HC Deb 15 October 2002 vol 390 cc191-206 4.19 pm
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Dr. John Reid)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement about Northern Ireland.

As the House knows, over the past weeks and months the political process in Northern Ireland has encountered increasing difficulties. I do not need to remind the House of the magnitude of the project on which we are embarked in Northern Ireland, nor that in any great historic process of this kind, there will inevitably be setbacks and difficulties.

My sincere hope, therefore, was that we would be able to overcome those latest challenges in the short term. That is why the Prime Minister and I have had intensive discussions in recent days with the Northern Ireland political parties and the Irish Government. However, it became clear that an impasse had been reached and that decisive action was needed to safeguard the progress made and tackle the remaining challenges. Because of the difficulties that we have encountered, yesterday I made an order under the Northern Ireland Act 2000 suspending devolved government in Northern Ireland. It came into effect at midnight yesterday. I said yesterday that I regretted that that had become inevitable. The real losers here are the ordinary people of Northern Ireland—those who appreciate and deserve 1ocal decisions being made by local politicians to improve the lives of local people, not least because the devolved Administration have achieved so much on their behalf and in their interest.

I take this opportunity to pay warm tribute to the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and his predecessor, their ministerial colleagues and the Assembly Members themselves for all that they have done in a relatively short period to improve the lives of people in Northern Ireland and to express the hope—I do very much hope this—that the devolved institution can be restored quickly.

I stress that that impasse affects only one aspect of the Belfast agreement, albeit an important one. As the joint statement by the Prime Minister made clear, this Government remain totally committed to the full implementation of the agreement. It has already brought great benefits to the people of Northern Ireland.

In their statement yesterday, the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach also recognised that the recent difficulties in Northern Ireland stemmed from a loss of trust on both sides of the community. There has been much apportioning of blame already and there is no doubt that there is a lack of confidence on both sides of the community. At the heart of the recent political difficulties, however, have been concerns about the commitment to exclusively democratic and non-violent means.

Let us be clear, lest anyone should think that we do not take a balanced view, that we have seen violence from all sides of the community, including a campaign, sometimes murderous in its intent and effect, from the so-called loyalist paramilitaries. Let it be equally clear that the Chief Constable and I are combating and will combat that violence with all the means at our disposal, wherever it happens and whoever is behind it. We will go where the evidence leads. That is why I recently redoubled our efforts by setting up, in addition to the organised crime taskforce, the law and order action group, which brings together the key agencies to strengthen our drive against all forms of racketeering and violence from wherever they may come. In that context, I have to tell the House that an arrest was made this morning in connection with the shooting of Danny McBrearty in Londonderry on 29 September. Police inquiries are continuing and will continue into that violent act as well.

I have absolutely no doubt that episodes such as the trial of republicans in Colombia and the break-in at Castlereagh have seriously damaged confidence in the power-sharing arrangements. It would, of course, be entirely improper for any of us, not least a Minister of the Crown, to prejudge the outcomes of any cases involving outstanding criminal charges. However, it would be naïve of any of us to ignore the impact on political and public opinion of the recent charges brought against republicans, including members of Sinn Fein, as a result of the police operation on 4 October.

Like me, the House will be particularly concerned about the position of prison officers and others and their families, for whose assistance the police have now established a special unit. The Prison Service is working closely with the police and has established a helpline to that end.

Let me say to the House that there can be no authority, no legitimacy, no morality and no political basis for anyone, in today's Northern Ireland, to have recourse to violence or paramilitary activity. Whatever may have happened 30 years ago, or 300 years ago, in today's Northern Ireland the path to power through democracy is open to everyone and the path of violence is illegitimate for anyone. It is also essential, as the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach noted, that each community has confidence in the commitment of the other to the agreement.

That is now the challenge that faces us. Yesterday was, perhaps not surprisingly, filled with recrimination. Today and the days beyond that should be about rebuilding: but that rebuilding has to be on foundations that are firm, sound and lasting. It is against this background that the Prime Minister and Taoiseach said yesterday that it must be clear that the transition from violence to exclusively peaceful and democratic means, which has been ongoing since the Agreement, and indeed before, is being brought to an unambiguous and definitive conclusion". In their statement, they also said: It is now essential that the concerns around the commitment to exclusively democratic and non-violent means are removed. The time has come for people to clearly choose one track or the other"— in Northern Ireland.

We face some difficult and challenging weeks ahead. Our task is threefold. First, we need to move rapidly and decisively from the recent weeks of political uncertainty. I have no doubt that the people of Northern Ireland—who should always be at the front of our minds in all that we are doing—welcome, appreciate and deserve devolved government. Like them, I would have much preferred devolved government continuing, with local Ministers making local decisions. But until it can be restored, my colleagues and I will dedicate ourselves to working for the good of all the people of Northern Ireland to the best—the very best—of our abilities.

