HC Deb 16 January 2002 vol 378 cc275-9
1. Rosemary McKenna (Cumbernauld and Kilsyth)

If he will make a statement on relations between the UK Government and the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland. [25591]

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

We are working constructively and in partnership with the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland to enable them to work as effectively as possible in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland.

Rosemary McKenna

Every decent person from both communities in Northern Ireland was outraged by the despicable murder of the young postman Daniel McColgan—a tragedy for him, his family and the entire community. Does my right hon. Friend agree that such acts of violence deliberately undermine the devolved institutions, which are the bedrock of the peace process? Will he tell the House what the Government, the Northern Ireland Assembly and all the other agencies are doing to protect those public sector workers who have been cruelly threatened?

Dr. Reid

Yes. As I said a few days ago, the vicious sectarian murder of Daniel McColgan is nothing less than a war on all the people of Northern Ireland, including those who are the youngest, schoolchildren, the weakest, old people, and the most exposed and vulnerable, public sector workers who work in the community because of their own dedication and commitment. I believe that part of the aim of those involved in such sectarian murders is indeed to undermine the progress that we have made and the stability, including that of the new devolved institutions, that we have in Northern Ireland as a result of that progress.

I believe that we owe it to Daniel McColgan and all the other victims of sectarian hatred to speak out with one voice across Northern Ireland. Indeed, there is a growing tide of revulsion at the activities of the paramilitaries. That is why I welcome all expressions of solidarity with what we are trying to do to create peace in Northern Ireland, including the trade unions' initiative to hold rallies on Friday lunchtime to express their contempt for the sectarian hatred.

As for my staff, I have made it plain and ensured that the 3,500 civil servants who work with me in the Northern Ireland Office and its agencies will be able to attend those rallies if they wish. These are extraordinary circumstances, and I understand that they call for an extraordinary unity of purpose throughout Northern Ireland. I hope that that will be widely supported and accepted by everyone involved.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

May I associate myself entirely with everything that the Secretary of State and the hon. Member for Cumbernauld and Kilsyth (Rosemary McKenna) have said about the murder of Daniel McColgan and, indeed, about our concerns about recent events in Northern Ireland? The Secretary of State is right to say that elements in Northern Ireland—dissident republicans and elements in loyalism—want to undermine the devolved institutions and the progress, precarious though it is at times, that we have made, but does the right hon. agree that one of the hopeful signs about the disturbances in north Belfast in the past week is that the residents of the Upper Ardoyne-Glenbryn area were not willing to reinstate the protest at Holy Cross primary school? Does he agree that the fact that no protests took place is a sign of the progress that we have made and the way in which the devolved institutions, working on the socio-economic issues and with the Secretary of State, who remains responsible for security issues, is paying off?

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is crucial in this situation that everyone does what he or she can to support the work of the police in Northern Ireland? We have had very serious reservations about what the Government have done to the police in Northern Ireland, and we feel that that has done a lot to undermine their effectiveness in the present situation, but at the same time, we will do all we can to support the police. In that context, is it not highly regrettable that republicans still withhold support from the police and that republicans appear to—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I realise how sensitive and difficult this matter is, but this is Question Time and I call for short questions and, of course, short replies.

Dr. Reid

In that case, Mr. Speaker, yes, I did note the fact that protests were not staged at Holy Cross last week, and I commend all those who took that decision. It would have been the right decision under normal circumstances; it was even more welcome under last week's extraordinarily tense circumstances. Yes, I agree with the right hon. Gentleman on the need to support the police.

Most people will be bemused when they hear some people in the community in Northern Ireland demanding action from the police and demanding that the police stand up against that form of thuggery and violence, but when the police turn up to do just that, they are attacked from the back with petrol bombs and blast bombs, sometimes from members of the very communities that demand that the police take such action. The only way to stand against such violence is by remaining united and by having one voice and one purpose right across the community. That is the way to ensure that the police can be effective in defeating this violence.

Mr. Peter Mandelson (Hartlepool)

The Bloody Sunday inquiry, once started, must obviously be allowed to complete its marathon. However, does my right hon. Friend agree that the costs of the inquiry, in particular the huge earnings being taken out of it by the legal profession, are in danger of discrediting the exercise in Northern Ireland? To create a gold mine out of such terrible and tragic events must surely be wrong. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the legal profession should consider the matter and consider making a voluntary reduction in its earnings from the inquiry? If it is unable to do that, will it consider making a hefty contribution to the victims funds in Northern Ireland?

Dr. Reid

We are always mindful as a Government of the costs of any enterprise, including inquiries. So concerned was I by some of the proposed increases in fees for lawyers at inquiries that I have caused the matter to be taken to judicial review. I am somewhat constrained in what I can say about it while the review is proceeding.

It is perfectly reasonable to say that the inquiry was a necessary part of investigating the truth to close a chapter on a very sorry episode in Northern Ireland's troubled history and, at the same time, to agree with the sentiments expressed by my right hon. Friend that we should not allow its substance to be detracted from by the enormous costs that appear to be being incurred. That would also detract from the real purpose of the investigation. Holding both views is entirely compatible.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North)

Hon. Members on both sides will rightly condemn the atrocious murder of Daniel McColgan. One feature has been the widespread condemnation of that atrocious event and the threats against workers, both Catholic and Protestant, and school children, both Catholic and Protestant, in north Belfast. All such threats, violence and intimidation are to be condemned by all sides.

