HL Deb 28 April 2004 vol 660 cc813-55

5.10 p.m.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville

rose to call attention to the situation in Northern Ireland; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, your Lordships' House often dilates on Northern Ireland but generally on primary and secondary legislation. Those who take part know each other fairly well. It is rare for us to have a more general debate. I remark neutrally that we are not taking this opportunity today in government time, but I also note the symbolism that this is the day on which the Government are due to bring in the measure that relates to the block financial assistance to political parties on which the IMC has recommended action. It is also a real pleasure that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwell, who is taking part in the debate, should himself be an Ulsterman.

It was therefore good of the Secretary of State, in the context of today's debate, to make himself available to some of your Lordships at lunchtime today. I have apologised to the Leader of the House for my absence then. Let me now make amends of courtesy to the Secretary of State. I have attended every plenary session of the British-Irish Interparliamentary Body since 1997. These occur alternately in Great Britain and in the Republic, and the relevant host Minister speaks to the session and answers questions. There is no doubt in my mind that the present Secretary of State has given the best addresses and answered questions in the most productive way of all the four Secretaries of State in the past seven years.

I hope that he continues in office and in this vein, not least because, as we learnt recently in a sport that we share with Ireland, it is stayers that have been round the course before that most often win the Grand National. In the 32 years since 1972, my party was in office for 20 years with eight Secretaries of State, and the present governing party has been in office for 12 years with six Secretaries of State. The average Conservative Secretary of State therefore served 25 per cent longer than his comparable Labour opposite number. This relative longevity enables us to play the candid friend. We are allied to each other across the floor on the broad strategy; both sides remain entitled to make tactical observations on the practical performance of opponents.

This speech will dwell on some of the salient features of the current Northern Ireland landscape. The ceasefires, narrowly defined, have enhanced the economic prosperity of the Province. If there has been a fly in the ointment it has been that we have not seen a similar growing interaction between the economies of the Republic and the Province that the logic of the original Single European Act might have foreshadowed in a single island off the continental land mass. Some part of this can be attributed to the euro-pound interface but, more disturbingly, the principal arena in which cross-border trade has increased since the Good Friday agreement has been in the cross-border smuggling of fuel, a subject on which the Northern Ireland Select Committee in another place expressed itself in the previous Parliament but which has felt itself obliged to revisit in this Parliament as well.

All in the Chamber today are familiar with the reasons for the present stand-off and impasse in relation to the continuing suspension of the Assembly, although I must make allusion to the rumours that have circulated in Belfast that in September last year the Government assured Sinn Fein that the eventual elections before Christmas would take place. I personally find such rumours hard to credit because they attribute to the Government a combination of both inherent crassness and excessive risk. It would be helpful if the Leader of the House could deny those rumours categorically when she winds up the debate.

In the mean time, though the provisional, as so often, endures, both Governments—not least as the signatories to the Belfast agreement—must be aware of where the logic of their responsibilities could lie unless there is a breakthrough. The DUP has surprised some—although not myself—by its businesslike attitude to negotiations. In west Cork last week, at the British-lrish Interparliamentary Body, the Sinn Fein protagonists from the Dail expressed the interesting paradox that although it was not Sinn Fein's responsibility to deliver the IRA, it was its responsibility to deliver the DUP.

I shall not visit the Corrie reports. The Lord President and I have disagreed about these before and, because she had time then only to engage in asseveration rather than precise relevant detail about the way the Government's duty of care was executed, I should be interested if she chose to expand on the Government's acceptance of Judge Corrie's provisional findings when, as we understand it, some senior British officers had not themselves been interviewed by the judge.

The IMC report is necessarily a different and more distinct matter and I shall be surprised if it does not attract further attention in the debate. It covers a subject which both the Official Opposition and the Liberal Democrats have returned to again and again, not least through the relentless hammer blows of my noble friend Lady Park of Monmouth. While we all welcome the Secretary of State's article last Sunday in the Sunday Independent, some of us wonder why he could not have written it months ago instead of the mixture of hand-wringing, amounting almost to denial, which represented the Government's position on paramilitary activity over recent years on both sides of the community.

Truth and reconciliation have resurfaced over the past month. I have never found them a convincing read across to the Province from South Africa, not least because, in general, Africans make up well after conflict. Where the read across from South Africa is more ominous is in the ascent of crime. Far more white farmers have been murdered in South Africa than in Zimbabwe. In the Province, the Commons Select Committee—admittedly constrained to subjects from the reserved powers, as and when the Assembly has been sitting—has returned to crime in its various manifestations again and again for its inquiries. I have mentioned fuel smuggling already, but the Committee made the running on the financing of terrorism and its antidotes, on the drugs trade and on the separation of paramilitary prisoners at Her Majesty's Prison Maghaberry, to the latter of which I shall return.

