HL Deb 17 January 2002 vol 630 cc1183-6

3.26 p.m.

Lord Glentoran asked Her Majesty's Government:

When and how they intend to address the increasing levels of lawlessness in Northern Ireland.

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Williams of Mostyn)

My Lords, the level of lawlessness in Northern Ireland is the legacy of its violent past. The Government continue to provide the resources necessary to protect the vulnerable and bring the perpetrators to justice. They are moving to cut off the sources of funding of the criminal organisations and are joining forces with the devolved Administration to tackle the underlying social and economic issues.

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal for that Answer. But is he aware that morale in the police force is at an all-time low, especially among those who are out in the streets on the ground? Furthermore, is he aware that within the Province drug dealers and paramilitary gangsters are operating with complete immunity? As a result, the whole population is losing confidence in its police force. How and when do the Government propose to address this very dangerous issue?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, obviously when there are changes to any sort of institutional organisation, there will be difficulties of morale. I do not accept that drug dealers and armed criminals are operating with impunity. But as the noble Lord—I say this with great respect to him—knows a good deal better than I do, unless a police force in any society has the whole-hearted support of all sections of the community, it is exceptionally difficult to gain the intelligence and thereby the evidence successfully to prosecute people. I do not and cannot underestimate the seriousness of what the noble Lord says.

Lord Shutt of Greetland

My Lords, can the noble and learned Lord give any comfort to citizens of the Province—public-sector workers, including teachers and postal workers, and Marks and Spencer workers—who have been threatened? What comfort can he give to such people who have been targeted by the paramilitary groups?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, a significant comfort on which I should seek to draw is the virtually unanimous revulsion and criticism expressed across all sections of the community in Northern Ireland. In fact, I believe that that has had an effect. Following the monstrous murder of Mr McColgan, aged 20, when on his way to work, there has been a significant and, I believe, heartening response from the public which has brought the Red Hand Defenders—whoever they claim to be—to disband themselves. Personally I regard it as offensive that they should take upon themselves that role. But I believe that the community generally—it will be shown by demonstrations tomorrow—is adamant that such action will not be tolerated.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead

My Lords, given the disbandment of effective policing, which has seriously weakened law enforcement throughout Northern Ireland, will Her Majesty's Government keep their promise to take no risks with security, and increase troop levels despite the regrettable overstretch of the Army?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, of course we take our promise seriously. The police grant for the current financial year was £656.8 million. A grant of a further £10 million was given to meet particular pressures. The GOC currently has 14 battalions under his command and 14,480 personnel. No government can afford to take risks with security.

Lord Renton

My Lords, has not the time come for the Government and leaders in Northern Ireland to bring together the most prominent Protestants and Catholics in each community and point out that, if continued, the conflicts which have gone on for many years will do only harm and will not do anyone any good, so that those leaders can be prevailed upon to get together to plead with their people to bring peace?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, that has been and is the Government's strategy. One way to do that, which has been successful so far in outcome, is to have an assembly in Northern Ireland. Representatives of Sinn Fein have been elected and are taking their part with representatives of different strands of unionism. One can offer dialogue. However, part of the curse of Northern Ireland—I say this cautiously—seems to he "what aboutery". In other words, no one will admit their own wrongdoing; they want always to talk about what everyone else has done.

Lord Rogan

My Lords, I live in South Belfast. Does the Minister share my concerns about the continuing violence in South Belfast? Recently, an 86 year-old woman was attacked in her home. Further, will the Minister join with me in welcoming today's arrest of some 16 persons in direct response to the crime wave, and voice our hope that the police will continue their vigorous actions to ensure that the situation in South Belfast, which has been somewhat overshadowed by that in North Belfast, will be brought under control?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I agree with the comments of the noble Lord. As he knows, I shall visit Northern Ireland today. I shall have the pleasure of meeting not only colleagues but others who work there. The truth, which cannot be sufficiently plainly addressed, is that violence of any sort for whatever motive cannot be justified. We have a duty to ensure that ordinary citizens in a civil society are able to look to the protection of the law. I recognise that in significant parts of Northern Ireland, people do not have that comfort.

Lord Murray of Epping Forest

My Lords, as regards the murder of the young postal worker, does the Minister agree that the Irish Congress of Trade Unions is unwise to consider taking national industrial action as a method of opposing such violence, as, like the so-called Ulster workers' strike, that could set a dangerous precedent in the industrial life of Northern Ireland?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, as someone who does not live in Northern Ireland, I would be very reluctant indeed to say to people who have been appalled and truly horrified at the murder of that unfortunate young man that they should not want to demonstrate their abhorrence. His partner is 17, and they have a small baby. She is a widow at the age of 17. I wonder who can justify that?

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord agree that last year the Government's own Northern Ireland committee produced plenty of evidence to show that the problem is not one of confidence in the police but the fear of a population under intimidation of going to the police, which is a different matter? When will we hear what action the Government are to take on the committee's report? I tabled a Question on 4th December, to which I have not received a reply. By chance, I discovered that the Government's response had been published on 17th December, which I have read. The only concrete proposal or comment is that the citizens advice bureau would be a splendid organisation to advise families in exile. I should like the Minister's comments on that.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am sorry if the noble Baroness did not receive a reply. This is no sufficient explanation, but because of the Christmas period, the normal time for replying to your Lordships' Questions was not met. I am not sure that I accept her paraphrase as entirely as dismissively as she phrased it. What was said—I paraphrase perhaps more benevolently—was that there are organisations which exist to help people in times of trouble. One of those, which does extremely good work, is the citizens advice bureau. I would not wish to be a party to anything which diminishes the regard one has for its work.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, does my noble and learned friend agree that recently there has been some improvement—I do not want to sound too optimistic—in the situation at the Holy Cross School thanks to the active intervention by local politicians of all parties? Is that not the best model, with government encouragement, for reducing the level of violence and terrorism in parts of North and South Belfast?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I agree. Holy Cross Primary School, which is where small children go for the early part of their life's education, was closed last Thursday. It reopened on Friday but I do not think that that is cause for congratulation. It should not have been closed in the first place. Children of four and five should not have as their continuing memory of their first day at school the fact that they arc spat at, that bombs are thrown at them and that they are abused; for what—being children?

The Earl of Listowel

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House what is being done to bring together young people of different faiths in Northern Ireland? What cultural activities are used, such as music and drama? What support is being given to sport such as football and cricket between Catholic and Protestant young people?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, there is a range of social initiatives. However, I do not believe that anyone in your Lordships' House should overlook the fact that while social initiatives of the sort mentioned by the noble Earl have their place, that is in the rather gloomy context of centuries of hatred.