In the meantime, we shall carry on the process of government in Northern Ireland proactively, in the interest of all its people. This cannot be a matter of mere care and maintenance. We owe it to the people of Northern Ireland that effective government should be moved forward. We shall not duck the difficult issues. We shall be able to build on the progress made by the devolved Administration in many areas, taking careful account of the "Programme for Government" and the principles of reinvestment and reform on which it is based and which the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister have supported. I met both of them yesterday to begin to discuss some of those matters.

The Policing Board is widely agreed to have been one of the finest achievements of the agreement. I want its work to continue. The House will recall that it was the first time in our history that there was a cross-community, elected policing board. I have invited all the existing board members to continue providing their excellent service to the community. I sincerely hope—as I know the House will, too—that they will all accept reappointment.

In this context, I also welcome two new members of the ministerial team. I am making available separately the details of ministerial appointments under suspension. In broad terms, the Minister of State's additional responsibilities will focus on education and those of the Under-Secretary of State on social issues, including health. The portfolios of the new Ministers, my hon. Friends the Members for Dudley, South (Mr. Pearson) and for Basildon (Angela Smith), will centre respectively on economic affairs and environmental issues. Our first task is the good governance of Northern Ireland.

Secondly, under the terms of the agreement, we need to embark on a process of review. I shall be in touch with the parties and the Irish Government as to how that should be taken forward. I want to stress that this is an impasse—hopefully short-lived—in only one aspect of the agreement. It is not the whole agreement and it is not the whole peace process. We will continue, in cooperation with the parties and our colleagues in the Irish Government, to carry forward that process and the implementation of the agreement.

Thirdly, with reference to the problems underlying the present suspension that I mentioned earlier, we will bend every effort to find a basis on which to bring back the devolved institutions, and as quickly as possible. The role and the responsibility of the political parties in achieving that are vital. It is our aim to find a basis on which all the institutions of the agreement can be brought back into operation as soon as possible. The election date scheduled for 1 May stands and is not altered by yesterday's decision.

These, then, are the three priorities: the good governance of Northern Ireland, carrying forward the agreement and addressing the present impasse. They will inform the approach of the Government over the coming weeks and months. In those tasks, we will call upon the co-operation and support of the House, of the parties, our colleagues in the Irish Government and those far beyond our shores, such as the President and people of the United States, who have been unstinting in their support for this historic project.

I can promise the House that, for our part, we will bear ourselves with determination and endurance, because we recognise that the magnitude of the prize that we seek is commensurate with the challenges that we face.

We have come an enormous distance in recent years. The peace process and the agreement have increased prosperity, revitalised society, safeguarded rights and, above all, saved numerous lives. I am determined that those benefits should not be lost, but should increase. The agreement will remain the template for political progress in Northern Ireland. I hope that the decision that I took yesterday and I have explained to the House today creates a breathing space—a chance to gather strength—before that progress moves forward once again.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford)

I should like to thank the right hon. Gentleman for his courtesy in giving me an advance copy of his statement. I should also like to congratulate, on behalf of the Opposition, the two new Ministers who have joined his team—the hon. Members for Dudley, South (Mr. Pearson) and for Basildon (Angela Smith). I should also like to endorse his appreciation, which we strongly share, of the great efforts that have been made by so many people in Northern Ireland to make a success of devolution: the First Minister and the Members of the Executive—except for the Sinn Fein Members who are responsible for today's setback—and the Members of the Assembly and so many people throughout Northern Ireland. It is a very disappointing day for all of us—for us in the House, but for the people in Northern Ireland in particular.

We can only hope that this setback—the Secretary of State was right to use the word "setback"—is only temporary, and I hope that the political process and devolution can be restored as soon as possible. I should also like to extend our congratulations to the Chief Constable on the prompt and effective actions of the police over the past few weeks, and it is very good news—I strongly support what the Secretary of State has decided in this matter—that the police board has been asked to continue. I also share the right hon. Gentleman's relief that an arrest has been made in connection with the shooting of Mr. McBrearty in Londonderry a few weeks ago.

Will the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge, however, that we have made it clear—I to him in private and several of us in public—that we do not share the Government's view that suspension of the institutions is the right response to this crisis? Suspension amounts to penalising the innocent—indeed, the whole peace process—because of the misbehaviour of one party. That seems perverse, and to take risks with the whole process, which we find unnecessary and undesirable. Our strong preference was to exclude the guilty party, which is—although I notice that the Secretary of State still does not quite want to use the words—Sinn Fein-IRA, by taking powers in the House to enable the Secretary of State to exclude any party in breach of its obligations, and we argued very forcefully for that in the debate that we had in this Chamber in July. Is it not very regrettable that the Government took no notice of those arguments and that when the latest crisis broke that power was not in the Government's armoury at all?

