HC Deb 28 February 2001 vol 363 cc892-7
2. Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury)

If he will make a statement on the current level of paramilitary violence. [149949]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Dr. John Reid)

I constantly review the level of paramilitary violence in consultation with the Chief Constable and my security advisers.

Mr. Robertson

According to the detailed written answer that the Minister provided me with on 26 February, since the signing of the Good Friday agreement there have been 65 murders, 828 bombings, 836 shootings and 396 assaults—a total of slightly more than 2,000 paramilitary crimes. How many of those can be attributed to the main paramilitary groups, which are supposed to be on ceasefire?

Dr. Reid

I am sure that I speak on behalf of the whole House when I make it plain that one killing, one murder or one bombing is one too many. None of us will, or should, be satisfied until Northern Ireland is free of the use of the gun and the bomb. On the hon. Gentleman's question, shootings, assaults and acts of intimidation are continuing to take place and I utterly condemn them. They are completely incompatible with the society that we are attempting to build in Northern Ireland.

To update the hon. Gentleman's figure, 54 such attacks have taken place so far this year. We estimate that 33 were carried out by loyalist gunmen and 21 by republican gunmen. Whatever organisation those people represent, they are at odds not only with the rule of law that operates in every decent society, but with the overwhelming desire of the vast majority of the people in Northern Ireland to create a society that is free from violence.

Mr. Peter Mandelson (Hartlepool)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the excellent start that he has made in Northern Ireland, and I wish him well in the very difficult job that he has to do. May I draw his attention to the financial appeal launched by victims and bereaved families in Omagh in pursuit of the civil action that they seek to take against the perpetrators of the bombing in 1998? I will not ask him to commit himself to that course of action, but will he take the opportunity to reaffirm the Government's good will towards the Omagh support group and the bereaved families? Will he reaffirm also the Government's determination to do everything in their power to bring the perpetrators of that atrocity to justice at the earliest possible time?

Dr. Reid

Yes. I very much appreciate the fact that my right hon. Friend is here today. I want to put on record my appreciation and that of the Government for all his work in Northern Ireland. On the specific issue that he raised, I know that shortly after leaving office, he literally put his money where his mouth had been—his pocket had previously been sealed because he was a member of the Cabinet. I very much agree with the sentiments that he expressed, and we are examining ways in which we can further assist and support the victims of that terrible tragedy.

As someone who has only recently come to a position of any authority in Northern Ireland, I think, like others outside the circle of those who are most intimately involved, that one of the most terrible and lasting memories of my time in Parliament was seeing my hon. Friend the Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall), in his first week as a junior Northern Ireland Minister, visiting the scene of that devastating tragedy. I say to all the parties in Northern Ireland that our aim is precisely to ensure that the possibility of further such tragic events is removed from Northern Ireland once and for all. The prize before us is so great and the consequences of failure are so awful that we must all go the extra mile to make sure that the peace process is carried forward.

Mr. Stephen Day (Cheadle)

I welcome the Secretary of State to his new role and wish him every success in what I know will be his sincere efforts. All hon. Members will agree with his sentiments and the hopes that he has expressed for Northern Ireland's future. Sadly, however, those who carry out punishment beatings, whichever side or community they come from, inflict terrible violence on the innocent people of Northern Ireland, and until they decommission weapons and give up violence and the threat of violence, or suffer sanctions for failing to fulfil their agreements within the peace process, that violence will continue.

Dr. Reid

I would not even grace those incidents with the term "punishment beatings", which the hon. Gentleman used, because that implies some legitimacy; they are paramilitary attacks and as such they have no legitimacy whatsoever. I agree that as long as there are threats or the use of violence, whether by individuals or organisations, the price of continuing the renewal of democratic structures in Northern Ireland will be eternal vigilance. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I will be vigilant, and I will act on the advice of the Chief Constable and my security advisers.

The hon. Gentleman will accept that if we are to deprive these particular fish of the water in which they seek to swim, the measures being taken as part of the democratisation of Northern Ireland, including the incorporation of human rights, the setting up of the devolved Assembly and the renewal of Northern Ireland's police service, are important parallel steps. They are being put in place. There is no legitimacy for any group or individual from any side in any community that resorts to violence.

Mr. John Hume (Foyle)

I join other Members in expressing deep gratitude to the new Secretary of State for the detailed attention that he is already giving to all aspects of our serious problems in Northern Ireland. Does he agree that, given the current level of paramilitary violence, there are those engaged in it whose objective is to ensure that there is an absence of law and order on the streets of Northern Ireland, so that they can develop even further their mafia trade, especially in drugs? Every effort must be made to de a with such people because of the damage that they are doing to young people in Northern Ireland.

Dr. Reid

The hon. Gentleman is correct. There are those who seek under the flag of some higher cause to promote their own profit, not only by using violence to produce the product but in the product itself, be it drugs, terrorism or protection rackets. This inflicts even more violence and tragedy on families in Northern Ireland. These people will be defeated because we shall maintain a security level that is commensurate with the threat, and because we shall riot be deflected from renewing institutions, democracy and the security apparatus—the police service in Northem Ireland.

The hon. Gentleman has been involved in these matters for about 32 years. He knows more than anyone else that there is nothing inevit able about the progress of the peace process. All of us on all sides must bend our will towards it. It will involve con promise and the moral courage that has previously been shown; it must be continued.

Mr. Robert McCartney (North Down)

I welcome the Secretary of State to his new post and wish him every success. I join the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) in encouraging those who have any knowledge of the ghastly atrocity in Omagh to lend their support. Will the Secretary of State confirm that since that atrocity, when we wt re brought back to put emergency legislation in place to deal with the people involved, no one has been prosecuted under that legislation?

