HL Deb 20 April 2004 vol 660 cc171-82

4.4 p.m.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I should like to repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. The Statement is as follows:

"Mr Speaker, with permission, I should like to make a Statement about a report I have received from the Independent Monitoring Commission concerning paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland.

"Before I move to the substance of my Statement, I should like to take this opportunity to condemn in the strongest terms yesterday's sending of suspect packages to two elected representatives in Northern Ireland, the honourable Member for Belfast East and Mr Alex Attwood. I am sure the whole House will join me in that. Police investigations into these incidents are continuing.

"As the House will recall, the Independent Monitoring Commission was set up by an international agreement, supported by legislation we passed in this place last year. It is composed of four distinguished members: John Grieve, former Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police and Lord Alderdice, formerly Presiding Officer of the Northern Ireland Assembly, both nominated by the British Government; Mr Joseph Brosnan, formerly the Secretary of the Irish Department of Justice, nominated by the Irish Government; and Mr Dick Kerr, formerly the Deputy Director of Central Intelligence in the United States, nominated by the US Administration.

"Last Wednesday, the British and Irish Governments received the Commission's first report. I am today laying it before the House as I am required to do by law. Copies of the report will be available in the Vote Office at the conclusion of my Statement.

"The report is concerned with the continuing activities of paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland. The Commission had originally expected to produce the report in the early summer but, at the request of the Governments, it has brought its production forward. At the request of the Governments, the report also specifically addresses the incident that took place at Kelly's Cellars, Belfast, on 20 February 2004 in the context of its wider analysis. That event, as the House will recall, caused profound controversy in Northern Ireland. This has in turn disrupted the conduct of the review of the operation of the Good Friday agreement that began earlier this year.

"We are most grateful to the Commission for advancing its report. This has clearly involved a great deal of work by all concerned. Notwithstanding the pressures of time, I believe they have produced a very thorough and far-reaching report. Both Governments accept the Commission's conclusions and recommendations.

"The Commission states that the situation it is now addressing is much better than it was in past years. However, the Commission finds that paramilitary activity is at a disturbingly high level on the part of both republican and loyalist groups. I quote from the Commission's report: 'On the basis of reported figures—which, especially for assaults, may not reflect the full picture—the scale of paramilitary violence since 1 January 2003 has been worryingly high: approaching one murder a month; some three victims a week both from shootings and from assaults'. "The Commission goes on to state that two parties represented in the Assembly, Sinn Fein and the Progressive Unionist Party, have links with paramilitary groups. It is clear from the report that senior politicians are in a position to exercise significant influence over their activities.

"The Commission also expresses its belief that the incident in Belfast on 20 February was the responsibility of the Provisional IRA.

"The Commission urges elected politicians in Northern Ireland to commit themselves to supporting the rule of law and the criminal justice institutions.

"The Commission says that, in the absence of a sitting Northern Ireland Assembly, it is not possible for it to make recommendations on measures which the Assembly itself might consider taking in response to its report. However, the Commission makes clear that, 'had the Assembly now been functioning, we would have recommended in respect of Sinn Fein and the Progressive Unionist Party measures up to and possibly including exclusion from office'. "But, in the absence of a sitting Assembly, the Commissions recommends—and I quote—that I, 'should consider taking action in respect of the salary of Assembly members and/or the funding of Assembly parties so as to impose an appropriate financial measure in respect of Sinn Fein and the Progressive Unionist Party'. "When we debated the legislation relating to the Commission last year in this House, I made it clear that the Government believed it very important that the Commission's recommendations should be given effect. And I indicated that, in circumstances where the Commission had made recommendations but action had not been taken, I would be able to use the powers of last resort granted to me by the Act to take action myself in line with such recommendations.

"In the light of this, and having considered the report, I am persuaded that it would he right to remove for a period the entitlement to the block financial assistance paid to Assembly parties in respect of both Sinn Fein and the Progressive Unionist Party; and I propose to do so next Wednesday, 28 April.

"I have therefore today made an order under the urgency procedure, amending the Northern Ireland Act 1998 as amended by the legislation we passed last year, to allow me to take this step in the absence of a sitting Assembly. It will also permit me to act to reduce Members' salaries should I see fit to do so in the light of a future IMC report.

"I will, however, in line with the legal requirement on me to act fairly, take account of any representations I receive by next Tuesday from the two parties concerned, before reaching a final decision.

