constabulary on its find. As ever, the RUC has been vigilant, and we should pay tribute to its achievements. Secondly, this is a matter for police investigation, and it would be wrong of me to comment while the police are considering what they have found and all that flows from the find. We should not jump to conclusions before we have all the facts. I note the hon. Gentleman's remarks on the implications, but no one should doubt that we will not tolerate paramilitary activity from any side of the community in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green)

My right hon. Friend will be aware of recent speculation about the meanings of "deactivation" and "decommissioning". Can he confirm my understanding that those two processes are not the same thing, but part of a two-stage process to put arms totally beyond use?

Mr. Ingram

The short answer is "absolutely". They are separate approaches. We hope that we have embarked on the first stage and that we shall move inexorably towards the later stages and the removal of illegally held weapons from Northern Ireland, now and in the future.

Mr. William Thompson (West Tyrone)

Does the Minister agree that people would have more confidence in the return of normal security if those who had committed crimes were brought to justice? Does he realise that many of my constituents are deeply concerned that those who committed the Omagh bombing have not been brought to book? Even though the police and the Gardai know who those people were, they appear unable to bring them to justice. Is not some change in the law required so that those who commit such crimes are certain to be brought to justice?

Mr. Ingram

The hon. Gentleman has touched on an important issue. It behoves everyone who wants a peaceful future for Northern Ireland to co-operate with the forces of justice and law and order. Anyone who has information or evidence should give it to those who have the authority and responsibility for bringing people to justice. It is a great tragedy that no one has yet been made amenable in Northern Ireland for the terrible crime that was committed at Omagh. My earlier comments of course apply to that tragedy, as they do to every other terrorist and paramilitary crime that has been committed in Northern Ireland. It is better that people co-operate with the law than talk about changes to the law.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe)

Will the Minister confirm or deny newspaper reports that the proposals set out in the recent IRA statement had been made previously, were referred to in the unpublished de Chastelain report, and were then rejected?

Mr. Ingram

I do not think that the right hon. and learned Gentleman expects me to comment on newspaper reports. I am sure that he would not have done so when he was a Minister. We are moving forward much more rapidly than we have hitherto, and progress is being made. I would have hoped that the right hon. and learned Gentleman would have the grace to recognise and welcome that, as his Front Bench has, and to give support to everyone who is trying to make the process work.

Mr. John M. Taylor (Solihull)

Does the Minister agree that the best way to create a more normal security environment is to obtain the decommissioning of the illegally held arms of private armies? Will he again assure the House that no changes in the security arrangements will be made without the full concurrence of the Chief Constable and the General Officer Commanding?

Mr. Ingram

I think that I made it clear in my first reply that the answer is yes. The Chief Constable makes his assessment, and he advises the Secretary of State and myself. The General Officer Commanding is also consulted, and the best security advice available is taken. The announcements on the recent normalisation steps were made by the Chief Constable. He indicated that if the threat level improved, further announcements could be made in three months or perhaps even earlier.