The Secretary of State, of course, took the line in July that the mechanism of an exclusion motion in the Assembly, not his taking the power in the House to exclude, was quite adequate for the purpose, and he promised to introduce such a motion in the event of another Sinn Fein-IRA breach. Let me quote the right hon. Gentleman's words precisely: In circumstances in which I decided that the IRA had broken the ceasefire, I would be ready to use that power, and to place such a motion before the Assembly to require it to address the matter."—[Official Report, 24 July 2002; Vol. 389, c. 992.] Why did he not fulfil that promise yesterday instead of suspending? Is it not rather destructive of confidence on the part of all concerned, particularly those who have to deal with the Secretary of State, that he should promise to adopt a particular course in a given eventuality in July and do something quite different when that eventuality duly presented itself in October?

Our responsibility is now to make the best of the situation, to contribute to ensuring that the governance of Northern Ireland from Whitehall and Westminster is as effective as it can be and to bring back devolution as soon as possible. We are absolutely committed to that objective, and I shall ask a number of practical questions on that in a moment. But does the Secretary of State not agree that it would be quite remiss of Parliament to brush over this dramatic reversal without asking some of the essential questions that arise and trying to draw the appropriate lessons for the future?

Does the right hon. Gentleman not agree that the great moral blame for what has happened must lie with Sinn Fein-IRA and with no one else? They have persistently and blatantly breached their obligations under the ceasefire and the agreement. Why does the Secretary of State find it so difficult to say so unambiguously and explicitly?

Will the right hon. Gentleman and the Prime Minister, who is sitting beside him, not accept that the Government cannot escape their share of responsibility for allowing the situation to deteriorate in the way that it has? Was is not a very serious error of judgment not to respond at all to the successive Sinn Fein-IRA breaches of the agreement and the ceasefire, such as those in Florida, Colombia and Castlereagh—we all know what they were—as we urged the Government to do at the time? How can anyone seriously have supposed that failing to respond at all to blatant breaches of that kind could do other than encourage Sinn Fein-IRA to go for worse breaches in the future? 'Was not that fundamental error compounded by the extraordinary decision during precisely that period to offer Sinn Fein-IRA new concessions going right beyond the Belfast agreement, such as the promise of an amnesty for on-the-run terrorists or a special status in the House? Since Sinn Fein-IRA have so clearly breached the good faith on which the Government were counting when they offered that concession, is it not now time to review it?

We can all hope that however much the Government want to wriggle away from this and however much they want simply to sweep all those issues under the carpet and say, "Well, this is a new beginning; let us not talk about the past", they are inwardly contrite about those mistakes because it is very important indeed that, as and when we get back to devolution, mistakes of that kind are not made again.

Now let me turn to the immediate practical issues that arise. Will the Secretary of State clarify what he just said about elections in Northern Ireland remaining on schedule for May? Does he mean that those elections will still take place even if there is no Assembly at the time for those elected to sit in? If that is not what he means, will he just elucidate the position to the House? Of course, if he tells us that he is certain that we can return to devolution by that time, we shall be the first to be delighted. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Oh yes, indeed. Labour Members do not like that, but I have to tell them that they will not be able to shout down the history books. When the history of the peace process is written, it will show that our judgment was vindicated by events and that our judgment would have enabled the process set up by the Belfast agreement to continue.

How do the Government propose to legislate from now on for Northern Ireland? Does the Secretary of State accept that Orders in Council, which cannot be amended here, are a thoroughly unsatisfactory method of legislation? Does he also agree that Parliament will now need more time to consider Northern Ireland because of the much wider range of responsibilities for which Ministers here are directly accountable? Does he therefore agree that Northern Ireland Question Time will need to be longer than it has been in recent years? What role does he envisage for the Northern Ireland Grand Committee? Does he agree that, above all, in present circumstances, we must not repeat the bad example of last year, when there was not a single policy debate on Northern Ireland in Government time in the whole of the year? We had to use Opposition time for such a debate before the House rose in July. Will the Secretary of State agree to meet with the Opposition and the Northern Ireland parties to discuss how scrutiny can best be applied in these new circumstances and how Parliament can do its job?

Finally, and very importantly, will the Secretary of State be frank with the House on any understandings or undertakings—I include informal understandings—that may have been reached with the Government of the Irish Republic on consultation or co-ordination with them under the new direct rule regime?

Dr. Reid

First, may I thank the hon. Gentleman for his congratulations to my colleagues, and for his kind remarks, which were well deserved, about the Chief Constable.

