HC Deb 12 June 2002 vol 386 cc849-54
1. Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

What his assessment is of the levels of community violence throughout Belfast in the last two months. [57730]

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

The recent violence committed by both sides of the community throughout Belfast is inexcusable. It serves no purpose other than to keep local communities in a never-ending cycle of sectarian hostility. It is time, quite simply, to stop. Violence will breed further violence, and bitterness will lead to further bitterness. Only dialogue will solve our problems.

Rev. Martin Smyth

We thought that dialogue was solving the problems. Does the Secretary of State agree that the violence has been planned for some time and is spreading through north, south, east and west Belfast? Is it not time to stop talking about the instigating and orchestrating, and to deal instead with the reality? Those who have benefited from the agreement are in government, but they have not fulfilled the terms of that agreement. Is it not about time that sanctions were applied against them?

Dr. Reid

As the hon. Gentleman says, there is little use in talking about who instigated the violence, because it is common currency in Northern Ireland for one side continually to blame the other. What is true is that intelligence, evidence and information exists to show that all paramilitaries have been involved in orchestrating or organising such violence at various stages.

As I have said, violence from both communities is to be utterly condemned. I am keeping all ceasefires under close review, but let us be clear: ceasefires, however effectively they are maintained, will not themselves be sufficient to maintain confidence in the political process. The shadow of paramilitaries and paramilitarism must be fully and finally lifted. There is no halfway house. The destination must be clear, the commitment to exclusively democratic and peaceful means must be assured, and the progress towards that end must be continual.

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down)

Does the Secretary of State agree that the upsurge in sectarian violence on the streets of Belfast in particular is being initiated by, or manipulated by, paramilitaries both loyalist and republican? He says, as he has said many times, that there is no halfway house between the bullet and the ballot box, but such a halfway house has existed in Northern Ireland for some considerable time. When will circumstances dictate that paramilitaries will be fingered and announced as perpetrators of orchestrated and organised paramilitary violence who manipulate the political process?

Dr. Reid

First, to put this in context, without being complacent we should not forget that there has been movement away from the violence that we experienced previously. Some 50 people have been killed in the past three and a half years, and although each one of those deaths is tragic, we should remember that in the three and a half years before the ceasefire, seven times as many people were killed. Although much remains to be done, we should not take the view that no progress has been made. Nevertheless, continuing activity and violence is unacceptable and will be opposed by all means within the power of the state, not least through the Police Service itself.

The aspect of such violence that I find particularly detestable and distasteful is the misuse and abuse of children. Not only are they the victims of personal attacks or attacks on schools; they are also being permitted, or encouraged, to go on to the streets of Northern Ireland, putting themselves and others at risk. This is supposed to be the generation of hope. I appeal to every parent in Northern Ireland to make sure that their children are not involved, because they will simply inflict on the next generation the same misery that was inflicted on the previous one.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)

I concur with the Secretary of State's condemnation of the recent terrorism and violence in Belfast, and with the thrust of the question from the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady). However, will the Secretary of State try to understand the difficulty that many people in Northern Ireland have in understanding his criterion in judging whether a ceasefire has been breached? They remember the level of toleration that he showed for the Ulster Defence Association, and they note that since the Provisional IRA declared its so-called ceasefire, it has murdered more than a dozen people and shot more than 160, been involved in paramilitary beatings of more than 250 people, been found guilty of running guns from Florida, been involved in training terrorists in Colombia, and has shot five of my constituents in the past fortnight. Despite that, the Secretary of State is still reviewing the Provisional IRA's ceasefire.

Dr. Reid

If I were to base my judgments on every assertion made by the hon. Gentleman, they might be open to more question than basing them on the judgment of the security forces and advisers who advise me on those matters. As the acting Chief Constable has made plain recently, in his view there is no imminent threat to the ceasefire. However, that is not the point. The point is that the ceasefire is not in itself sufficient even if, in the round, it is in place. If it is alleged that some of the pararnilitaries are involved not only in localised violence but in preparations for a terrorist war after a ceasefire, the political confidence in the process cannot be sustained. Therefore, it is incumbent on everyone who is committed to the process to ensure that no such allegations can be shown to be founded.

Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North)

The Secretary of State's powerful words in response to the question asked by the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) will be supported by all people of good will, but I wish to ask my right hon. Friend whether those who criticise the Good Friday agreement have presented to him any viable and sustainable alternative to the peace process.

Dr. Reid

I can answer my hon. Friend simply and straightly—no, they have not. That is not only of little use to me, or anyone who wants to see the problems in Northern Ireland resolved, but it perpetrates the illusion on the people of Northern Ireland that some alternative or third way—if I may use that expression—exists to the course on which we have embarked and the terrible and tragic course that was followed for decades. It certainly has not been brought to my attention by anyone in general, or in particular by the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), that a viable and realistic alternative exists.

Mrs. Patsy Calton (Cheadle)

In view of the attack on another Alliance councillor's home last night after he had sought the removal of paramilitary murals in his area, when will the police make arrests for painting such murals and what action is being taken to curb the underlying causes of the violence we see daily in Northern Ireland?