When you combine these with the IMC findings and the detailed Northern Ireland statistics in the 2002–03 report of the independent reviewer of the Terrorism Act 2000, the noble Lord, Lord Carlile of Berriew, you can understand the black humour of one target of terrorism who said in Belfast that it was not the bullet that had his name on it that worried him but the one that was marked "To whom it may concern".

If I may change gear momentarily, but on the same track, the Government have seemingly accepted that they could not have got through your Lordships' House the rehabilitation into the Province of the "on the runs" currently in exile as long as others were sent into exile by the paramilitaries within the Province, in travesties of judicial procedure for which the phrase "kangaroo courts" would have been overcomplimentary, and not allowed to return.

However much I recognise that these exiles might upon return be at risk from families that they may earlier have injured, I still find distasteful the Sinn Fein plea in defence that it was not in its power to go against the views of the communities to which these exiles would be returning. If the peace process means anything it means the exercise of leadership in such cases.

It remains a puzzle that in the West Park agreement concerning the republican OTRs, the Government should ever have imagined that their unilateral concession would wash with British public opinion, which generally errs on the side of balance and fairness. It has been one of the weaknesses of this Administration that, ever since 1997, apart from the occasional forays of the Deputy Prime Minister into industrial relations cruces, the Prime Minister himself has had to be on contact standby, like a nominated infantry battalion, as the Government's sole permanent reserve.

It was this uniqueness which underlay the Prime Minister's unsubstantiated and undeliverable pledge to the unionists about decommissioning during the post-Good Friday referendum. It reasserted itself in that bizarre occasion when the unionists were set a deadline of 15 July, three days after 12 July, the unreality of which I could only attribute to officials without in-depth experience on the ground in Northern Ireland.

We all know that the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin would rather treat with the Cabinet Office in Downing Street than with the Northern Ireland Office at Stormont Castle but, from the point of view of this debate, there are too many cases where the stark facts of the matter imply that No. 10 has overruled the NIO for larger reasons of state. When I think back to the way in which deeply courageous Inland Revenue officials took on the same mantle against IRA racketeering as had clothed Internal Revenue Service officials in the United States against Al Capone, I cannot find it in myself to believe that Belfast based officials would have dreamt up the unique concession to Sinn Fein on its US sources of income within the UK-wide laws on electoral expenditure. Nor can I believe, after all the experiences of the Troubles, that Belfast would have gone along with the revival of separation of paramilitary prisoners at Maghaberry.

When the Prime Minister came to the Liaison Committee to give evidence on 3 February this year, the right honourable Michael Mates, MP, as chairman of the Commons Select Committee, in question 78, described the decision in the summer of 2003 to give prisoners in Northern Ireland separate recognition as paramilitaries, and to separate them, as having been against the advice of the governor of the prisons, against the advice of Prison Service headquarters and against the consensus that was reached within the Northern Ireland Office.

Despite that serial opposition, the decision went through. In reply to Mr Mates, the Prime Minister said that he could not honestly recall exactly what No. 10's input had been, but that he would find out and write to Mr Mates about it. As I understand it, although I have not seen the text of the subsequent letter from the Prime Minister, responsibility for the decision was transferred back to the Northern Ireland Office. I presume that meant the Secretary of State, because a decision of that moment, rich with sonorous echoes down the decades, would have been above the pay grade of junior Ministers.

Of course, we on these Benches understand the Prime Minister's involvement in matters as significant as the peace process. Of course, we recognise that, during the war in Iraq, the Prime Minister might have been unsighted on a matter of detail as to who precisely took the decision about Maghaberry. However, we can perhaps also be entitled to conclude that optimal decision-making on matters of that sensitivity might be more likely if ministerial supervision of Cabinet Office interventions did not rely so completely on the Cabinet's one strategic reserve in the form of the Prime Minister. One's memory can play one false, but mine seems to tell me that Mr Jonathan Powell was at one stage embarrassed by the revelation of the contents of a wire-tap of one of his conversations with Mr Gerry Adams or Mr Martin McGuinness. If we are only occasionally to debate Northern Ireland, bluntness may sometimes have to overcome the gentler instincts of diplomacy. The peace between our islands is too important to be relegated to the margins of the Prime Minister's consciousness.

Let me end on an optimistic note. The late and still lamented Lord Williams of Mostyn had many fine moments in relation to Northern Ireland in your Lordships' House, but the finest in my view was the way he lit up Winston's dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone—counties where electoral mayhem had occurred in the general election of 2001. Lord Williams rewrote the recent Northern Ireland electoral reform Bill as it passed through your Lordships' House. Such an opportunity has not yet arisen for the Minister, but I am sure that your Lordships' House is confident that when it does, she will rise to the occasion in the same way as the late Lord Williams so memorably did a little before his death. That potential resource of the noble Baroness is the more important because of the loss that the Northern Ireland Office has sustained in the recent past, to solve government personnel problems in Great Britain, of junior Ministers of such outstanding quality as Jane Kennedy and Desmond Browne. It has been a privilege to open the debate. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

5.23 p.m.