In terms of what arrangements have been made with the Irish Government or the other parties, my priorities in the first few days and the first week have been to attend to the governance of Northern Ireland. I shall therefore meet the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, as they were yesterday, along with other Ministers, to achieve the handover. At that stage, I shall discuss matters with the Irish Government and the other parties to consider how to carry forward the other aspects of the process. That will probably be done, as I think I said in my statement, through the British-Irish intergovernmental conference provided for in the agreement.

As for blame, I think that the hon. Gentleman was not listening to what I said, as he claimed that I was reticent to blame republicans or Sinn Fein for what happened. I mentioned Colombia and Castlereagh, and, having said that it was improper to prejudge things—I think that it is—it would be naïve to underestimate the political effect and the effect on public opinion of those events. I went on to refer to the impact of the opinion of the charges brought against republicans, including members of Sinn Fein—I said that specifically—as a result of the police operation of 4 October. It is therefore beyond rhetoric to suggest that I neither alluded to nor referred to Sinn Fein; I specifically mentioned it.

As for the exclusion option that was available to us, we were presented with various options ranging from doing nothing—which was urged on us by some parties—to suspension of the Executive, suspension of the whole body, exclusion of Sinn Fein and exclusion from the process. As I said earlier, the option on which we decided was the least worst one; there were no good options in terms of balancing the magnitude of what we were trying to achieve against the problems that we face at present.

As for the elections, my comments stand. The election date remains unaffected by anything that I said yesterday. The election date was 1 May; it still is 1 May. We will obviously have to keep the date in mind in view of the real world, real politics and real circumstances, but there is no reason at the moment for anyone to feel that anything has changed about the election date. If, before or after it, we are faced with an impasse of the nature that we have at the moment, it is an issue that we shall have to consider at that time or, indeed, before it.

The hon. Gentleman referred to parliamentary procedures, and they will have to be discussed through the usual channels. It is not a matter for me how those procedures are finally decided upon but, if he wishes to speak to us about them, I am more than happy to make sure that Parliament carries out the appropriate scrutiny as it sees fit, given the portfolios that have been added and the extension of powers that I have now found thrust upon me.

I merely wish to make a final comment. Although the hon. Gentleman tries hard on these occasions to show a veneer of bipartisanship, he does not rise to the extent of the project that we are attempting to grapple with. I well remember the Anglo-Irish agreement, the Downing street declaration and the secret talks with the IRA, all of which took place when he was on the Conservative Front Bench and when the IRA was still committing acts of atrocity and was still visibly in the middle of a terrorist war. Because of the magnitude of the prize that was before us, we managed to give support to the then Government—his own party—when they were conducting such talks with the people conducting a murderous and terrible campaign, so a little more grace and support from him would rise to the occasion.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, while 3,000 people were killed in Northern Ireland during the troubles, as many people have been forced into exile over that period and still remain in exile? Is it not therefore welcome that last week Gerry Adams met in the House Joseph McCloskey, the nephew of Danny McBrearty, to discuss the problem of Mr. McCloskey's exile and to talk about the possibilities of his returning to Derry? Such developments are welcome and Sinn Fein must realise that, if it acts in that way and puts pressure on the Provisional IRA to see that those whom it had placed into exile could return, it will help tremendously towards creating the confidence in Northern Ireland that will allow the process, the Assembly and the Executive to be re-established.

Dr. Reid

I agree with every word of that. I know how active my hon. Friend has been on this issue, and it is nothing less than terrible and a tragedy that, because of the threat of violence against them, people should feel that they cannot return to the place where they want to stay and where, in many cases, they were born and brought up. I also think that, although much of the recent commentary in the press has concentrated on the so-called spy ring that centres around the charges that have been brought, the most distasteful aspect of the issue is the fact that prison officers and their families, who have every right to think that the threats that they used to think were held over them had long disappeared, once again found themselves in a position of trauma and fear.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

And what does the Secretary of State deduce from that?

Dr. Reid

Will the hon. Gentleman let me continue? For the first time in many years, some people came out in the morning and had to remember to check under their car. It is that type of trauma. I am trying to face up to the problems that the process is facing at present while maintaining the process, which, in my view, gives me and Members of the House the best chance that we have had for decades—indeed, for centuries—to solve this problem. To those who find those obstacles too difficult to overcome and who want to get back to the old ways, I merely say that we tried it the old way for more than eight centuries. If that did not work then, it is not likely to work now.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)

I thank the Minister for early sight of his statement and welcome the two new Ministers to a portfolio that, among other things, is never dull.

