HC Deb 08 September 2004 vol 424 cc701-5
1. Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con)

If he will reinstate the Northern Ireland Assembly without Sinn Fein in the light of the Independent Monitoring Commission report. [187641]

2. Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con)

What recent representations he has received on re-establishing the Northern Ireland Assembly. [187642]

4. Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab)

What progress he has made towards restoring devolved government in Northern Ireland. [187646]

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

The Independent Monitoring Commission's report emphasised the importance of participation by all sides of the community in the context of peaceful and democratic means. We are currently engaged in intensive political activity with the aim of restoring stable and inclusive partnership government in Northern Ireland. It is important to draw on the high degree of commitment among the Northern Ireland parties to bring about resumed devolution at an early stage. Recent meetings with all parties have given me confidence that the restoration to Northern Ireland of stable devolved government is within our grasp.

Mr. Robathan

The Secretary of State talked about commitment, but he will know that is over six years since the Belfast agreement was made, and that Sinn Fein, as the Independent Monitoring Commission found out, remains responsible for paramilitary violence. When will the Government say that the peace process will go ahead but without those people, who are inextricably linked to terrorism, go about their murderous business making life hell for many people in Northern Ireland and have failed to give up their weapons as promised six years ago?

Mr. Murphy

The hon. Gentleman will know that one of the two issues that we will discuss next week at Leeds castle in Kent is the decommissioning of weapons, which was part of the Good Friday agreement. He is right that in the past six years we have not had sufficient decommissioning from any of the paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland. Secondly, the business of paramilitary activity, whether republican or loyalist, must be addressed. In particular, republican paramilitary activity, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said only yesterday, must be addressed before we can restore devolution in Northern Ireland. However, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that next week we will make a very serious effort to try to resolve those difficulties, and I believe that it will be a moment of decision for the peace process in Northern Ireland.

Bob Spink

But does the Secretary of State at least accept that all forms of violence and threats of violence, including punishment beatings and the retention of weapons, are quite incompatible with power sharing? Will he therefore state quite firmly that that will therefore result in the exclusion of Sinn Fein?

Mr. Murphy

There is no point the hon. Gentleman saying "at least", as I have always agreed with that premise—and indeed the Government have always accepted—that there is no place in modern democratic society in Northern Ireland for paramilitary activity of any sort. He will be aware that paramilitary activity has been an issue in Northern Ireland for more than 30 years, and the Good Friday agreement made it clear that it had to stop. For various reasons, it has not stopped in the past six years, but it has certainly diminished. The ceasefire is now 10 years old and Northern Ireland is undoubtedly a better place, but the hon. Gentleman is right to bring to the attention of the House the importance of that central issue.

Helen Jackson

Question 4, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Lady's question has been grouped, and she need only ask a supplementary question.

Helen Jackson

I am grateful, Mr. Speaker.

I commend the Government and the Secretary of State on the patient way in which they have pursued the restoration of devolved government over the past few years and in the past month. Does my right hon. Friend not agree that it is that patience in making sure that all parties and sectors of the community in Northern Ireland are brought into politics that will ensure the successful reinstatement of devolution?

Mr. Murphy

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. She knows, because she herself was deeply involved at the time of the creation of the Belfast agreement, that we cannot have a lasting accommodation or settlement in Northern Ireland unless it allows for proper power sharing between nationalism and unionism. That means that there must be proper North-South arrangements and a principle of consent, which was enshrined in the agreement. I am certain that every political party in Northern Ireland that will be present in Leeds castle in Kent next week is serious about trying to make that breakthrough and ensure that that deal is made.

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down) (SDLP)

The Secretary of State will be aware of the statement from the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland last Thursday, in which he indicated that of the 25 major drug gangs in Northern Ireland, two thirds are run or organised by paramilitaries. Does he accept that much more damage is now being done to our community by drug trafficking, intimidation and other forms of protection rackets than by security-related matters? Will he take that on board at the inter-party talks—and indeed outside the talks—and address paramilitary activities which are not security-related but which are having a much greater impact on our community than those other matters?

Mr. Murphy

My hon. Friend is right to bring to the House's attention the fact that many in paramilitary organisations are engaged in criminal activities, and that those activities have no place in Northern Ireland. They are a corrupting influence on society in Northern Ireland and they must stop—of course they must. I commend the work of the PSNI in dealing with those issues. My hon. Friend, who is a member of the Policing Board, is aware of those matters. He will also agree that next week the central issue of paramilitary activity in all its forms must be addressed if we are to move forward in the peace process.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East) (DUP)

I know that the Secretary of State will not want to talk up the possibility that the talks next week may not succeed, but yesterday his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister touched on the fact that the Government must obviously consider what they would do in those circumstances. If the talks next week do not succeed because paramilitaries refuse to completely decommission their illegal weaponry and bring to a complete end their paramilitary and criminal activity, the Secretary of State would have only two options, other than collapsing the Assembly as a whole: to have an Assembly without an Executive, or to have an Executive without Sinn Fein. Is he considering those two options?