Lord Shutt of Greetland

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville, on initiating our debate. I apologise to the Minister for the fact that neither my colleagues nor I were able to be present at the meeting with the Secretary of State this lunchtime. It might have been a more congenial affair as a result. I do not know. However, we have been to those meetings on many occasions, and we are grateful that the Secretary of State is able to share his thoughts with us. I also welcome the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwell to our debates on Northern Ireland.

The Motion in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, is to, call attention to the situation in Northern Ireland; and to move for Papers". As far as Northern Ireland is concerned, I am not short of papers. I do not complain that I am inundated with them. It is useful to receive the various documents that arrive daily from Northern Ireland informing us of what is going on there, as well as various documents that will ultimately need the approval of this House.

Of course, that is a result of the non-functioning of the devolved parliament. That is why we are recipients of those papers. I shall return to that matter shortly, but I shall refer briefly to another paper that your Lordships will have received. Through the good offices of the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, we have received a splendid picture book, Excellence Northern Ireland. It is more than 200 pages long. It is large, in colour and well presented. In it, the landscape, the peoples and the achievements of Northern Ireland are described. It is a very positive book, particularly in the way it portrays the landscape and elements of a vibrant economy. The Troubles have a place in the script only to tell a positive story. There are one or two instances where the book states that, arising out of the Good Friday Agreement", certain things are now happening.

The reality is that there is another Northern Ireland. Most recently, we have heard of the Northern Ireland as reported by the Independent Monitoring Commission. I am delighted that my noble friend Lord Alderdice is able to speak in the debate later on. As I said at the time of its publication, the IMC document speaks about fewer deaths but more damage. Page 20 features bar charts of the numbers of paramilitary-style shootings and assaults in four-year periods. In three of those four-year periods, those numbers have gone upwards. During the 14 months of the study, those numbers remain highly significant.

We learn in that document of the linkages between the paramilitaries and two of the political parties and we learn of the sanctions. Noble Lords may have received documents or e-mails from Sinn Fein, in which it almost yells at the IMC report. It is almost a case of "no fair play here". The reality is that the shootings and assaults took place. I worry about whether the sanctions could get in the way of future progress, particularly bearing in mind that several people are exempt from them.

One other feature of the situation in Northern Ireland is that an election took place only last November. Under the PR system in Northern Ireland, 25.7 per cent of the electorate voted for the DUP; 23.5 per cent voted for Sinn Fein; and 22.7 per cent voted for the Ulster Unionist Party. Nearly a quarter of those who chose to vote voted for Sinn Fein. It is inconceivable that Sinn Fein is only a part of the problem because of its link with the IRA. It must be part of the solution.

In this House, despite those percentages, contributions from Northern Ireland are predominantly from a political party that is now third in the province. One cannot conceive of Sinn Fein being here. That fact shows the imbalance of our debates. It is important for there to be balance in proceedings.

Had my colleagues and I been at the meeting, we might have heard more about the prospect of talks. If the Minister is able to give us any more information, that would be welcome. However, if there is to be no success, some of us are now wondering where do we go from here. Of course, one can imagine all sorts of other ways in which to try to make a break-through. But I want to come back to all those papers. The scrutiny of what is happening in Northern Ireland in terms of public policy is clearly not a real possibility. My noble friend Lord Smith and I would have to take on an army of 10 people to help us to get through all the documents. We are not able to do the work properly. If we are not going to go forward and make another leap in terms of the governance of Northern Ireland, we shall have to study the scrutiny issue further. Otherwise, Northern Ireland will become even more of a paradise for civil servants and quangos.

5.30 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Southwell

My Lords, we are indeed in debt to the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, for the timeliness of his nomination of this debate on the situation in Northern Ireland. There is a public perception, in some quarters certainly, that the problems of Northern Ireland are a thing of the past: there are fewer bombs, fewer murders and fewer assassinations. It is now nearly 10 years since the ceasefires were called in the autumn of 1994. However, the events and issues in the IMC report remind us that peace, reconciliation and normalisation of civic society are not to be achieved overnight. Peace is a very fragile thing, as we know.

I should like to make a small contribution to this debate to help to enlarge the picture of the situation in Northern Ireland by referring to some of the public efforts of the Christian communities, the para-Church organisations and the ecumenical bodies.

My good friend the noble and most reverend Lord, Lord Eames, has asked me to apologise for his absence from this debate due to the pressure of Anglican business—let the hearer understand. He encouraged me to remind the House that the role of Churches in reconciliation has not always been recognised. The good news is that regular meetings of Protestant and Roman Catholic priests at grassroots level are increasingly common. Four of the main Church leaders—of the Church of Ireland and the Roman Catholic, Presbyterian and Methodist Churches—now meet regularly and stand in public solidarity for reconciliation.

The problems may have had a religious identity but they are now recognised much more as political and social. However, although politics is an important fact in the scene, it is only part of the peace process. Ordinary attitudes need to be addressed as well. That is where I believe that faith communities have an important role to play.