"The Commission's other recommendations, all of which the British Government endorse, include that paramilitary groups must cease all forms of criminal activity; and that all politicians and others in prominent roles must exert every possible influence to bring about a cessation of paramilitary activity.

"I hope that this report, and the firm but carefully measured action that the Government are taking in response to it, will underline that it is essential that all paramilitary activity, from whatever quarter, should cease fully and completely. The Commission's next report on paramilitary activity will be able to test whether that has happened and, if not, whether further action is needed.

"In the mean time, the Government remain firmly committed to the idea that political progress can only be achieved through dialogue. I shall continue to meet all the parties in Northern Ireland to explore how we can achieve the basis for a restoration of the devolved institutions. Already in the context of the review, a number of interesting proposals have been made. There is still much to discuss.

"This report underlines starkly what steps need to be taken if we are genuinely to move forward to stable and inclusive devolved government. I must reiterate what the Prime Minister, the Taoiseach and others have said on many occasions: all paramilitary activity must come to an end if there is to be a stable future for devolved government in Northern Ireland. That is what the Prime Minister spelt out when he talked of acts of completion. It is what both Governments made clear in paragraph 13 of the joint declaration. The Commission itself recognises in its report that violence and the threat of violence can have no part in democratic politics.

"The Independent Monitoring Commission has, I believe, a vital role to play in securing that development and underpinning it once devolved government is reestablished. It has, through this report, demonstrated its impartiality, its competence and its willingness to speak the truth, even when it is uncomfortable to do so. I believe the whole House will be grateful to it".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.13 p.m.

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness the Lord President of the Council for repeating the Statement made by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in the other place and, overall, welcome it. Noble Lords on this side of the House wish to associate themselves with the comments in the report concerning the suspect packages which were sent to Mr Peter Robinson, MP, and Mr Alex Attwood.

We welcome the report; we also welcome Her Majesty's Government's acceptance of it. I congratulate the Commission on the courage it has shown in facing the facts and the forthright way in which it has presented them. I also thank it for reporting so promptly—admittedly, under pressure from this side of the House and, in turn, from the Government. But it has done so and has, I suspect, faced considerable difficulty in so doing. We owe it our thanks.

For most of us in this House and those of us who live in Northern Ireland, there is little new in the report. We have known for many years that the level of paramilitary activity has been totally unacceptable and would never have been accepted in other parts of the United Kingdom. We have known of the organised crime syndicates run by the paramilitary groups, including extortion, drugs and smuggling.

We have also known that on both sides, political parties—one of which has played a role in the government of Northern Ireland and, believe it or not, still has that aim—are in control of many of the organisations and that their political parties and terrorist organisations are funded by these illegal activities. What, perhaps, is even worse, is that they are also in control of the areas on the ground in which they operate. This report, for the first time, confirms this—and that is to be welcomed.

Paragraph 7.5 of the report also confirms that, Sinn Fein must bear its responsibility for the continuation by PIRA of illegal paramilitary activity and must recognise the implications of being in this position". In this context, does the Minister share my concern at the words of Martin McGuinness, one-time Minister of Education for Northern Ireland, in a speech he made at Carrickmore on Easter Sunday—just last week—when he paid tribute to the role the IRA had played "and continues to play" in the struggle for Irish freedom?

I wish to ask the noble Baroness a number of questions. What further measures will Her Majesty's Government take to ensure that all the areas of Northern Ireland are fully policed and that there are no "soft areas"—known at one time as "no-go" areas—in which paramilitaries can operate with comparative immunity? Will she undertake to ensure that the full force of the Customs and Excise is available to stamp out smuggling and that there are no "soft corners" of the border in this regard? Smuggling has been going on in a major way, which is a disgrace in Europe, let alone inside the United Kingdom.

Furthermore, will the noble Baroness confirm that the watchtowers in South Armagh, which are principally there to help to prevent such irregularities as smuggling, will remain and that there will be no more security normalisation moves until the Independent Monitoring Commission reports that, in its opinion, the security situation in Northern Ireland has indeed been normalised and there have been acts of completion?

Does the noble Baroness really think that the financial sanctions against Sinn Fein and the PUP will have any significant impact, given their access to alternative, illegal forms of funding? Will she ask her right honourable friends in the other place to remove all the privileges, offices and allowances given by this Government to Sinn Fein in the Palace of Westminster? Will she confirm that in respect of Sinn Fein participating in the government of Northern Ireland, the same rules will apply in Belfast that the Taoiseach rightly insists upon in Dublin?