The Minister hopes for a short suspension. What does short mean to him? How might the arrangements change if the suspension is still in place in, let us say, January 2003? He talks of both communities, but will he consider altering the Government's terminology? There are many communities in Northern Ireland. He knows that I often have cause to think that using the concept of two communities simply serves to divide. In that context, can he assure us that all parties will be involved in any talks given the central contribution of the Alliance party of Northern Ireland and the Women's Coalition in particular to breaking past deadlocks?

Will the Minister confirm that the date of the elections will not change even if Ministers are concerned that the consequence of holding them on 1 May will be a less desirable, perhaps a more hardline, outcome, because no one should attempt to gerrymander a particular outcome by changing the date? What specific arrangements will be in place between Westminster and Dublin to ensure that business continues? What are the Minister's plans for Assembly salaries if the suspension is long term?

Finally, does the Minister agree that the best thing that United Kingdom parties can do is to support political solutions rather than to win party political points at a time when Northern Ireland needs our support rather than our rhetoric? In that context, does he hope, as the Liberal Democrats do, that the suspension works and, once the process is back on track, that those who have sounded rather opportunistic this afternoon will not only accept their error of judgment but, more to the point, be willing to alter their strategies to be more supportive of what is clearly a sincere effort by the Government to do the right thing?

Dr. Reid

I thank the hon. Gentleman and his party for their continuing support throughout this process. He raises a number of points. On consultation, I will consult all parties, including the Alliance and all parties represented in the House, because that is the basis on which a review has to be carried out. I apologise for referring to two communities. I should, of course, refer to the two traditions in the one community in Northern Ireland. Language is sometimes difficult in the context of Northern Ireland politics.

There is no change to the elections. No one is, or should be, frightened of the elections. I do not believe that anyone is frightened. To paraphrase Bertolt Brecht, it is not up to us to dismiss the electorate and choose another; it is the electorate who have the right to choose their representatives. However, elections do not happen in a vacuum. We had elections, we had an Executive and we had an Assembly. The reality is that despite the fact that we had elections and a democratically elected Assembly and Executive, they could not work because of the lack of confidence and trust between the partners in power sharing. If that continues indefinitely up to I May, it is not easy to see what can be resolved by having another set of elections.

Although that is all I have to say on that subject, it brings us to the crux of the matter: we cannot go on expecting people to share power with partners who appear to be riding two horses, of violence and democracy. A choice has to be made. Eight years after the beginning of the ceasefire and four years after the agreement, there needs to be a definitive step change in that position so that that ambiguity is removed. Even if that were the case, there would of course be a continual residue of problems with which to deal. No one thinks that we can wave a magic wand and by decree stop all lawbreaking or violence overnight, but we are at a crossroads and I do not believe that it is possible to sustain the power-sharing element of the agreement unless there is some substantial and definitive move in that direction.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

Of course the Secretary of State is right not to pass judgment on individuals, but we know certain facts. The Secretary of State may like to confirm the estimates in the press that. as a result of the security breach at Castlereagh, £30 million has been spent on relocating police officers at threat and it is likely to cost twice as much to relocate prison officers who are at threat. Will he confirm also whether the press is accurate in saying that more than 1,000 documents were stolen, most of them from his office? That fact indicates a massive breach of security in the Northern Ireland Office and points to the possibility of gross incompetence in that office. Surely in that situation there must be an arrangement for an effective inquiry to see whether, and in what ways, security has been breached.

The Secretary of State refers to a lack of confidence and trust. Will he bear it mind that in each of the last three years my party went into an Administration on an inclusive basis and on the basis of promises and undertakings given to us, and each time those promises were broken and Sinn Fein and the republican movement failed to deliver? Will he also reflect on his curious use of the term "power sharing", in which he thinks only of Sinn Fein? There are others, and in this matter it is wrong of him to overlook the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour party.

The Secretary of State had options, and the demand for, or suggestion of exclusion, which would have been fair, did not come from Unionists alone. As he knows, it was supported by the Alliance party, which has links with the Liberal Democrats, and we are glad that the Alliance party displayed that courage. The Secretary of State is aware that support for exclusion would have extended beyond that point.

There is a point at which confidence is needed elsewhere too. In July, the Secretary of State said that he was showing republicans the yellow card. People noticed that the red card did not appear in circumstances in which the man in the street thought that it would have been appropriate. The Secretary of State has to explain why he funked it, because in the view of the man in the street that is precisely what happened: the Secretary of State decided that he would sacrifice the political process for fear of what might happen to the cessation of military operations declared by the IRA.