We live in a world in which faith is increasingly in danger of being privatised. Belief in God is often a matter of personal conviction that has little relevance to our behaviour beyond individual piety. There is no doubt that in Northern Ireland, as in many places, Christians have sometimes held faith as if they did not belong to a wider, troubled community—or else, amid the clashing cultural, political and sectarian identities, Christians have sometimes been hard to distinguish as people of faith. It is most encouraging that many are now striving to develop a spirituality of social engagement—striving to see how that spirituality and the wisdom and disciplines of the different faith traditions can inform their commitment to peace, justice and reconciliation. I believe that those engaged need to be given every possible encouragement.

Many in the Churches in Northern Ireland continue to show the resilience and commitment to peace born out of the deep spiritual insights of their Christian faith. It sustained them through the worst days of the troubles, inspired their peace making and now, in the hard work of peace building, it is their basis for hope and transformation towards normal society.

In that regard, it is worthy of regard that the new Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland is the Reverend Ken Newell. Mr Newell, as reported by David McKittrick in the Independent on Monday, is one of the key group of Protestant clergy who contributed to dialogue with Sinn Fein in the dark days before the IRA ceasefire in 1994. Out of their good relations with Roman Catholic colleagues and because they are prepared to take risks for their people, those men and women continue to provide points of challenge and opportunity for change to those who genuinely search for a peaceful and better future for all the people of Northern Ireland.

Whether working alongside or within local community development groups, mediating on interface disputes, encouraging victim support groups or even continuing to sit and challenge those connected with paramilitaries, churchmen and churchwomen engage with realities for making the future of Northern Ireland better for all. Their faith and experience tells them that it will not be easy; they know that transformation and change for both individuals and communities is a long, long road. Such change is harder in terms of moral courage than the certitudes of past conflicts. Church leaders, such as those from the Protestant Churches who sit with the Loyalist Commission, which was an initiative of the Church of Ireland, know more than most that it is necessary to deal with the criminality and brutal control of paramilitaries, which has no place in normal society. But they also know that we must do so in such a way that continues to offer hope and does not close down the possibility and opportunity for change by those who have in the past been part of the paramilitary structures.

The call by the IMC for statutory commercial and community organisations to sever such links puts those Church people who take faith-inspired risks in the commitment to conflict transformation at odds with that recommendation. That my colleagues in the Christian Churches are willing to persevere in their dialogue with those looking for a way out of paramilitarism is more than just a pragmatic necessity. It arises from an engagement that understands sectarianism, not simply as a disease of paramilitaries or the prerogative on the interfaces but as the deep malaise in the hearts and minds of many in Northern Ireland society. Making some sections of society the scapegoat is not the answer. To heal the wounds of conflict requires not only those who cause them but those who nurture them to take responsibility. There are many who may not have pulled the trigger but have pointed their hearts in bitterness and enmity towards their neighbour.

The noble and most reverend Lord, Lord Eames, has impressed on me continually the need to see political progress for devolution and the dangerous vacuum through the continuing failure of the IRA and loyalist groups to disarm. I believe that the way ahead is incarnational, through human contact and relationship. That is something that communities and organisations such as the Corrymeela community, the Evangelical contribution in Northern Ireland, and other ecumenical trans-denominational bodies have striven to facilitate. I am also sure that the recent meeting between the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury and the President of the Republic of Ireland is yet another one of those small but encouraging steps in the growing development of a spirituality of social engagement for reconciliation—something that I believe that each one of us can play a part in through our own personal engagement.

5.38 p.m.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, for enabling us to have this debate and for his graceful reference to me, of which I feel very proud.

The Cory collusion inquiry and the first report of the Independent Monitoring Commission have both been recently published. So has the spring 2004 news sheet of the Organised Crime Task Force, following the assessment of the threat from serious organised crime in Northern Ireland. In the collusion inquiry, Judge Cory says that, during the Weston Park negotiations, which were an integral part of the implementation of the Good Friday Accord, six cases wore selected to be reviewed to determine whether a Public Enquiry should be held". The cases were to be reviewed to establish whether evidence of collusion by the security services, the army and the police existed, and Judge Cory claims to have found collusion. He believes that any failure to hold immediate public inquiries would be a denial of the Belfast agreement and are, essential if public confidence in the police, the Government and the administration of justice is to be restored". He has evidently not noticed that the police force has been radically changed and that it does enjoy widespread confidence—as, indeed, it always did. He says that a failure to have these inquiries would be seen as a cynical breach of faith which could have unfortunate consequences for the peace accord.

I have read two of the four reports; I will say only that they show a quite amazing lack of understanding of the workload of the hard-pressed police in particular when the country was actually in a state of war. Good judgment and fairness do not strike me as notable features of these reports. This is a political exercise which will produce a series of Bloody Sunday inquiries at considerable cost, while no such inquiries can be made into murders by the IRA and the loyalists; for instance, into the "disappeared".

