HC Deb 12 June 2002 vol 386 cc854-5
2. Andy King (Rugby and Kenilworth)

If he will make a statement on the operation over the past 12 months of the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland. [57732]

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

The past 12 months have seen an increase in the stability of the devolved institutions, all of which are now operating fully. We will continue to work closely with those involved to ensure that devolution delivers the best results possible for the people of Northern Ireland.

Andy King

Will my hon. Friend cast his mind back just a few short years to when there was stalemate in the political process in Northern Ireland and no dialogue between parties and communities? Does he, unlike Opposition Members, agree with me that we have come a long way in two short years and that it is vital that the political devolved institutions in Northern Ireland succeed in order 10 give the people of Northern Ireland a future in which they can live in peace and be free from terror?

Mr. Browne

My hon. Friend does well to remind us of the progress that has been made. I need remind nobody in the House of my personal commitment to devolution, and the Government's record in this area stands for itself. We will do everything in our power to sustain devolution because it is what the parties and people of Northern Ireland want and it is delivering for the people of Northern Ireland. [t is delivering, in particular, significant reform and additional investment in jobs and services and in public administration. [Interruption.] Although it is not easy, in devolved terms, to do that in Scotland or Wales, it is a sign of the maturity of the politics of Northern Ireland that these questions are being faced up to by local politicians. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. I call on the House to come to order.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

We will, of course, do what we can in the devolved Administration to make progress. We acknowledge in particular the assistance from the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer with regard to our reinvestment and reform initiative. None the less, does the Minister not realise that it will not be possible to sustain the institutions without popular confidence, and that that popular confidence is at a low ebb? The main reason for that is the popular belief, reinforced by action after action by the Government, that no matter how badly republicans behave, the Government will do nothing to constrain them and that they have, literally, allowed them to get away with murder.

Mr. Browne

The right hon. Gentleman properly reminds the House of the special support that has been given to devolution in Northern Ireland by the Prime Minister and the Chancellor in the form of the economic package and I do not propose to go through the details. He also makes the very good point that devolution anywhere in the United Kingdom can be sustained only as long as it maintains the confidence of the people. Local politics and devolution are under strain in Northern Ireland for the very reasons that he identified. That is exactly why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has addressed the problems in the way that he has. We recognise that if organisations continue to give that impression to the people of Northern Ireland, it will undermine confidence in politics, which is unacceptable. As my right hon. Friend said, we all need to do everything in our power to see the shadow of paramilitarism lifted from the people of Northern Ireland.

Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh)

Does the Minister agree that it would be a fundamental error to judge the success of the institutions in terms of either sectarian violence or the paramilitary stirring up of violence? Does he further agree that all the institutions that were created under the Good Friday agreement are working well and that for people in Northern Ireland—be it in the Short Strand, north Belfast, south Armagh or anywhere else—the choice is between those institutions and the sectarianism and violence that the thugs are bringing to us on our streets? I believe that the Secretary of State, the Minister and everyone here shoulc support those institutions so that they can provide the only alternative to the men behind the masks.

Mr. Browne

My hon. Friend is correct in saying that the only way forward for the people of Northern Ireland is in the context of the agreement and the institutions that flow from it—not only the institutions of devolution, but the Equality Commission, the Human Rights Commission and the Policing Board, all of which have shown local people that working together can solve local problems. The only test that I apply to the institutions of devolution is whether local people are taking decisions about improving lives locally. In Northern Ireland, they are doing so. The system may not be working perfectly, but it would have seemed astonishing five years ago that it should work as it has—or at all. Northern Ireland people can be proud of the progress that they have made. They are an example to the world of civilised conflict resolution.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

In the Government's view, is it acceptable that the Executive in Northern Ireland should contain members of a party that is not only hostile to the police but directly responsible for creating a climate in the republican community that has directly led to the attempted murder of a Catholic recruit to the police—an attempted murder that the chairman of Sinn Fein has singularly failed to condemn?

Mr. Browne

The hon. Gentleman makes a point that has already been made today. While it may be clear to him who was responsible for, or started, individual incidents, to those of us who have ministerial responsibility in Northern Ireland it is far from clear who is responsible, from the information that we get. What is clear—I admit this to the hon. Gentleman as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State did—is that once they started, paramilitaries, on both sides were involved. I unequivocally deplore and condemn that behaviour, as does my right hon. Friend, and I call on all community leaders, including the people who lead those organisations, to work for its cessation.

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