Dr. Reid

On the first point, I cannot confirm the press speculation about the costs, but I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that they are considerable—they are huge. Measures have to be taken to protect the police and, perhaps, prison officers who may be vulnerable after the events at Castlereagh. Apart from the anguish that it causes those families, that is a huge diversion of resources from the priorities of the people of Northern Ireland. It is tens of millions of pounds that could be devoted to the regeneration of inner-city or outer-city areas, to the health service and so on.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me about the number of documents that were stolen. From what the police have told me, I understand that his estimate is not far off. He said that we have to examine what is being done at Castlereagh, among other things. I can tell him that the security service has already agreed to send a team to conduct an independent and authoritative review of security in the Department. The team will make recommendations for the future when all is known about the events that led to the criminal charges. It will also audit security practice generally.

I do not want to go into further detail because I do not want in any way to impinge on judicial proceedings, but I can tell the House that, before these events, certain steps had been taken on the advice of security authorities. They were obviously ineffective in this case, whoever is guilty, and I do not prejudge that question.

This is a serious blow, and as I said earlier, although the matter that has made the headlines is the retrieval of documents for use by others and whether that may have put them at an advantage in the political process—I do not prejudge that question either—I find the fact that prison officers may be under threat more disturbing than anything else.

The right hon. Gentleman mentions the exclusion motion. I hear what he says, and it is not a matter that leaves me unmoved, precisely because I know the courage and, above all, endurance that he has shown by staying in the Assembly for the benefit of the people of Northern Ireland. I understand that fully. I say only that that these are not easy judgments to make.

The right hon. Gentleman is right about the Alliance party. I understand that it would have been prepared to support an exclusion motion had I put one before the Assembly—although I do not think that such a motion would have passed; the SDLP made it clear that it would not support it. Nevertheless, the fact that the Alliance party was prepared to support it shows that a significant change is taking place. The Women's Coalition would not support exclusion, but was apparently prepared to support suspension of the Executive rather than of the Assembly as a whole. No one should think that no change of opinion is occurring within the Assembly on these matters.

There is lack of confidence on both sides. People ask me, "Are the Unionists really committed to this?", but the evidence of the endurance shown over the years by the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues in the Assembly gives the lie to any claim that there are no Unionists who are prepared to put the whole of Northern Ireland first, rather than their party. Their commitment should be a sign of confidence to the whole community.

Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh)

I welcome the two new Ministers on what is, for me, an especially sad day. In another place at another time, more than 30 years ago, I saw a power sharing arrangement dissolved in the same way. It took more than 30 years to re-establish such an arrangement, yet this is the fourth suspension in four years.

I welcome and agree entirely with the Secretary of State's statement that the full implementation of the Good Friday agreement, in all its aspects, is the only way forward. I agree also that if devolution is to be workable and durable, there must be trust—but let us not enter a state of denial when looking at where the lack of trust lies. Of course Sinn Fein has broken faith with everybody, not least with those of us in the nationalist community who have insisted and will continue to insist on inclusivity. Sinn Fein has to rid itself of the discredited dual strategy and commit itself to democratic, peaceful means.

Another example of lack of trust is the view in the nationalist community that not all Ulster Unionists are in favour of inclusive government and partnership politics. That is not a criticism of those in the Ulster Unionist party who are in favour of those things, but if we are to solve the problem it is right to specify that lack of trust. A third example of lack of trust is that many in the Unionist and nationalist communities wonder in what type of an arrangement two Ministers can have as their policy the destruction of the very agreement from which they derive their ministerial office—[Interruption.] DUP members are abusing it.

Those three elements will have to be addressed if we are to re-establish devolution. Unless we find answers, we will not be able to reinstate devolution in the way that is necessary to make the full agreement work.

Dr. Reid

The hon. Gentleman points to the complexity of addressing even that limited question of trust within the limited area of power sharing. I merely say that many things undermine trust—for example, the ongoing murderous campaign of loyalists, which will be combated. However, because they are not partners in power sharing, their campaign does not necessarily undermine power sharing. Many Unionists are sceptical, but because other Unionists are involved in the partnership, that scepticism does not, in itself, undermine power sharing.

The problem is the element of concern about the partners in the power sharing from the republican movement—Sinn Fein. If Sinn Fein is thought to be involved in an ambiguous dual-track strategy, its involvement in power sharing makes that far more important in undermining power sharing. That is why I have emphasised that, among all the issues that affect confidence, we have to address that one perhaps more keenly than any of the others.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)

May I join other Members in welcoming the two new members of the Northern Ireland Office ministerial team? I assure the Secretary of State that my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) and I are happy to meet our successors in office to talk over the issues that affect those Departments.

I also join the Secretary of State in his condemnation of terrorism. Members on this Bench, at whichever end they sit, will not soften that criticism one iota for loyalist terrorists. We consider their activities despicable, murderous and foul, and will take every opportunity to say so. May I disabuse the Secretary of State of the notion that the problems that affect the process are confined to a narrow area? Wide-ranging opposition within the Unionist community is affecting Unionist trust in the whole process. Rather than the Secretary of State undertaking an idle review with yesterday's men, who cannot deliver, is it not time for him to go to the people and allow the electorate to speak? Let politicians get a fresh mandate and enter negotiations for stable political structures in Northern Ireland.

