HC Deb 24 July 2002 vol 389 cc975-7
Q2. Lady Hermon (North Down)

When he next plans to visit Northern Ireland.

The Prime Minister

I have no immediate plans to do so.

Lady Hermon

I thank the Prime Minister for that response. Obviously, the people of North Down will be disappointed that he is not coming there on his holidays.

The Prime Minister will recall that, when he last came to Northern Ireland, he took responsibility for laying down clear principles for those who are moving from violence to peaceful democratic means. He also gave an undertaking that he would spell out the consequences for those who did not abide by those principles. Republican violence has continued, and loyalist violence has continued, including the appalling murder of a young Catholic this week. Will the Prime Minister please tell the House what the principles are and what the consequences are of breaches of those principles?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise this issue. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will make a statement in great detail on this later today. With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I will give a more extended answer than I would do normally.

We all signed up, in the Belfast agreement, for a transition from violence to democracy in Northern Ireland. We did not expect it to happen overnight, but neither is it acceptable that this transition should now stall. Now, more than four years after the agreement was signed, it is increasingly urgent that it should be clear that paramilitary organisations are not engaged in any preparations for terrorism and that they should be stood down altogether as soon as possible.

It is also intolerable that paramilitaries should have played a part in recent sectarian disturbances, which have brought localised violence to the streets of Belfast and elsewhere, including the shocking murder of Gerard Lawlor to which the hon. Lady referred. These disturbances call for and will be met with a strong and effective security response. My right hon. Friend will spell that out in his statement later.

It is no longer sufficient just that there should be no terrorist violence. We have to be clear that preparations for violence have also ceased. My right hon. Friend will make it clear that, in reviewing the ceasefires, he will give particular weight to any substantiated information that a paramilitary organisation is engaged in training, targeting, acquisition or development of arms or weapons, or any similar preparations for terrorist violence in Northern Ireland or elsewhere.

We should not forget the enormous benefits that the agreement has brought to the people of Northern Ireland. All of us have a lot to lose if it fails. If, however, there are in future such fundamental breaches of the commitment to exclusively peaceful means, they will be taken into account in assessing the ceasefires. It is right that, with the passage of time, these judgments should become increasingly rigorous.

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down)

Does the Prime Minister agree that the credibility of the Government has been greatly weakened by their equivocation in attributing violence to particular paramilitary organisations? Could I advise that he calls the sheet absolutely clean to give confidence to the communities of Northern Ireland, particularly those communities that are under siege at the moment, night after night, especially in north and east Belfast? They need protection, assurance and some understanding that their plight is recognised and will be addressed as a matter of grave urgency.

The Prime Minister

I understand exactly what my hon. Friend says. It is for that reason that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will make a statement later today. I hope that what he says will go some way to convincing my hon. Friend and other hon. Members that we intend to take very seriously what are appalling breaches of security at the moment. The truth is that, for many people in Northern Ireland, the agreement has brought enormous benefits. I know that my hon. Friend believes that, and so do his constituents. However, there are people in north Belfast, east Belfast and elsewhere for whom the whole concept of a peace process must seem very far away indeed. We must make sure that the small number of paramilitaries on both sides do not wreck what is the one decent chance for a good future for Northern Ireland that we have.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)

Does the Prime Minister recall using almost precisely the same terminology in an article in the Belfast News Letter on 22 May 1998 when he was campaigning for a yes vote in the referendum? Four years of violence from the Provisional IRA has not seen any action from him whatever. Would he take the word of a serial promise-breaker if he were a Unionist in Northern Ireland?

The Prime Minister

First, I do not accept that nothing to the good has happened in the past four years. I do not accept either that nothing has happened on the republican and IRA side. There have been significant steps forward. However, I also accept—this the purpose of what I have said today and of the statement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State—that it is not enough for people simply to be on ceasefire and think that there is some tolerated level of violence. It cannot be tolerated; no level of violence can be tolerated.

People in the House will remember that there have been times when the whole process has been disturbed and even times when the Executive bodies in Northern Ireland have had to be suspended as a result of the difficulties in making the transition. However, I say to the hon. Gentleman and to the colleagues in his political party that I still believe that the Belfast agreement in 1998 represents and continues to represent the best chance of a peaceful future. Let us be clear. The terrible things that are happening in north Belfast at the moment have been happening for a long time in Northern Ireland—for far too long. Associated with them are a whole lot of other acts of violence. We have now made substantial advances in Northern Ireland and I will defend this agreement to the utmost, because it has given people in Northern Ireland a chance for the future. However, I accept entirely—that is why we have to return to the issue again today—that there cannot be some accepted level of paramilitary violence on the ground. Ordinary, decent, law-abiding people in Northern Ireland—that is the vast majority, whether they are nationalist, Catholic or Protestant—have to be protected, and that is why we will adopt the measures that we will set out later today.

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