Finally, I was going to wish Her Majesty's Government well in the discussions that were due to take place next week. These, we understand, have now been cancelled. Could the noble Baroness the Lord President of the Council enlighten us as to why?

4.19 p.m.

Lord Shutt of Greetland

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, the Lord President of the Council, for repeating the Statement that was issued in the Commons. I also thank the Independent Monitoring Commission for its report. I reiterate the concern, and condemn the sending of the suspect packages to the two Northern Ireland politicians.

The report is a very valuable document by the independent monitors, setting out the position as they see it. If one looks at the schedule of the paramilitary groups, the report makes for a very sobering read. Seven groups are listed, and the report states that the seventh, the UVF and the RHC, are linked organisations. Both are relatively small, the latter particularly so. The number of their active members is a few hundred". The report says "relatively", but relative to what? How many can there be in the seven groups of paramilitary organisations altogether? If a few hundred is relatively small, the total must be very large indeed. There is a problem in terms of the numbers in paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland, whether they are active or dormant.

The major finding from the report is that there is less death but more damage. There is less death—although there are still deaths created by acts of the paramilitaries—but more damage. There has been a steady increase in shootings and assaults, and paramilitary theft and drug dealing on top of the violence. We are told that the ceasefires have meant a more peaceful Northern Ireland, but we must move on from ceasefires to the totality of illegal paramilitary activity.

The report then refers to the two groups that have Assembly links and what should be the sanctions. When we refer to sanctions, we are really talking about fine judgments. The report recommends reducing or withdrawing the salaries of Assembly Members or the funding for Assembly parties. Those are among the lowest of the sanctions in the rankings set out in the report. Five of the sanctions may be exercised by the Secretary of State, but, because the Assembly is not functioning, perhaps these are the only two that are left.

I wonder whether it is wise to use what appears to be a minor sanction relating to the loss of some funding to the Assembly parties. Would it not turn those people in the wrong direction further still? Is that sanction wise when the five other paramilitary groups would not be affected by any sanction of that nature, especially if it were decided to withdraw salaries? Bearing in mind the comments of my noble friend Lord Smith of Clifton about the withdrawal of salaries in other circumstances, is this the right step to take with this group of Assembly Members? It may be the right course of action for the totality of Assembly Members if it really does seem that there is no prospect of the Assembly functioning again.

My second point is related to what the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, was talking about. Where are we going when we talk about moving forward? I had the privilege of being in the other place where I heard the Minister answer the various questions that were asked. An honourable Member asked why the talks were being deferred, and the Minister replied that there had not been enough time to prepare. I do not think that lack of time to prepare has been a problem, by and large, in Northern Ireland. There has been all of this century and most of the last, so I do not understand this lack of preparation. What is the real hold-up? I worry that a vacuum is being created, and vacuums in Northern Ireland are not a good thing. Idle hands tend to find something to fill them. What is the score in terms of moving forward?

4.24 p.m.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I would like to respond to the points made by the noble Lords, Lord Glentoran and Lord Shutt of Greetland. In his opening remarks, the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, said that there was little new in the report and that the people of Northern Ireland knew what had been happening to them. He is quite right. The report reflects what is happening on the ground. As he said, it does not necessarily make very pleasant reading.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, spoke about "soft areas". There are no areas where the security forces do not operate and where the rule of law does not run in Northern Ireland. Of course, it is harder to operate in some areas than others, but the police nevertheless do operate. I know that the Chief Constable takes very seriously the activity set out in the IMC report. He is and always has been determined to tackle these problems. The noble Lord knows that the establishment of a crime operations department, the introduction of the national intelligence model, engagement in the Organised Crime Task Force and engagement with the Assets Recovery Agency all build on the Police Service of Northern Ireland's expertise in tackling paramilitary activity.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, also asked about the normalisation process. I reassure the noble Lord that the normalisation programme annexed to the joint declaration of May last year has not begun, nor will it begin until the necessary enabling environment is in place. He also pressed me on would happen next, as did the noble Lord, Lord Shutt of Greetland. We all know that the events of 20 February created a hiatus in the review process. It is important that we now do all that we can to resume dialogue. There are important issues on the review agenda and the sooner that we can get back to them the better. Noble Lords will be aware that the two Governments are meeting tomorrow at the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, where we shall take stock on the future shape of review activity. My right honourable friend said in another place that we hope that the intensive discussions that we had anticipated starting next week will now resume a little later in the summer.

