HL Deb 22 October 2001 vol 627 cc815-8

3.13 p.m.

Lord Saatchi asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether in light of recent events the foreign sources of funding to Sinn Fein should be identified and made subject to prohibition.

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Williams of Mostyn)

My Lords, Her Majesty's Government have no current plans to require any of the Northern Ireland parties to disclose sources of foreign funding or prohibit it. The sections of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, which gave effect to these provisions in the rest of the United Kingdom, were disapplied in Northern Ireland because of the particular circumstances there. This is not intended to be a permanent measure, and the Government have given a commitment to review it after two years.

Lord Saatchi

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for his reply. It is a source of comfort on all sides of your Lordships' House that the noble and learned Lord has taken responsibility for Northern Ireland matters in this House. Does the noble and learned Lord recall that during Question Time last week his noble friend the Home Office Minister was somewhat agitated by the line of questioning on this matter of my noble friend Lady Park? Would the noble and learned Lord be too cross with me if I persisted on the same lines? Will the Leader of the House remind noble Lords how much of the £63 million that the Government have frozen in the bank accounts of suspected terrorists is related to Irish terrorism and what plans they have to identify and freeze the finances of Irish terrorist organisations?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I do not believe that in the breakdown of the £63 million that I provided there was any sub-division in respect of Irish terrorism. Speaking from recollection, I believe that in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, I referred to six banks, none of which appeared to me (if I may put it this way) to be obviously Irish but were more likely to be Arab institutions. Plainly, this is a continuing struggle. Funding is enormously important to terrorist organisations. The Provisional IRA remains a proscribed organisation. By virtue of United States law it is an offence to raise funds for foreign organisations without having registered under the appropriate legislation.

Lord Wright of Richmond

My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord aware that when I retired from the Diplomatic Service 10 years ago a great deal of effort was being made by consulates and consulates-general in the United States to discourage American financial assistance to Noraid? Does that effort continue?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I cannot say that it continues visà vis a particular organisation, but I can assure the House, as it would expect, that the United States Government and Her Majesty's Government, particularly at the present time, are working very closely together. These are very delicate times. I do not feel—and I hope that I do not show—any irritation because I have never known the noble Lord, Lord Saatchi, to ask an inappropriate question. I can tell the House that recently Gerry Adams announced that he is to make a statement this afternoon. I do not know what will be in that statement. I simply give the House that news because we are in extremely difficult times.

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord agree that the exemption of Northern Ireland from the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act was done on the advice of the Neill committee? Does he also agree that, in view of the fact that we are at the 11th hour where efforts are being made to salvage the Belfast agreement, it would be quite inappropriate to review it at this particular time?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I believe that, as the noble Lord implies, a proper balance was struck. The order which came into force in, I believe, February of this year runs for four years but with a specific commitment to review it in February 2003. These are extremely delicate areas that are not capable of a perfect intellectually justifiable response; they are matters of judgment. I hope the House agrees that the Government are doing their best to come to a proportionate judgment.

Lord Merlyn-Rees

My Lords, is not the difficulty at the heart of the Question as put that, as my noble and learned friend said, the Provisional IRA is a proscribed organisation, with all the implications that that has for the raising of money, but Sinn Fein is not? Indeed, a number of members of Sinn Fein have been elected to the other place, and a large number are Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly. There is all the difference on earth. If it can be proved otherwise then act. But does my noble and learned friend agree that it is much better to deal with the breakaway organisation—the Real IRA—which was involved in the massacre at Omagh and to concentrate on what matters, not on a flight of fancy and properly elected organisations?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, my noble friend is right and speaks from vast, honourable experience of these apparently intractable problems. Sinn Fein is a political party which offered itself for election in Northern Ireland and the Republic. It is not the same in legal terms as the Provisional IRA, which remains a proscribed organisation. As to my noble friend's point about the Real IRA—one reverts to the earlier question put by the noble Lord, Lord Wright—the Government, together with the Irish Government, approached the United States administration for the designation of the Real IRA under the provisions of the anti-terrorism legislation in that country, and the US acted against that organisation in May of this year.

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord must have some degree of confusion. Does he agree that either Sinn Fein is a democratic party in the United Kingdom like the rest of our parties, in which case it should be subject to the same rules and prohibited from overseas funding, or it is, as so many Ministers of both this Government and previous ones have said, a part of the IRA/Sinn Fein organisation and it is playing with words to distinguish between the two, particularly when we know that leaders of Sinn Fein are also members of the Army Council?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

No, my Lords, it is the noble Lord who has surprisingly fallen into confusion. Sinn Fein is a political party which offered itself to the democratic mandate in Northern Ireland and was successful in part. It offers itself for election in the Republic of Ireland. The United Kingdom consists of, among other areas, Northern Ireland. Everyone recognises that over many years there have been distinct problems in Northern Ireland. Our legislation has frequently rightly met those. It is not simply Sinn Fein which is the subject of this application; it applies just as powerfully to the SDLP.

Lord Renton

My Lords, has not more than enough already been said this afternoon about this matter? Would it not be best now to enable the United Kingdom and the United States Governments in cooperation to get on with it?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, not for the first time, I am grateful for that statesman-like approach. It is right to say that, although these are early days, there have been far-reaching consequences after the crimes of 11th September. We should take maximum advantage—I say that deliberately—of this opportunity which offers itself at this time.

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