It is a pleasure to turn to the robust first report of the monitoring commission which, while dealing evenhandedly with IRA and loyalist paramilitaries, states bluntly that: PIRA is engaged in the use of serious violence which we believe is under the control of its most senior leadership, whose members must therefore bear responsibly for it". It makes the salient point that while the commission recognises that without Sinn Fein there might not have been a PIRA ceasefire in the first place, by the same token 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.

Later the report identifies a vital aspect of paramilitary violence: the intention to maintain control of the population and to present PIRA as an alternative criminal justice system. While this continues, the IRA will continue to do all it can to destroy the police and the organs of justice. The commission points out that there was already a decision by the leaders to restrict attacks on the people during the Assembly election period, as there had been earlier, during President Clinton's visit, when they were actually planning the Canary Wharf bomb.

The report also notes the attacks by the Real IRA—in my view, a useful unacknowledged part of the Provisional IRA—on the district policing partnerships. The commission recognises that: The level of paramilitary violence has been and continues to be considerably higher than before the Belfast Agreement", and makes the point with which I warmly agree that the debate should move on, from one about ceasefires and breaches of ceasefires to one about the totality of illegal paramilitary activities". Not least it says: The people of Northern Ireland should not have to suffer violence which in equivalent terms would cause outrage elsewhere in the UK and in Ireland". The report, in its conclusion, urges a high priority for combating organised crime and resourcing the agencies engaged in doing so. It requires paramilitary groups, and that includes the bullyboys on the streets, to decommission all illegally held weapons and to cease all criminal activity.

So it is an admirable report until we come to Annex III and the pitifully small sanctions which the commission is free to recommend. These are sanctions aimed at, in the case of the IRA, the richest party in Ireland, north or south. It is largely funded by crime, is intent on destroying the police and is fully under the control of a political group that must surely be beginning to be a serious threat to the whole of Ireland. It is vital to destroy the paramilitaries by exposing their political masters to relentless publicity, especially in the United States.

What is needed is to build up the very effective campaign being carried out by the admirably organised taskforce, which is saving the Exchequer £1.5 billion in one field of crime alone and £600 million in another. To achieve this the police, Customs and a wide range of citizens are working together. The taskforce threat assessment says that extortion is a cornerstone of fundraising by paramilitary organisations and that 65 per cent of cases could not be pursued by the police because the complainant asked for no police action. The paramilitaries are making money from drugs, cash in transit robberies, fraud and high-tech crime, including theft of intellectual property. They would destroy the economy—they control over two-thirds of organised crime in Northern Ireland—as well as the people but for this admirable taskforce.

The monitoring commission has recognised its importance and value for, in attacking crime, it will destroy the paramilitaries and their power over the people and it will expose for the world to see the political figures who benefit from these crimes and condone them. The commission believes that those in a position of leadership in the various paramilitary groups should be held personally and publicly to account. The taskforce says that: Publicity is a very important element of all law enforcement work", and their excellent newssheet, "Response", reports that Professor Goldstock, a distinguished American with wide experience, believes that the influence of paramilitary organisations needs to be eliminated and that part of that could be achieved by removing their murals and symbols.

The Sinn Fein/IRA leaders need to be denounced publicly. Resources should be made available for this, such as money to take out advertisements in the United States, as Sinn Fein did, and in the EU setting out what the paramilitaries do to the community in terms of crime and violence and the cost to the country in economic and human terms. What politician could defend that? It would also be a means of demonstrating what the police are doing and would give comfort to victims. Not least, young voters both north and south need to have their often romantic view of the IRA as a brave resistance movement corrected. Let them see the IRA for the criminal organisation that it is and the police for the decent, hardworking professionals they are.

We should at least ensure that the cases of the IRA penetration of Stormont and the break-in at the special branch are brought to the courts without further delay. This would do much to demonstrate to the public that Sinn Fein/IRA is not above the law and that the police, overworked as they are, have delivered what is need for judicial action in the courts. Why must the process take so long?

I warmly welcome the Secretary of State's article of 25 April. For the first time in years, the Government are recognising unequivocally that in Sinn Fein/IRA they are not dealing with normal political representatives of a particular group in society, but with men who knowingly allow and actually encourage, as they certainly control, the armed and brutal psychopaths, the so-called paramilitaries, to carry out daily, not only a wide range of crimes which cost the country billions, but the brutal oppression of their own community, which is left without hope of redress.

The Government have allowed the Bloody Sunday inquiry to cost the country £120 million so far and will now, no doubt, spend as much again on the Cory inquiries. Although, in fairness, I must say that we were told today by the Secretary of State that there would be a mechanism of some kind that will restrain the cost of those inquiries: I hope that the Leader of the House will correct me if I am wrong. Nevertheless, there must be costs.

What we must now do is to spend serious money on, first, cutting off the source of Sinn Fein/IRA's funds. This the Government are already trying to do. Next they must end the power of Sinn Fein/IRA to set up a so-called alternative system of justice, which not only does not deliver justice but attempts to replace and discredit the police and the forces of law and order. Last, but by no means least, every time that the paramilitaries of both persuasions beat not only men, but also children, half to death, the blame must be publicly laid at the feet of the political leaders involved.

Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness refused to intervene to allow witnesses to the Omagh bomb to testify, despite the fact that they claim that it was not the Provisional IRA but the Real IRA that was responsible, because they said that they did not recognise British courts or British justice and now they kill new Catholic entrants to the police force because they will be satisfied only with their own people's police; where have we heard that phrase before? Each time an incident occurs, they should be required to comment publicly and be reminded that they are the leaders in whose names children are brutally destroyed and young men commit suicide in despair, to say nothing of the suffering of whole families who dare not go to the police and who are often exiled.

I shall begin to believe in the human rights commission when it speaks out daily about all this; I have not heard it doing so. What is it doing in the US and what are the Government doing to tell those who fund the IRA what is being done in their names? Public shaming by naming, not only the perpetrators, but the leaders who condone the act is the best weapon we have and I am glad that the Government are going down that path. It is high time, if we are not to have a generation of stunted, terrified human beings, the victims of unrestrained criminality and cruelty in this, our country. It is our children who are having to live in this hell.

5.49 p.m.

Lord Alderdice

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville, for enabling this debate to take place. The excellence of his timing is matched only by the characteristic elegance of his presentation.

I reflect back to the time when he was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, as, indeed, he did. It was he who introduced the notion, which I very much approved of then and still do, that communicating with those who were involved in violence and encouraging them to think about what they were doing was an essential component of moves towards any long-term peace. A number of the things that he said and did in the form of a long-range or slightly more than arm's length communication stimulated people to think. However, in the talks process in which he, I and many others were involved, we ran into a problem because those talks were based on a notion that had been present for many years—that the future was to be found in bringing together a successful devolution based on power sharing across what one might describe as a broad centre, and that this, if it were successful, would win the vast majority of people away from those on the extremes with sympathies for paramilitary organisations.

But the noble Lord will recall that at the time the leader of the SDLP, John Hume, was beginning to explore another idea with which he became very much identified and committed to, which was that of an inclusive process, by which he meant that everyone, including those outside the normal run of politics, should be included. I must confess that I had considerable reservations about that approach. I felt that there was a danger that such a process could lead to greater polarisation of the community and diminish the broad centre, by which I meant the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP as much as the Alliance Party. I was also of the view that if, in the end, Sinn Fein and loyalist representatives were not prepared to split from those who I believed were irrevocably committed within their organisations and irrevocably committed to the use of violence for political and other means, we would simply have an enormous problem. We would not solve the difficulties.

In the end, however, it became clear that without the SDLP there could not be any power sharing. Therefore, we had to proceed with such a process until it was either successful or exhausted, and so we embarked on what became known as the peace process. The essence of that was that there would be a suspension of the normal rules of law and politics in order to enable a transition to an all-inclusive peaceful, stable, reconciled community. From the start I advised Her Majesty's Government that any negotiation with republicans on the issue of peace ought to be with those who wielded the weapons—that is, with the Provisional IRA directly. It seemed to me that the choice of Sinn Fein as interlocutor was fraught with difficulty because the very creative ambiguity that would be necessary in order to establish the process would inevitably become the Achilles' heel of the whole process as people began to believe that there was no division but at the same time a separation.

It is not necessary to recount the whole of the subsequent process. However, it is important to point out that it was based on assumptions that the leaders of Sinn Fein were not only intent on an honourable peaceful settlement but were also able and willing to deliver the Provisional IRA—a view confirmed to some by their ability to deliver the 1994 ceasefires followed, of course, by the loyalist ceasefire. But there was also an assumption that after a reasonable period of transition Northern Ireland and the three sets of relationships within the Province—within Ireland north and south and within these islands—would be characterised by peace, stability and reconciliation, and that that prize would be sufficient to persuade the leaders of loyalism and republicanism to set aside those who were involved in violence. But the years up to 1998 were taken up with the achievement of the agreement, which was necessary, and since 1998 with the attempt to implement the agreement.

Ten years on from the ceasefire and six years on from the agreement, that agreement is not fully implemented. I think that is one of the few things on which there is no disagreement within Northern Ireland. That demonstrates to me that the agreement does not have within itself the necessary mechanisms to ensure its own implementation. That is why an International Monitoring Commission and other mechanisms have been necessary; that is, because the agreement on its own, on anyone's terms, has not been able to ensure its own implementation. The IMC was established to address the issue of paramilitary activity, security normalisation and, in the context of devolution, the lack of political trust which was endemic.