Does the Secretary of State agree that we have seen an upsurge in violence from elements on the loyalist side and from the republican side as well with the discovery of pipe bombs and the increase in the number of so-called punishment beatings and shootings? Will he therefore provide reassurance to my constituents in north Belfast who have yet to see any of the benefits of the peace process? In view of the murders and violence that we have seen, those people have a right to ask that the police and security are not run down and that the Chief Constable will be given whatever resources are necessary to combat the upsurge in violence. Will the right hon. Gentleman also give serious consideration to the introduction of measures such as closed circuit television in interface and flash-point areas, in an effort to provide immediate reassurance?

Dr. Reid

Unusually, I agree with almost everything that the hon. Gentleman said. Yes, the resources will be made available if necessary; yes, we will see what we can do to address the security problems in north Belfast; and, yes, as the hon. Gentleman knows, the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and others are engaged in trying to address some of the social problems.

Even in the midst of the troubles that we face now and the terrible deaths, the one part of the hon. Gentleman's contribution that I do not agree with is that neither his constituents nor the people of Northern Ireland have benefited at all from the peace process. That is patently not the case, but I am the first to admit that we have an imperfect peace, as we have an imperfect democracy. We have a long way to go on both.

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down)

I join the Secretary of State and the House in condemning the terrible murder of Daniel McColgan and the murder of other people in Northern Ireland.

I say this with some shame, but does the Secretary of State agree that, in recent months, there has been an expression of naked sectarian hatred in certain areas of Northern Ireland that has been battened on to by the paramilitaries for their own political and mercenary ends? Does he further agree that the upsurge in revulsion on both sides of the entire community, right across the political spectrum, is perhaps a glimmer of light—a slight glimmer of hope—that we can start to lay our terrible heritage to rest?

Dr. Reid

I agree with my hon. Friend. In order for such evils to continue, it is necessary only that good people do nothing. That is why I welcome the unity of purpose, the declarations of intent and the practical demonstrations of opposition to both this violence and the sectarianism that is so often at its roots. Sectarianism is an evil that, once spread, will contaminate everyone.

I also agree that very often those sectarian causes that are supposedly espoused by some people on both sides of the community are a cover not so much for purposes of self-glorification but for the lining of their own pockets. We have to be very careful not to forget that paramilitary activity blights Northern Ireland not just with political objectives that it aims to achieve through violence, but with its degeneracy into organised crime, which my hon. Friend mentioned. Both of those will be ruthlessly opposed by the Government and, I hope, everyone in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford)

I want to endorse on behalf of the Opposition every word that the Secretary of State and other right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House said about the hideous cold-blooded murder of Daniel McColgan. I also endorse what has been said in support of Catholic postal workers and teachers in north Belfast, and in support of all the people from both communities in Northern Ireland who, by continuing to go about their jobs and leading a normal life, are not giving in to violence and intimidation.

In the second half of last year, the Government launched on their lamentable course of not insisting on and waiting for the implementation of the Belfast agreement. When they went beyond it by making unilateral and unreciprocated further concessions to Irish republicanism, one of the many obnoxious things that they did was to agree at Weston Park to introduce an amnesty for on-the-run terrorists by the end of 2001. What is the current status of that promise?

Dr. Reid

First, may I welcome both the hon. Gentleman's support for the position that the Government are adopting and his presence in, and attempts to identify with, Northern Ireland during the past 48 hours?

Secondly, however, I take issue with the hon. Gentleman's proposition that we can govern and make advances in Northern Ireland merely by keeping to those arrangements that were specifically agreed in the Belfast agreement. There are many other things to take into account, including combating electoral fraud, and visits to the Province by Her Majesty. We could endlessly debate those because they are not in the Belfast agreement, but they are a natural part of good government.

Thirdly, on the hon. Gentleman's question, we have agreed to resolve the issue that arises from those fugitives who have not benefited under the terms of the early release scheme. When we have practical proposals on that, we will bring them to the House.

Mr. Davies

I take some comfort from the fact that 31 December 2001 has come and gone without the Government making that further concession to republican terrorists. I want to say once again from the Dispatch Box that, if we are to have a successful peace process in Northern Ireland, it is extremely important that two things occur. One is that the Government are rigorous in insisting that all parties fulfil their commitments under the Belfast agreement. No one should get any advantage, let alone new concessions, for failing to fulfil their undertakings. The second is that the Government need to maintain a balance as between the different communities in Northern Ireland, so that it does not seem as if just one party to the Belfast agreement is getting all the concessions.

Finally, I remind the right hon. Gentleman that the other day we discussed the difference between a concession and something that is done on its own merits. From his response just now, it seems that he still has not grasped the essential distinction. Of course we will agree with measures that are introduced on their own merits, but surely he cannot say that the amnesty for on-the-run terrorists is being introduced not as a concession but on its own merits.

Dr. Reid

I do not think that the terms of the Belfast agreement were merely a series of concessions to one side or the other. The other night, I pointed out that I regard the acceptance by republicans of the principle of consent not as a concession to Unionists but as a natural and right thing to do. The same is true of many other principles of the Belfast agreement. We resolved and made it public at Weston Park that we would tackle and resolve anomalies arising from the early release scheme; when we have plans that we want to lay before the House, we will do so.