Dr. Reid

Those are matters for the police in terms of operational activity. Nevertheless, I utterly condemn and deplore any attacks on people, especially elected representatives, on the basis that others disagree with their views. That is what gave us the tragedy of Northern Ireland. The people who use such violence use fear to try to shut others up, but they themselves are in the grip of a fear of the power of politics and democracy. They see their own power to impose their will on the people of Northern Ireland slipping away as the peace process progresses.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford)

At the last Northern Ireland questions, I put to the Secretary of State a catalogue of evidenced cases of breaches of the ceasefire and the agreement by Sinn Fein-IRA and asked him what he proposed to do about it. The answer was that he proposed to do nothing at all. Apart from the usual ponderous phrases and evasiveness, the answer was zero. Now the situation is much more serious. We see vicious rioting from both communities, the shooting of civilians and policemen, and the attempted murder by the IRA of a Catholic policeman, from which the chairman of Sinn Fein pointedly refuses to dissociate himself. Is it still the Secretary of State's policy to do absolutely nothing?

Dr. Reid

I repeat the words of the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, who said that when there are hotheads on the streets, it is helpful to have cool heads in Chambers such as this. It is not the case that intelligence has informed me that there was an attempted murder of a young policeman by the IRA. I have been informed that it was dissident republicans. [Interruption.] It may make no difference to Democratic Unionist Members who commits a crime, as their consistent position is to blame everything that happens on one section of the community. That is precisely part of the problem in Northern Ireland.

It is not the case either that evidence or information has been given to me as to who was firing the shots. Nevertheless, the point is that paramilitary involvement in civil disorder or in preparation for a terrorist campaign or the resumption of a war can do nothing but undermine confidence in the peace process. I have therefore made it absolutely plain that ceasefires are not sufficient, even if they are maintained in the round. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree with me on that at least.

Mr. Davies

The Secretary of State can always argue about who was responsible for the attempted murder of the Catholic policeman in Ballymena, but he cannot get away from the fact that the chairman of Sinn Fein, when pressed many times by John Humphrys on Sunday, pointedly declined to dissociate himself from it. So Sinn Fein is endorsing this kind of activity: is not that absolutely clear? Is not it an inescapable fact? Is not it something that the right hon. Gentleman should respond to?

Given that the Secretary of State seems completely at a loss, may I make one or two suggestions? Might not he put into suspense the additional concessions, going beyond Belfast, that he has promised to Sinn Fein-IRA? Might not he consider also withdrawing Sinn Fein's special status in this House? That would at least demonstrate that the Government have the backbone to withdraw concessions when that is called for, as well as making them.

Dr. Reid

If the problems of Northern Ireland could be solved by shouting, they would have been solved a long time ago.

I must correct the hon. Gentleman: according to my reading of the transcript of the interview, the chairman of Sinn Fein did not fail to dissociate himself from the attempted murder. He failed to condemn it. [Interruption.] It is important to get our facts straight in connection with such important matters of life and death. I am not only disappointed, but I deplore the failure of anyone to condemn the cowardly and murderous attempt on the life of a young Catholic recruit to the Police Service of Northern Ireland. First, because it is an act of murder, and secondly because people like that young recruit are attempting to bring about a new cross-community support for policing in Northern Ireland, which is an integral part of the peace process.

I say again to members of every political party in Northern Ireland that it is their duty and responsibility, as we bring in a new police service, to give full support to that and to condemn those who are attempting to murder people acting in the best interests of the public of Northern Ireland.

Mr. John Hume (Foyle)

Leaving aside the two areas in which there has been serious sectarian activity, does the Secretary of State agree that in the rest of Northern Ireland there is massive support on the streets for the peace process? Does he agree that the atmosphere in those streets has been transformed, and that the peace process has the substantial support of both sections of our community?

Secondly, is he aware that there is an opinion abroad that the people behind the stirring up of sectarianism want to ensure that law and order is not restored because they are engaged in the mafia drugs trade? Is there any intelligence information to support that opinion?

Dr. Reid

First, we must all recognise that paramilitaries of all persuasions are involved in this. Secondly, we must recognise that at least one group of those paramilitaries is in government, through the political representatives of the republican movement. That means that there is a higher obligation on them to exhibit that they are committed to exclusively democratic means.

My hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume) is right to suggest that there may be an attempt to defy the imposition of any law and order for criminal purposes, but there may well be other motives. However, we must also remember that in certain areas, although such things may be contributory factors, there have been riots going on in successive years for almost two centuries. It is very difficult to pin down one particular reason.

However, whatever the reasons, violence will only breed more violence and bitterness will only breed more bitterness. All sides should think very carefully and withdraw themselves from a situation of continual confrontation. It can only bring more misery.

Mr. Michael Mates (East Hampshire)

I certainly would not accuse the Secretary of State of complacency, but does he not realise that responding to the points of the four Members representing Northern Ireland constituencies, who are from all points of the political compass, by simply saying that we need more dialogue is taking us round in circles? The right hon. Gentleman—perhaps wrongly, perhaps rightly—rejected the allegations of the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth), but he also said that he had hard intelligence that paramilitary violence was being carefully organised by the paramilitary groups. At what stage will he do more than seek further dialogue?

Dr. Reid

I take the hon. Gentleman's point. I am well aware of the strength of opinion on this matter, not least because of the representations of the leader of the Ulster Unionist party, who has made his views known to me in no uncertain terms. However, it is wrong to think that we are saying only that we need more dialogue. We are, of course, doing everything possible in terms of security, argument and politics to make it plain that a ceasefire is not enough if activity is going on that would still leave a ceasefire in place but give a distinct impression that preparations were being made for a breach of that ceasefire and that it was purely tactical. We are doing everything possible and, more than anything, we do not underestimate the seriousness of this or of the views of Northern Ireland Members.