On having the same rules in Belfast as in Dublin, we have made it absolutely clear that there is no future for devolved government in Northern Ireland except where all its Members are committed to exclusively democratic and peaceful means. We will continue to make that point.

The issue of salaries was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, who also made wider points about the proposed sanctions. The Commission makes it clear that, had the Assembly now been functioning. we would have recommended in respect of Sinn Fein and the Progressive Unionist Party measures up to and possibly including exclusion from office", which is the highest sanction provided for under the 1998 scheme. However, the Assembly is not functioning, and the Commission found a different sanction more appropriate. We believe that the act of imposing these measures as well as the substance of them demonstrates clearly the unacceptability of the conduct revealed in the report.

We should not forget that crimes continue to be investigated by the police and the perpetrators brought to justice. This is not an "either/or". We are working to the political elements that the report has identified. Indeed, it talks about the nature of political leadership in this respect, which is an important matter for us to address.

On the wider point of salaries in the Assembly, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has made it clear that he will conduct some kind of review of that in the not-too-distant future.

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, can the Minister give an undertaking on the Customs and Excise point?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, my apologies for not responding to that point. I believe that the noble Lord asked me to assure him that the full force of Customs and Excise will be made available. I can assure him on that point.

4.31 p.m.

Lord Rogan

My Lords, I, too, welcome the Statement repeated by the Lord President, and the report from the International Monitoring Commission. The report highlights the stark truth about the continued paramilitarism, racketeering and gangsterism in Northern Ireland today. It uses plain language to spell out the nature of those activities and the groups behind them. As has been discussed today and on previous occasions, the proceeds of those heinous crimes fund political parties—the very same political parties that the IMC has recommended taking action against. There is therefore a clear case that, alongside the financial penalties announced today, the Government should also use the findings of the report to bolster the resources and powers of the Assets Recovery Agency, so that moneys gained through these illegal activities are once again cut off from the perpetrators of the crimes. Moreover, the Secretary of State should use his powers under the prisoner release legislation to ensure that those responsible are taken from our streets once and for all.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, for his comments. In response to the questions raised by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, I made it absolutely clear that the Police Service of Northern Ireland will work with all those who have a responsibility in this respect, including the Assets Recovery Agency.

The IMC made clear that all politicians and others in prominent roles must exert every possible influence to bring about a cessation of paramilitary activity. The Commission notes that organised crime does not recognise borders. This is something that needs to be tackled not only in Northern Ireland but more broadly. I am happy to be able to tell the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, that the Assets Recovery Agency, the new body, is working well.

Lord Kilclooney

My Lords, does the Minister recall that when we reached the Belfast agreement in 1998, the southern Irish Government were specifically excluded from the internal affairs of the Northern Ireland Assembly? Does she recognise now that a representative of the southern Irish Government has been involved for the first time in deciding the affairs of the Northern Ireland Assembly? That is a precedent for a representative of the southern Irish Government to be making recommendations as to the payments for Members of the Assembly and whether they should be suspended. This is a historic moment: the Dublin Government are involved in the internal affairs of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Secondly, does the Minister recognise that throughout Northern Ireland, among both the nationalist and Unionist communities, the Government will be laughed at for their decision to have minimal deductions in moneys made available to Sinn Fein, which is one of the richest political parties in Europe? Sinn Fein will laugh, the SDLP will be horrified, and Unionists will laugh as well. The Government have acted very badly in that matter. It will have no impact whatever.

Thirdly, and regrettably, does the Minister recognise that Sinn Fein/IRA, by continuing its violence, holds a veto over the establishment of a devolved government at Stormont? Therefore, regrettably, the Government must soon proceed with the decision that a devolved government on the basis of the Belfast agreement is unattainable and that sooner rather than later the suspended Assembly will have to be dissolved.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, asked me three questions. I shall seek to answer all of them.

On the first point, about the representative from the Irish Government, the IGC terms make it absolutely clear where that representative can be involved. If the noble Lord would like me to spell that out in greater detail, I shall be very happy to do so in writing.

As for the deductions that have been taken and the decisions made in relation to the sanctions, the noble Lord will know, having looked at the report, that we are carrying out the recommendation made by the IMC. If the Assembly had been sitting, of course, different sanctions would have been available. I recognise that to a certain extent that is symbolic—it is an expression of disapproval. But it is very important, having said that we would carry out the recommendations made to us by the IMC, that we seek to do so to the best extent possible.