Dr. Reid

I thank the hon. Gentleman. I do not question at all—indeed, I am well aware of—his condemnation of all violence and murder wherever it originates, including on the loyalist side. I also thank him for saying that his ministerial colleagues are willing to discuss matters with Ministers in the Northern Ireland Office. I do not disagree that if trust is badly affected in one area it is liable to affect a range of areas. These things develop; we get an understanding—an increasing or decreasing trust—as time goes on, just as the hon. Gentleman's own policies and awareness of Realpolitik have developed. I was glad that he shared a table, if not words, with Martin McGuinness the other night. I noticed that he said clearly that if Sinn Fein has the mandate that we expect it to have after an election, that is a reality that has to be taken into account. I always welcome pragmatism, however late it is, and will engage with him.

As for the report of the political death of the First Minister, I am afraid that not only is it greatly exaggerated, but I have read about it so often that I never take it for granted, even when it is posted in the newspapers in Northern Ireland.

Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that now is the time to be honest and recognise the breakdown of trust that has led the Government to take action, not least since one party believes, or says it does, in a political way forward, but does not recognise the need to engage with a civil police service? Does he also accept that we must pick up the pieces and consider how that trust can be rebuilt? Will he say how he and his team will involve in that process many people both elected representatives in Northern Ireland and those who have played their part in the Northern Ireland Policing Board and other commissions that have been set up following the Good Friday agreement—so that elements of trust that have been lost can start to be regained?

Dr. Reid

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that, in the new Northern Ireland, the efforts that we are making—which involve considerable pain for those who were previously associated with the RUC—to create a new, reformed, revitalised, community-based, effective police service that has cross-community support deserve to be rewarded by the participation of those who have been demanding precisely that for eight decades. I do not think that one can demand rights but not face up to one's responsibilities. Sinn Fein will eventually have to face up to that.

It is not for me to tell Gerry Adams how to lead Sinn Fein, but since he continually tells me how to do my job, it might be worth saying that what has happened has handicapped not only this process and power sharing but Sinn Fein itself. Its alleged association with violence in these cases is a ball and chain around the feet of a political party that has received further and further support precisely because it was moving into the political arena and away from violence. For that reason, as well as the reason that we shall not be able to sustain the future of power sharing in Northern Ireland unless Sinn Fein shifts, it would be as well to do so.

I agree that we need to revitalise support for the agreement across the community, beyond the political parties. We have let that slip. It is not easy to rejuvenate it. It is common to all peace processes of this nature that, after the initial euphoria, it is the aficionados who tend to become involved. I will gladly consider any ideas in that direction.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

In the light of the remarks that the Secretary of State has just made about Sinn Fein, what possible justification is there for continuing the special facilities that its members have in this House? Given that they will not play a proper part as Members of Parliament, should not their privileged access to this place be suspended, at least during the suspension of the Assembly?

Dr. Reid

First, that is a matter for the House. Secondly, my hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) certainly feels that it has already offered some advantages—Mr. McCloskey met Gerry Adams here the other day. I sincerely hope that they manage to resolve the problem.

Sometimes, the apparently small things move the process forward. We have spent a lot of time, quite correctly, on the big issues such as Castlereagh, Colombia, and so on, but it should not go unnoticed, for instance, that Martin McGuinness said on Remembrance day that we should all respect the right of the British to remember the dead—[Interruption.] Hon. Gentlemen can throw that back in his face if they like, but I welcome that as a recognition of our failings on these matters. I welcome the fact that Alex Maskey, the Sinn Fein Mayor of Belfast, laid a wreath at the Somme. I welcome the fact that an alleged leading member of the Provisional IRA, Martin Meehan, said this morning that, in his opinion, the war had been over for some time. I just wish that mixed messages were not sent out and that there was no ambiguity in telling us that violence was in the past. If that were done and done definitively with clarity and backed by action, we would find power sharing a bit easier in the future than it has been in the past.

Mr. Clive Soley (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's calm and reasoned approach. Can we reiterate very strongly the message that exclusion in Northern Ireland has always been easy and that it is inclusion that has been so difficult? Despite the sad and unnecessary rise in violence perpetrated by both Unionists and republicans in recent months, we need to remember that long-term progress has been rather good and that the atrocities that we used to experience weekly no longer disfigure that society. It would be very nice if all the paramilitary groups could wind themselves up and go away over the next few months—we must never lose sight of that message—but we need to take a long-term view and recognise where we have come from, that we are making progress and that inclusion is vital.

