HC Deb 13 February 2002 vol 380 cc191-3
2. Roger Casale (Wimbledon)

What aspects of the Good Friday agreement remain to be implemented. [33134]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Desmond Browne)

All aspects of the Belfast agreement have now been started. Our task is to ensure that the implementation process continues on all fronts.

Roger Casale

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Now that the new institutions are operational, will he continue to do everything that he can to encourage all parties, including the Unionists, to work together in those institutions? Will he also continue to support the economic development of Northern Ireland, which is one of the ways of bringing people—especially young people—together and ensuring that all the people of Northern Ireland have a better future?

Mr. Browne

I can assure my hon. Friend that the Government are faithfully implementing the agreement. As he rightly points out, implementation is not a matter only for the Government; it is a joint enterprise. I would like to take this opportunity to praise the First Minister and Deputy First Minister for the significant work that they are doing in this regard. The Government have consistently encouraged and persuaded others to fulfil their obligations, and we are still doing so. We continue to face challenges, but we also continue to make steady progress on all aspects of the agreement.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)

Is the Minister aware of the existence of the recently formed Ulster Political Research Group, whose aim is to address the political alienation from the Good Friday agreement process felt by loyalist communities in Northern Ireland, particularly in north Belfast? Would he be willing to accept representations from that group, and from one of its leading contributors, Mr. Frankie Gallagher?

Mr. Browne

The Government recognise the potential contribution that the Ulster Political Research Group could make to progress in this regard. That is why officials from the Northern Ireland Office met a delegation from the group on 28 January. There was a constructive exchange of views, and it was agreed that further meetings could take place when appropriate.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

While welcoming what the Minister has just said about engaging with loyalism, may I ask the Government to consider their own position? When are they going to demonstrate that they fully respect the letter and the spirit of the agreement's constitutional provisions, particularly those that recognise the legitimacy of Northern Ireland's place as part of the United Kingdom? When are the Government going to respect that? They completely failed to do so in certain aspects of the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000. Are they going to repeat that mistake with regard to the Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill, or will they allow the proper expression of British national symbols in the courts of Northern Ireland on the same basis as the rest of the United Kingdom? That is the logic and the spirit of the agreement, but the Government have not yet recognised that.

Mr. Browne

I have already assured the House that the Government are implementing the agreement faithfully, including aspects mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman. As for his specific point, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made the Government's position clear on Second Reading of the Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill, and in Committee yesterday I had an opportunity to repeat what he had said. We are prepared to consider all aspects of that Bill, and the Secretary of State is considering the points made to him by the right hon. Gentleman.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe)

Does the Minister not think that far too much attention is already being paid to symbolism, not just in Northern Ireland but in Britain more generally? Would it not be appropriate to think about reducing the importance that we attach to symbols, and attaching more importance to reality?

Mr. Browne

That is of course an important aspect of the agreement, in that the agreement requires the symbols and traditions of both sides of the community to be acknowledged and respected. The Government will continue to implement that provision.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford)

The whole House will have noticed that the Minister of State spectacularly failed to answer an important question about the Government's commitment to running down the full-time police reserve in Northern Ireland. I am afraid that the whole population of Northern Ireland will draw very pessimistic conclusions from that evasion.

I am sure that the Under-Secretary of State and his colleagues sincerely share my disappointment that there has been no further act of decommissioning since the Sinn Fein-IRA single act of decommissioning last October. Is the Under-Secretary of State surprised?

Mr. Browne

The hon. Gentleman knows the position relating to the full-time reserve: the Chief Constable will review the situation in April, and the Government will act on his recommendations.

We want more decommissioning, as, I think, do all Members. We maintain, and must maintain, local, national and international pressure on all terrorist groups in order to make further progress. This is not just a republican issue, however. We must not lose sight of the need to encourage movement from loyalists: indeed, to some extent that must be our priority.

Mr. Davies

Is it not time the Government learned that giving rewards and concessions to people who do not fulfil their obligations is not a very clever way of inducing them to do so? Will the Minister assure us that, short of the completion of decommissioning and the abandonment of the armed struggle by terrorists and former terrorists, there can be no question of an amnesty for terrorists on the run? If the Government proceeded with such an amnesty in the present circumstances, they would have no defence whatever against the charge of a complete sell-out—a sell-out of all the law-abiding people in Northern Ireland, in both communities, and indeed of all principles of judicial propriety and good sense.

Mr. Browne

The Weston Park proposals set the issue in its proper context. It arises from the Belfast agreement, and is a logical extension of it. As we have said repeatedly, the Government are still considering how this might be achieved, and when our considerations have been concluded we will publish our proposals for debate here.