Mr. Murphy

The Government will have to reflect at the end of next week if we do not achieve what we want to achieve, but, in the hon. Gentleman's words, we have the ingredients of a deal in front of us in Leeds castle next week. The Government are working not on the basis that we will fail next week, but on the basis that we will succeed. We will have to see what happens at the end of the talks. I repeat, though, that the talks next week are a crucial part of the process, a crucial phase and a point of decision, not a staging post in any further discussions.

Mr. Michael Mates (East Hampshire) (Con)

But what is the point of going to Leeds castle to discuss decommissioning and the ending of paramilitary violence, since everybody knows that that is the precondition for any political progress? If the Secretary of State goes there without that precondition, is he not simply raising hopes, and in the end will he not disappoint more people than he serves?

Mr. Murphy

The right hon. Gentleman is right to point to the importance of those issues before a deal can be achieved, but there are other issues, too, which we have been discussing in the past two weeks in Northern Ireland—for example, how the Assembly operates, the mechanisms of the Executive, its accountability to the Assembly, and issues such as human rights, equality and so on. Although the right hon. Gentleman is right to point to the principle that is so important in trying to ensure that we get a breakthrough—that is, the end of paramilitary activity, decommissioning, the stability of the institutions and the restoration of confidence—the details of those matters still have to be addressed. That is what we will be doing next week in Kent.

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

As the political entourage from Northern Ireland wends its way towards Leeds castle, will the Secretary of State make it clear that while we all welcome the worthy efforts of the Democratic Unionist party poachers to become the head gamekeepers, that Pauline conversion cannot be at the expense of the agreement or any of its institutions? Will the British Government and the Irish Government be the custodians of the Good Friday agreement and protect its integrity, and not on this occasion succumb to the shabby-deal syndrome that has bedevilled so many of these meetings?

Mr. Murphy

I hope there will be no shabby deals. I am sure there will not be, but I can say to my hon. Friend that the fundamentals of that agreement to which we all signed up in 1998 are essential to any accommodation that we can ever achieve in Northern Ireland. I repeat them: there is the question of sharing power, the principle of consent, proper North-South arrangements and other matters. They must form the bedrock of any agreement, but every party that is going to the talks next week, including the DUP, is going on the basis that we want to try and make an arrangement and get a deal that will restore devolution in Northern Ireland.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann) (UUP)

This autumn marks one year, which has been frittered away, since the Assembly election, and two years since the Prime Minister said in a speech at Belfast Harbour Office that we have reached a fork in the road. Does the Secretary of State agree that the Government will be left with no credibility if they are still hanging around that fork in the road after the talks at Leeds castle?

Mr. Murphy

The year or two since we had to suspend devolution in Northern Ireland have, of course, been frustrating. No one wanted to suspend devolution, no one wants direct rule and every party in Northern Ireland wants the restoration of devolution. I think the right hon. Gentleman agrees that we have reached a stage at which we must make proper decisions, because we cannot allow the process to drift. We must address those central issues and reach the conclusion that we all want.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con)

May I first wish the Secretary of State well in next week's discussions? Whichever political party we come from, it is in all our interests that an enduring and just peace should be reached in Northern Ireland. The key to political progress in Northern Ireland is surely that the republican movement, which has an electoral mandate that entitles it to participate in government, should not only use words to say that it wants violence to end but demonstrate through its actions that it renounces and breaks completely with paramilitary violence in all its forms and that it is prepared to offer evidence that that commitment is permanent rather than temporary.

Mr. Murphy

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks, and we all wish all the Northern Ireland parties well in their deliberations next week. He is right that words are important, but that they are not enough. He knows that since we last held such talks, the Independent Monitoring Commission has been established to examine such issues. It has an important role to play as, indeed, has the Decommissioning Commission, which is headed by General John de Chastelain.

Mr. Lidington

Is not the logic of the Secretary of State's answer that the British Government should say—as the Republic of Ireland's Government already do—that a party that has failed to make clear its permanent separation from paramilitary violence cannot take part as of right in the government of any part of the island of Ireland?

Mr. Murphy

That was part of the Good Friday agreement, by which Ministers had to sign up to codes of conduct and arrangements that meant that they would renounce violence in all its forms. Paramilitary activity, which must stop, has continued during the past year or so. The best deal for Northern Ireland will tackle paramilitary activity and allow all parties in Northern Ireland to take their rightful seats in the Assembly and the Executive.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD)

Will the Minister confirm that all outstanding issues relating to the review of the agreement, such as designations and the lack of shared responsibility in the Executive, will be on the agenda during the Leeds castle talks next week to ensure the long-term sustainability of the Assembly, and that we will not face either unilateral agreements with one party or another or quick-fix solutions that do not take us forward?

Mr. Murphy

The hon. Gentleman is right about quick-fix solutions, which no one wants. We have been busy over the past few weeks dealing with the issues that he rightly identifies. We cannot deal with every issue during the three days in Leeds castle, but we will certainly deal with the important issues.

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