What is clear is that there has been a change in paramilitary activity by the Provisional IRA, the UVF and the UDA. There are far fewer attacks on security forces, although one should not, as often happens, forget the very substantial number of attacks on members of the Prison Service that have occurred over the past year or so. However, dissident republicans continue to attempt to attack the security forces. The Provisional IRA, the UVF, the UDA and other loyalists have turned their attention to controlling their own communities. They have not, in the words of the Taoiseach, "retired", but they have followed very much what occurred when political and, subsequently, paramilitary efforts to deal with the issue of the Bourbons in Sicily led to the outcome of the Mafia. We should take that outcome very seriously. It is one that happened not only there but in other places and is, it seems to me, a very serious threat to the people of Northern Ireland and to their stability in the long term.

The IMC's responsibility is to follow the evidence wherever it takes it and to report it as it is. It is for others to address the political, security and other consequences, but it is for us to shine a spotlight, particularly on those who operate in the shadows. Our purpose is not, in the words of the press, to "name and shame", as in my view humiliating people rarely solves a problem and it often creates many, but is to hold people personally and publicly to account for the things in which they involve themselves. We are all familiar with the fact that in your Lordships' House we are able to be held to account not necessarily by electors but by having to account for the various responsibilities that we have and the involvements that we have outside your Lordships' House by way of publicly notified lists.

However, it is not the case that all of those involved in activities in Northern Ireland are quite so prepared publicly to own up to all of the things in which they are involved. One of the responsibilities of the IMC is to proceed on that course, but to proceed with due process, not to damage but to help, and to recognise the human rights of all concerned. That is why we shall communicate in the very near future with many of those who we have reason to believe are in authority in paramilitary organisations.

The right reverend Prelate referred to the need for dialogue. Of course, he is absolutely right. But he will also recall that there is a biblical injunction to be as wise as serpents as well as harmless as doves. It seems to me that there is a need to recognise that there are those who do not want to give up the possibility of using violence because it has all sorts of secondary gain, both personally and potentially politically. To have "politics plus" in any circumstance may wreak an advantage over your political opponents. "Politics plus" in the Northern Ireland context does not mean merely money and the use of the press and the media, it also means the threat of the use of violence.

We must ensure that the boundaries of proper acceptable behaviour are the price of peace. We must be clear about that. It is not possible to have peace, stability and reconciliation unless everyone abides by the same reasonable and proper rules. A period of transition is appropriate, but we are 10 years on from ceasefires and we are six years on from the agreement. We must recognise a degree of hesitancy in certain quarters about confronting this last gnarled and difficult question.

At this point when faith in the agreement is at a lower point than it was even some years ago in many sections of the community in Northern Ireland, we may either be at a rather dark and difficult hour before a dawn, or we may just be at a dark and difficult hour. It is the IMC's commitment to try to move towards that dawn. I know that in that we have the support of Her Majesty's Government, the Government of the Republic of Ireland and all in your Lordships' House.

6 p.m.

Lord Fitt

My Lords, I am delighted to be able to follow the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, because of the position that he still holds on the IMC. I only wish that someone had spoken who had a position in the de Chastelain commission, which gives its opinion periodically on IRA disarmament. We never hear what those people's opinions are or what has been said. If one takes the noble Lord's remarks into their proper context, we can be quite certain that he is representing the views of Northern Ireland, this House and the other House to a full extent on the IMC.

There are three people present whom I want to congratulate. One is the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, and another is the noble Lord who initiated the debate. The third, also speaking in the debate, is a former Secretary of State, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew of Twysden.

It was said earlier by one of the Liberal Democrat Peers that there were two Northern Irelands at the moment. I certainly agree that the book that all of us in your Lordships' House and the Commons have received through the courtesy of the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, points out that, in Northern Ireland, there is a very optimistic future if we only want it. When one looks at the contribution made by Northern Ireland throughout the long years of history before partition, one can see that it has made a very great contribution to all sorts of subjects—industry, literature, the arts—throughout the United Kingdom. Therefore, I welcome the publication of that book, because it will let many noble Lords know that all is not doom and gloom in Northern Ireland.

On the other side of that is the ongoing existence of the criminal conspiracy by paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland and, it appears, the support that they elicit from the electorate there. It has been said repeatedly over many months and years that Sinn Fein is the richest political party not only in Northern Ireland, but in these islands. Much of its finance comes from criminal activities—smuggling, robbing and many other activities that would not be acceptable in this part of the United Kingdom.

The Government put through legislation to allow Northern Ireland political parties five years to get subscriptions and financial contributions from outside the United Kingdom. Other political parties in these islands were not granted that five-year extension. I remember advising against that legislation in this House, because I could see very clearly that giving the extension to Sinn Fein would make sure that it continued to reap in hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars from the United States of America. People there are still contributing and it is by their contributions, allied to the criminal activities of the paramilitaries, that Sinn Fein has been put into a position whereby it can fight elections, with money and finances no difficulty to it. That has led to it now being one of the largest parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, will be aware—he was personally involved at the time—of the position of the SDLP. I was a member of the SDLP; in fact, I formed it. It was a constitutional nationalist party. Its long-term aspiration was a united Ireland. However, in no way could it be associated with paramilitary activities. Certainly when I was the leader of the SDLP, there was never any danger of that. As the noble Lord said, John Hume, my successor as leader of the party, decided to bring about an all-inclusive set of politics in Northern Ireland and began negotiations with Sinn Fein/IRA through Gerry Adams. The position now is that if we ever to get an Assembly back in Northern Ireland with power sharing, which is far the best solution that we have ever had, the SDLP will have to dissociate itself from Sinn Fein. Sinn Fein depends on the SDLP being a nationalist party—therefore, with the same aspiration of a united Ireland—to keep it in its strong electoral position.

