HC Deb 23 October 2002 vol 391 cc255-60
1. Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South)

What aspects of the Good Friday agreement remain to be implemented; and if he will make a statement. [73997]

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

The Government are determined to press forward with all aspects of the agreement. The key priority now is to restore the devolved institutions. Essential to that is the restoration of trust that all parties remain committed to fulfilling their obligations and, crucially, the commitment to exclusively democratic and peaceful means.

Mr. Chapman

While I appreciate that we face testing times in Northern Ireland with the suspension of power sharing, does my right hon. Friend concur with me that the Good Friday agreement is about much more than that? Does he agree that the suspension of the Assembly and the Executive, much as it is to be regretted, should not be allowed to stall progress in other areas of the agreement? Can he confirm that all possible steps are being taken to implement those other measures?

Dr. Reid

Yes. As my hon. Friend points out, the Belfast agreement has brought considerable benefits to people in Northern Ireland. We have made considerable progress, which is reflected in the day-to-day life of people in Ulster in terms of their standards of living and their security compared with a decade ago. It is the Government's intention to carry forward those items of the agreement that fall to our respective jurisdiction. It is important to remember that the agreement has not been suspended; it is the Assembly and the Executive that, regrettably, have had to be suspended. Having said that, we should not diminish the effect and success of devolved and inclusive government in Northern Ireland, which was greatly appreciated by people in Ulster.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

On the question of the agreement's implementation, will the Secretary of State look again at those matters which the Government have done and are proposing to do that are not part of the agreement? I refer, of course, to the special category that has been invented for certain Members and the proposed special measures for so-called on-the-runs. Those matters are not part of the agreement and the Government should look again at them.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to the suspension of the Assembly, which was not inevitable and is exercised at the Secretary of State's discretion. As that suspension arose from events in his own Department—the massive breach of security in his own Department—will he come to the House, when what has been called the root-and-branch examination of his Department by the Security Service has been completed, to explain precisely how that massive breach of security occurred and to outline arrangements for a proper inquiry into it?

Dr. Reid

On the right hon. Gentleman's first point, access to facilities in the House is, of course, a matter for the House, and any wider aspect of that is a matter for the Serjeant at Arms.

On the breach of security to which the right hon. Gentleman referred, I have already said that I have asked the Security Service to carry out an investigation and inquiry into it, not least to safeguard our position in the future. I think that he will understand that it is not always possible, in such circumstances, to put before the House as full details as I would wish because that, in itself, may compromise the future safeguarding of our position; but I will certainly consider how we can share what information can be shared with the right hon. Gentleman and the House.

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down)

Given that the Governments are intent on the full implementation of the Good Friday agreement, does the Secretary of State agree that there can be no level of acceptable paramilitary activity—the so-called in-house or political violence, or indeed in the structures of paramilitarism—in either jurisdiction, the Republic of Ireland or the United Kingdom? Does he agree that further concessions to loyalist or republican paramilitaries would be entirely corrosive of the democratic process and destructive of the peace process in the long term? Will he reaffirm that the true way forward is by full, round-table negotiations with all the parties that are signatories to the Good Friday agreement, not by what can be destructive, unilateral meetings in secret?

Dr. Reid

I agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman said. First, let us be clear that there is no acceptable level of violence. Violence is violence, and crime is crime, from wherever it comes, From wherever it comes, whatever the consequences, on whatever side of the community, and whatever political discomfort it might throw up, crime will be pursued by the police, and the police will follow where the evidence leads. The hon. Gentleman can be assured that that will be applied in an even-handed fashion across the community.

A great deal of publicity has been given recently to arrests and charges laid against republicans. We should also remember that, in recent weeks, a considerable number of loyalists have been arrested and charged by the police. Last night, there was another disgraceful attack causing injury to young men in the Short Strand area, and I want to congratulate the police on their hard work leading to the discovery and retention yesterday of a considerable arsenal of weapons, which, apparently, was connected with loyalists. There is no doubt in my mind that it was destined for murderous attempts at violence. We should all congratulate the police on the way in which they have been applying themselves, with some success, against crime wherever it arises.

Mrs. Iris Robinson (Strangford)

Is the Secretary of State not yet ready to accept, as evidenced by the recent opinion poll on "Hearts and Minds", that two thirds of the unionist community do not support the agreement? Is it not time, therefore, to call early elections, followed by negotiations for a new agreement which would have the endorsement of unionists and nationalists?

Dr. Reid

Like the hon. Lady, I follow opinion polls carefully, although, of course, they are not definitive. Some recent opinion polls, however, have given some interesting indications of the feelings of people in Northern Ireland. First, there is a loss of confidence in the way in which the agreement is proceeding among the unionist community. Secondly, for three quarters of those who have misgivings in the unionist community, the most important single issue is the continued activity in violence or the means of violence by the republican movement. That is why we have said that there is now a real crossroads, at which there is a decision to be taken. We await the response of the republican movement to what the Prime Minister has said in recent days, but I cannot see how we can restore sufficient trust to have inclusive government of a devolved nature in Northern Ireland without a definitive move in that direction.

I also note other factors that are illustrated in the opinion polls: the continuing lead, in terms of support among the unionist community, for the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), the leader of the Ulster Unionist party, and 80 per cent. support for him inside his party.

Mr. Peter Mandelson (Hartlepool)

May I commiserate with my right hon. Friend, but congratulate him on his handling of recent events in Northern Ireland, in which he has shown considerable skill and judgment? Does he agree that implementation of the Good Friday agreement has, for years, been dogged by the issue of arms decommissioning, but that that is a proxy gesture for what is really needed: a full-hearted commitment by the republican movement to ending the war completely and saying so in terms?