Dr. Reid

I can confirm that. I can confirm also that that is a source of deep regret to me, to everyone in the House and to anyone who witnessed the terrible and tragic events in Omagh. Unlike those who deployed their bombs and guns on that occasion, the bottom line is that we will apply the rule of law. We have to depend on that standard of law and that standard of evidence.

I am convinced than everything possible is being done in regard to Omagh. I take the point that has been made by the hon. and learned Gentleman and by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson). I appeal to anyone of any tradition on either side of the border who has any information about the terrible act of violence in Omagh, which has left so many people bereft and distraught, to make it available to the appropriate authorities.

Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that each and every death at the hands of paramilitaries is to be condemned? Will he reflect that since 1994 and the Major ceasefire, literally hundreds of people have been walking about northern Ireland who would otherwise have died? Given the comments of Brian Keenan over the weekend, does my right hon. Friend agree that the paramilitaries are completely out of step with current thinking and with what is going on in the peace process on the part of all major parties in Northern Ireland, and are entirely irrelevant to the process?

Dr. Reid

I very much agree with that. I, too, shall not be distracted by Brian Keenan's remarks. When faced with the enormity of the problems and the burden of history that is upon those who would seek to change the situation in Northern Ireland, we sometimes underestimate just how much is l being achieved. It is encouraging sometimes to look bad, over the past decade and to recognise that the establishment of the institutions, the participation of all sides of the community in the devolved Executive and the Assembly in Northern Ireland, the introduction of human rights legislation, the start on a new policing service, and the hundreds and thousands of people who are working together across the communities, are all a tribute to the politicians on both sides in Northern Ireland who have had the moral courage to take hard but necessary decisions to create a new Northern Ireland. They should take credit for that.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)


Mr. Speaker

Order. The House must come to order.

Rev. Martin Smyth

I understand the response of the Secretary of State. Does he share the concern, especially after another murder last evening, that those involved in paramilitary violence and acts of terrorism may be encouraged by the fact that some strands of the Belfast agreement have not been implemented? For example, I understand that after the Cavehill post office raid at Christmas, several people were app apprehended, but nothing has happened since, and one of those had been involved in the Wright murder. Is the Secretary of State concerned about a sense of demoralisation among members of the police service as they seek to carry out the tasks assigned to them, but find their efforts under mined?

Dr. Reid

I pay tribute to everyone in the RUC, from the Chief Constable downwards, for the operations that they have been carrying out in extremely difficult circumstances, both politically and as regards the security environment. I very much regret and condemn the murder that took place last night in Lurgan. I do not have full details of the possible motive for that, but we should not underestimate the activity of the RUC. In Larne, for instance, there have been more than 300 additional patrols, and they have been supported by mobile support units. Similarly, in Belfast, there have been a number of successes recently, not least the discovery of the pipe-bomb factory; so I have no hesitation in adding my commendations for the efforts of the Chief Constable and those in the RUC who have to combat the continuing violence perpetrated by individuals and dissident groups.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell)

On behalf of the Opposition, I warmly welcome the Secretary of State to his new post and wish him well in achieving a lasting peace in Northern Ireland. Does he agree that one way of combating paramilitary violence is to ensure that there is positive recruiting to the RUC? Will he, like me, welcome the Chief Constable's decision to recruit last week? Is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied that those who have influence in the minority community are sufficiently encouraging first-class Catholic recruits to come forward?

Dr. Reid

Yes, indeed. There are various levels at which we must combat the terrorist and the threat of gunmen, from whatever quarter they come. We must try to ensure that there is as little support as possible for groups such as the Real IRA. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister raised the matter with the President of the United States in recent days. Also, we must ensure that we have a police force in Northern Ireland that is effective, as well as representative of and acceptable to both communities.

In the past few days, we have gone ahead with advertising, with a view to recruitment for the police service on a 50:50 basis. I commend the Chief Constable for that, and I am delighted that there has been such an overwhelming response—some 4,000 replies already. I am sure that that is indicative of a recognition in the whole community that we mean business. I urge all the parties to the Good Friday agreement to do what they said they would do. For decades, people have asked for a new police force, representative of the whole community. I urge all parties now, despite their difficulties, to come in and support us on that.

Mr. MacKay

I am grateful for that positive response and I endorse everything that the Secretary of State has just said. May I now press him further on how we also combat paramilitary violence? One aspect of the Belfast agreement has not been implemented at all. There has been absolutely no decommissioning of illegally held arms and explosives by any of the so-called paramilitary groups which signed up to the agreement. Not one gun or one ounce of Semtex has been handed in. What further pressure can the right hon. Gentleman put on the paramilitaries so that they fulfil their obligations? If they do not do so, the whole process which we all support will be put at dire risk.

Dr. Reid

The right hon. Gentleman may have noticed that, for a considerable number of weeks, including when my right hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool was Secretary of State, we have been involved in discussions which are aimed directly at that end. Of course, decommissioning cannot be seen on its own, because we also have the issues of normalisation, policing and the institutions, but it is a fundamental element of the Good Friday agreement, and all the parties to that must show that they are using all their influence to achieve the decommissioning of which he speaks. Of course, we welcome the confidence-building measures that were taken—the inspection of the two dumps—but we need to go further on that, and that is part and parcel of what we are trying to do at present.

I conclude by responding to one of the right hon. Gentleman's remarks. He wished me well in bringing peace to Northern Ireland. I cannot bring peace to Northern Ireland. For some 800 years, people in my position have crossed the water trying to bring peace. The people who will bring peace to Northern Ireland are represented in the parties here and in the communities they represent. We can only be a vehicle. But of one thing I am sure, and that is that the overwhelming majority of the people of Northern Ireland want that peace and demand that their representatives achieve it on their behalf.