On the noble Lord's final point, he will be aware that we have been working together through this process, trying to ensure that there is an inclusive process that leads to greater stability and to devolved government in Northern Ireland. That is our aim, and we shall continue to seek to achieve that.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, while I understand some of the misgivings expressed on the Liberal Democrat Benches, on balance I welcome this report and the Government's proposal for action with effect from 28 April. The level of murders and personal violence described in the Statement is clearly unacceptable, even if it is much lower than that which prevailed before 1994. The question therefore arises of how we reduce and prevent that violence.

I suggest to the Leader of the House that a combined effort is required, through public opinion, particularly as is articulated and expressed through the Churches and voluntary organisations, through the legitimate constitutional political parties and, of course, through all government agencies, some of which have been mentioned already, notably the security services. Do the Government accept that such a combined effort is necessary and will they, in conjunction with the Irish Government, give that kind of leadership from day to day? Will they orchestrate a campaign to eliminate violence and thus to give the Belfast agreement a chance to function as was intended?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I must say to the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, that I feel that the Government have been seeking to give precisely the kind of leadership that he has just articulated. Of course, a combined effort is required. We could not achieve what we want without the people of Northern Ireland themselves wanting to see it achieved, and they have made their views on these matters absolutely clear. Of course, we need to have the parties on board, which is why we have sought to maintain an inclusive process while making it absolutely clear that paramilitary activity must end. Of course, the government agencies need to be involved, and the role in this process of the Police Service of Northern Ireland and other agencies, including Customs and Excise, is absolutely crucial.

Viscount Brookeborough

My Lords, in thanking the Minister for the Statement, I would also like to condemn the two recent letter bombs, or suspected letter bombs, one of which was sent to one of my colleagues on the Policing Board.

The report has brought home for the first time to everybody in Westminster as a whole what we have been saying for a long while; I refer to what is going on on the ground. The Commission has made a tremendous job of producing the report in a short time. However, people should not consider that it gives the whole story; the Commission would say that it would have liked more time.

I take minor issue with one point, which is given on page 19, where the Commission states: The situation we now address is much better". Will the Lord President say exactly what that refers to? There is only one graph in this report that shows any improvement, which relates to the recent number of deaths attributable to paramilitaries and goes back only to 1998.

The Commission has not existed for long and we must go back further than that to the first cease-fire, for instance. There was a period between about 1994 and 1997 when things improved dramatically. If one takes out the reduction in the number of people being killed, every other statistic is worse than it was in that period. The other graphs show that matters are going on steadily. The one graph which goes back any distance is on page 20, which covers paramilitary-style shootings and assaults. It shows a dramatic increase. Therefore I differ on accepting that conditions are better. I feel that when the Commission produces its next report, and I ask the Minister when that will be, it will show that in the very short term things may, in its view, be slightly better, but in the medium term they are worse than they have been for some time.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, the noble Viscount has identified the complexity of the situation with which we are dealing. The report makes absolutely clear—I am looking at page 25—that while the number of murders, attacks on security forces and bombings by paramilitaries has sharply decreased, the level of other paramilitary violence has been, and continues to be, considerably higher than before the Belfast agreement. The report goes on to extrapolate from that.

The Commission has been asked to report twice yearly so I am anticipating that the next report will he in about six months' time.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, I also very much welcome this report and am greatly encouraged by it, with the reservations that have been expressed around the House, but I have two questions. First, are any steps going to be taken to publicise this report in the United States? It is surely a reasoned counter to the claims made by Sinn Fein in the article for which it paid. Secondly, will the Commission address the issue of the impossibility of people speaking to the press about what happens to them or turning to the police about it? I make a distinction between what the police do and the degree to which the community feels free to go to them. I should like answers to those two questions.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, the answer to the first question on publicising the report in the United States is, "Yes". Steps will be taken to do that. One of the members of the IMC is nominated by the United States Government.

On the noble Baroness's second point, which I think is asking whether the IMC will be able to investigate the difficulties that individuals have in speaking openly about what has happened to them, one of the things that the IMC made clear in this report is that it did not rely on evidence from security sources but went elsewhere to get the kind of evidence used in this report. It has made it clear that this is something that it will want to continue to do. I am sure that it will take on board the debate that we are now having on this issue and I shall come back to the noble Baroness with more detail on this point if I can.