What is needed now is a genuinely substantial shift in the attitude of the rest of the republican movement to the future of the IRA. Does my right hon. Friend agree that such a move will not be easy for republicans, and that demonising Sinn Fein will not in any sense help the republican movement in that direction? May I encourage him along the lines in which he has indicated that he is moving, and urge him to bring these matters to their logical conclusion—the end not only of the provisional IRA but of all paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland?

Dr. Reid

First, I thank my right hon. Friend for his support and praise—coming from the quarter that it does, it means much more than it usually would in the House. Secondly, he has couched his question, and the implied recommendations, wisely. It is wise counsel. We must recognise that the republican movement has come a huge distance in recent years, and none of us should diminish that. We must also recognise that just as continuing activity by republican paramilitaries is the major factor, in my view, undermining the capacity to continue with power sharing in Northern Ireland, in turn loyalist paramilitary activity is not only murderous in its intent but becomes an excuse and a reason for the republicans not to reduce their level of activity, and an obstacle to their doing so.

Finally, we should recognise that everyone should be seen to be committed to exclusively peaceful and democratic means in deeds as well as in words and that, as I have said so often in the House, the question of activity goes well beyond a ceasefire. If people are suspected of preparing and maintaining a capability to break the ceasefire in future, that will, and has, undermined the trust of the other parties to power sharing. Unless those issues are addressed in a definitive fashion, all of us who are partners to the agreement and partners in shaping a new Northern Ireland will ultimately fail. I hope that all of us, including the leadership of republicanism, will reflect on that point.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)

Given that paragraph 8 of the validation, implementation and review section of the agreement says that the two Governments and the parties in the Assembly will convene a conference four years after the agreement comes into effect, to review and report on its operation", do the Government intend to carry out such a review and, if so, when?

Dr. Reid

Yes, we intend to carry out that particular review, but I am tempted to say it will be after we carry out all the other reviews that are now stacking up for us. I think that the time scale that the parties envisaged for that review—this is not definitive—was at the end of next year. However, we now have a legal duty upon us as a consequence of suspension to carry out a review under the Northern Ireland Act 2000. I have already talked to a number of the parties, in various capacities, about that. Yesterday, I talked to our colleagues in the Irish Government and, next week, I will have meetings with all the parties—and not just the pro—agreement parties—represented in the Assembly to fulfil the beginnings of the obligations placed upon us to have such a review subsequent to suspension.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North)

My right hon. Friend has taken a difficult and, in many ways, a very courageous decision. Will he assure the House that, in his pursuit of following up the Good Friday agreement, there will be no let up on those matters concerning human rights, equality between the communities, and pushing forward those concepts and ideas? Will he also say when we will see legislation arising out of agreements that were made with some people at Weston Park?

Dr. Reid

We intend to continue with all aspects of the agreement, including those aspects that we have put into the public domain over the past 18 months. On human rights and equality. there is no question of this Government or—as far as I am aware—any party in Northern Ireland wanting us to go back to a stage before equality or human rights were enshrined. I merely say to my hon. Friend that, although it is only one aspect of the agreement, devolved power sharing and the capacity of the people of Northern Ireland together to shape their future is, in my view, a vital part. Unless we can overcome the obstacles to achieving that—the real choice facing people is between democracy and violence—we will never fulfil the agreement in full. Much emphasis must be placed on that, and I and my colleagues on the Front Bench will certainly do that. I am sure that the other parties and the Irish Government will also do that over the coming weeks so that we can achieve our aim.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford)

May I offer our warm congratulations to the Police Service of Northern Ireland on discovering the major loyalist arms cache?

Will the right hon. Gentleman accept from us that the Prime Minister's new tone on Northern Ireland in last week's speech in Belfast is very welcome'? The Prime Minister was right to state that there is a fork in the road and that there is a choice for the parties to the agreement between implementing its obligations and breaching it. Even if we had to wait four and a half years for those words from the Prime Minister, it is good to hear them so clearly now. Does the Secretary of State accept that if the Government sustain this new line not merely in rhetoric but in action, and if there is a definitive end to the disastrous policy of turning a blind eye and making unilateral concessions. the Government will henceforth enjoy our support?

Dr. Reid

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. I am sure that the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Prime Minister will be fortified by his support.

Let me repeat what I have often said in the House. There has been no turning of a blind eye by either the politicians in Northern Ireland or the Police Service of Northern Ireland. They have conducted themselves in the most appropriate fashion in the most difficult circumstances. If the police are now having more success as a result of the application that they have applied to unearthing crime and violence and to arresting and charging people, it is a result of their good and continuing work; it is not because they have changed their approach.

Mr. Davies

The right hon. Gentleman is trying to avoid his embarrassment and that of the Government by diverting attention from what I said. The police have done an excellent job. They uncovered some extraordinary things in Stormont and the Northern Ireland Office, and also with the break-in at Castlereagh. The Americans did some tremendous police work in Florida and we know about events in Columbia. It was those events to which the Government turned a blind eye.

However, I want to look forward. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the only possible viable solution in Northern Ireland must be comprehensive and global? Does he further accept—if only in the light of events, not because we have been saying so for many months—that the principles that we have been urging on the Government, of linkage, multilaterality, sanctions for non-compliance, balance and, indeed, timetables for implementation, must be an essential part of a settlement and his negotiations from now on?

Dr. Reid

I was discourteous in omitting a welcome to the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) to the Front Bench. I also welcome what I take to be an obfuscated restoration of bipartisanship—if not hyper-multilateralism—to the problems that we face. I understood the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) to say that everything is linked to everything else. He is certainly accurate in that.