HC Deb 14 January 2004 vol 416 cc802-5
2. Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)

If he will make a statement on the peace process. [146807]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Paul Murphy)

It remains our objective to secure the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland on a stable and secure footing. We will be talking to the parties in the coming weeks about how this can be achieved, and we shall be presenting proposals, jointly with the Irish Government, on how the review of the operation of the Belfast agreement will be taken forward. It remains our view that the agreement is the political framework that is capable of securing the support of both communities in Northern Ireland, and we are committed to its implementation.

Mr. Carmichael

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, and especially welcome his comments on the review, which, as we now know, is well overdue from any view of the agreement. When the review takes place, will he give particular priority to the question of designations, which Liberal Democrats believe have operated to institutionalise sectarianism? They have outlived any usefulness that they ever had, so surely they have now got to go.

Mr. Murphy

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's comments about the review because that is a crucial part of the agreement. The political parties in Northern Ireland have written to the Irish Foreign Minister and to me about how they envisage the structure of the review and what it should cover. Part of that includes the point that he made—the Alliance party especially referred to designation. We hope that the review will start in a couple of weeks. It is now just a matter of setting an appropriate date—although I talk to parties in the meantime, and we will examine that and other issues. It is for the parties, with the Governments, to consider them seriously.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North) (Lab)

My right hon. Friend will recall that the Weston Park agreement was part of the ongoing peace process. Arising out of that came the decision to establish the Cory tribunal to look at disputed killings. The Irish Government have published their part of the report, so when will the British Government publish theirs? Are we right in suspecting that although the security forces have seen over the deletion of sensitive information, the British Government, through the Ministry of Defence and the Northern Ireland Office, are seeking to edit further the judge's report?

Mr. Murphy

My hon. Friend is right about the history of the Cory report and investigation and to point out that the Irish Government have published the two reports with which they were connected. I point out to him and the House that the British Government have to consider four, not two, reports. They are more complex and detailed and longer than those with which the Irish Government had to deal. Moreover, we are not yet in a position to publish—although we will, of course, as soon as possible—because of legal advice. We must consider the rights and safety of individuals.

We have to deal with national security issues, which my hon. Friend touched on, and we have to pay attention to articles 2 and 6 of the European convention on human rights, which deal with the right to life and effective investigations. I can assure my hon. Friend that as soon as we have followed that legal advice we will publish the reports.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann) (UUP)

I refer the Secretary of State to the comments that have just been made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (David Burnside) and remind him that it was because of the continuing criminal activity of Sinn Fein and its republican allies that the Assembly at Stormont was suspended in October 2002. That crisis has not yet been resolved; indeed, its resolution is the primary problem that we face in Northern Ireland. Any review, which I agree is long overdue, should focus on that primary issue.

Mr. Murphy

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the matters to which he refers were the reasons for suspending the Assembly in 2002. I know that he and his colleagues were doing their best to try to deal with those issues before the elections in Northern Ireland were called last year. As he, more than anybody else, knows, that did not work as we wanted it to, and it will be a crucial part of the discussions in the review.

Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh) (SDLP)

The Secretary of State will know that in any political or peace process it is essential that those involved in negotiations keep their word. Does he agree that while others are breaking their word, especially Sinn Fein on the use of violence and the continuation of paramilitary activity, it would be absolutely wrong for either Government to renege on their commitments? Will he give an absolute commitment to the House now that that which was negotiated and agreed at Weston Park about Judge Cory will be published and acted on immediately, so that neither Government can be accused of breaking their word on the issue?

Mr. Murphy

My hon. Friend is aware that the Prime Minister and the Government have made clear the position on Cory; the Prime Minister did that before Christmas. Until we publish those reports we cannot, obviously, deal with their details. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara), we will publish those reports as soon as we can.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con)

In wishing the Secretary of State well in the forthcoming talks with the political parties, may I ask him whether he expects the Independent Monitoring Commission to be in a position to report to him by the end of the review process as to the possible links between paramilitary activity, breaches of the agreement and political parties in Northern Ireland, and whether he believes that the Government may be in a position at that stage to take account of such evidence? Will he also bear in mind the possible consequences for the terms under which the devolved institutions might be restored?

Mr. Murphy

The hon. Gentleman is right to stress the importance of the Independent Monitoring Commission because it is crucial to the success of the peace process and, indeed, of the review. The commission has now started its work; the legislation has been passed both here and in the Irish Parliament. Obviously, I hope that it will report at about the time that the review ends, but as we have not given a deadline for either I cannot be more precise than that.

Mr. Lidington

I share the Secretary of State's view that we must respect the democratic mandate of all parties that have received popular support in Northern Ireland, but does he agree that parties that expect to participate in the government of part of this country need to bear it in mind that to have access to a private army, to maintain stocks of weapons and to be linked to punishment beatings and other paramilitary activity falls a long way short of the commitment to exclusively democratic and peaceful means that lay at the heart of the Belfast agreement?

Mr. Murphy

The hon. Gentleman—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. There is far too much conversation on the Government Benches. Hon. Members should not be in conversation. It is far too loud.

Mr. Murphy

The hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) is right to stress the importance of a peaceful, non-violent and democratic society in Northern Ireland. That is at the heart of the Good Friday agreement. He is also right to join the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) in stressing the fact that those issues will be crucial in the months ahead and in the review.

Mr. Peter Mandelson (Hartlepool) (Lab)

An important part of the peace process is the reform of the police, which is going ahead with remarkable success, despite the isolated boycott by Sinn Fein. The reform includes the phasing out of the full-time reserve. Will my right hon. Friend comment on the implementation of that, given the pressure on overall police numbers and capability in Northern Ireland? Where individuals are leaving the full-time reserve and are in need of retraining, is that retraining made available? If they wish to apply their skills to other areas—Iraq comes to mind—are their pensions and severance terms properly protected?

Mr. Murphy

My right hon. Friend is right to stress the importance of policing to the success of the peace process and the agreement. Retraining will be available to full-time reservists. My right hon. Friend is aware that the methods by which that is addressed is a matter for the Policing Board and is subject to the Chief Constable's views as to the security situation, but in general I believe that that part of the policing reform is going well.