Dr. Reid

My hon. Friend is right that we need to keep a sense of perspective about where we are in Northern Ireland, even on such sensitive issues as law and order. In some areas, there has been a considerable increase over the past two years in disorder on the streets, for instance, as against what went on in the two years previously. However, there has also been a continual reduction over the years—in some ways a dramatic one—in the number of murders in Northern Ireland.

On drugs, I want to see those on the streets dealing in drugs lifted and put where they should be—behind bars. I know that that is an ambition shared by the Chief Constable. Although it is a problem of great concern in Northern Ireland, the rate of drugs misuse in Northern Ireland is estimated, in terms of arrests and convictions, at one eighth the rate in Scotland. A sense of perspective is necessary. Similarly, when we consider the resources that we put into dealing with the matter, yes, they are overstretched, but there are three times as many police per head in Northern Ireland as there are in other parts of the United Kingdom, and the position is about the same as regards resources.

We do combat the problems. It is not always easy to suffer the minutes and to watch the hours, but my hon. Friend is right: when we look at the hours, the years and the decades, there has been a significant move forward for people in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell)

Was it really wise to suspend? Does not the Secretary of State understand that for very many people it is deeply offensive that the constitutional parties, whether nationalist or Unionist, in Northern Ireland were penalised through no fault of their own? Is it not solely and exclusively the fault of Sinn Fein-IRA because of their violent activity? Will the Secretary of State now say unequivocally that the reason the power-sharing Executive and the Assembly have been suspended and are at breaking point is Sinn Fein-IRA's activities, and theirs alone?

Dr. Reid

I have already made known my position on suspension. Yes, I do realise the burden, annoyance and frustrations of those who feel that they have done very little and yet are having their commitment and capacity to improve the lives of people in Northern Ireland taken away by suspension. I have also made it plain, as somebody who has supported devolution all my life—unlike most of the hon. Gentlemen on the Opposition Benches, I might say—that I would have preferred not to suspend, but I have given my reasons for that. The right hon. Gentleman will not have missed the fact that some of people who he says were so pained at being suspended had actually resigned last week, so that was slightly out of my hands.

As regards the future, I am making judgments on these cases. I do not claim that they are infallible judgments or that they are necessarily right. They are my political judgments. They are made in an attempt to sustain the whole process on an inclusive basis, with the potential to resolve decades-long, generations-long and in some cases centuries-long problems, violence and conflict. If we look over the past five or 10 years, there is enough evidence there that up to this point that judgment has proved correct. What we need now is a substantive indication, as the right hon. Gentleman said, from Sinn Fein that that judgment has been correct—that the trust that we placed in the republican movement and its willingness to move to the democratic resolution of problems and away from violence, as long as we provided democracy, justice and opportunity for them, was right. That is the challenge facing us over the next few months.

David Winnick (Walsall, North)

I recognise that my right hon. Friend had little alternative but to do what he has done. Is it not a fact that the present situation will only cause pleasure to those who opposed and undermined the Good Friday agreement from the very start? Will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that he will work closely with the Irish Government during the time the Assembly is suspended, and that it is extremely important that the two Governments should work together? Is it not a fact that Sinn Fein must take some responsibility for playing right into the hands of those who opposed the agreement from the beginning?

Dr. Reid

I can certainly assure my hon. Friend that I will be working closely with the Irish Government on the matter. May I say how much I welcome the statement yesterday making it clear that there had been no ambiguity in the choice between violence and democracy? It was a statement not just from the Prime Minister of this country, but from the Taoiseach—the Prime Minister of Ireland. It was an indication of how strongly he and the Irish Government feel about the position. I look forward to working with them, and I greatly welcome their support and their efforts.

Dr. Julian Lewis

What exactly does the Secretary of State think that IRA-Sinn Fein intended to do with lists of the home addresses of prison officers and police officers, together with lists of which of them had and had not been issued with firearms for their personal protection? Why does he think that the IRA-Sinn Fein cell responsible for this latest disgraceful episode described the Prime Minister with two words, one of which was "naïve"?

Dr. Reid

As someone who always closely considers the evidence, the hon. Gentleman should not believe everything that he reads in the newspaper, although since I am not allowed to reveal any secrets, I cannot contradict anything that he said. On the intentions of the perpetrators of the incident, I cannot prejudge whether the IRA or somebody else was responsible. I can only refer him to the statements that I have been making publicly as well as privately for a considerable time, saying that a ceasefire, even when I judge it in the round to be intact, is not the point. The point is that, if people are on ceasefire but are maintaining a capability in terrorist terms that could be used to break a ceasefire in the long run, they will destroy the confidence that is necessary for power sharing. I think that that answers his question.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord)

Order. We must now move on to the next business.

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