We are at the end of that process whereby the SDLP, as I have said before in this House, tried to drag Sinn Fein out of the political gutter and into legitimate politics in Northern Ireland. We are at the end of that road. Even though the SDLP will criticise Sinn Fein when it has commissioned some atrocity or seems not to agree with the police force in Northern Ireland, at the end of the day Sinn Fein knows that the SDLP will not desert it. There are no circumstances that I can see in which the SDLP will desert Sinn Fein.

Given that that is the reality of the present position, if we are to have inclusive government of the four main parties—the DUP, the UUP, Sinn Fein and the SDLP—we will never see a return of a power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland. Under the agreement on setting up the Assembly, there were, I think, 10 departments and enough MLAs in them to look after the everyday occurrences and the needs of the people in Northern Ireland. The noble Lord, Lord Shutt, referred to that. The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, was the Speaker of that Assembly, and he will know that there was quite a lot that could be done by those people acting on the ground.

Here, however, every day I go to my post box and get lots of paper. I lifted one paper up this morning that had been sent for us to give a decision. It is the Dunnabraggy Road, Moneymore (Abandonment) Order (Northern Ireland). I am quite certain that that will not keep anyone in this House up all night. We are too far removed from that. However, the MLA in Stormont would have known where the Dunnabraggy Road was, and someone would probably have made representations to him about it. That shows how far removed noble Lords are. The same thing is happening in the Commons, which is just as far removed from Northern Ireland activity. Under the direct-rule system, I am not too sure whether everyone in the House gets the load of bumf from Northern Ireland. If they do, I can see them lifting it up and putting it in the wastepaper basket in the Attendants' Office. Northern Ireland needs an Assembly.

As I said to one of my noble friends today, I go to Belfast every weekend and to County Antrim in particular. I go round various parts of Northern Ireland and talk to different people. By the way, there are certain parts of Northern Ireland where I cannot go. There are certain parts of my west Belfast constituency in which I am unable to set a foot, because of the danger of an attack from the Provisional IRA, which is still in existence. There are still many no-go areas in Northern Ireland, where the police and the Army cannot go. I go to places where it is reasonably safe. This is after the ceasefire, after the Assembly has been put into motion and we have had a long, drawn-out process.

But in talking to ordinary people every weekend, I find that the electors who actually voted in the recent elections do not give a damn whether or not the Assembly comes back. They have given up on it. As one fellow said to me recently, "I don't care if the Assembly never comes back as long as I get my giro every week". That is the note of despondency that exists among the ordinary electors in Northern Ireland. They do not care whether the Assembly comes back.

So are the Government intent on stymieing or refusing to fall into line with the demands that have been set by the IRA before it makes a return to Parliament? We are now in a complete stalemate. But the Government should not make any further concessions to the IRA in an attempt to get it back into Stormont. I believe that the Government should stick rigidly by the speech made by the Prime Minister in the Custom House in Belfast, when he said that there could be no return to democratic politics in Northern Ireland without paragraph 13 of the Joint Declaration. That meant that all those who were using arms to force their will on the people of Northern Ireland would have to give them up.

6.11 p.m.

Lord Mayhew of Twysden

My Lords, I am always diffident in following the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, who has always stood by his principles with such courage in a lifetime in Northern Ireland. My diffidence is increased tonight, because I think that I am the only speaker not to have received that great book about Northern Ireland from the noble Lord, Lord Rogan. I hope that that may be put right before too long.

In the first report of the Independent Monitoring Commission we have a mercilessly honest portrayal of an appalling scene. And yet, paradox though it may seem, it is possible to read the report with a sense of real relief. It is a privilege to be able to say that in the presence of one of its authors, the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, who has spoken so valuably.

That is because its stark and unambiguous language seems worlds away from the smudge and fudge to which we have become accustomed in the successive liturgies of the peace process in the past few years. I take as an example of the latter, the so-called "acts of completion" that are ritually demanded by those who themselves refrain from any act of commencement.

In the words of Mr Barry White, the veteran columnist in the Belfast Telegraph on 24 April, the IMC is, a body independent of government but wise in the ways of the world which is prepared to say out loud what we all knew: that some of the politicians who act as apologists for the paramilitaries are closer to the action than they have ever admitted". I share the gratitude that has already been expressed to my noble friend Lord Brooke for having given us the opportunity to discuss and examine the scene in Northern Ireland and fortuitously to do so in the light of the IMC's most welcome illumination—the spotlight to which the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, referred.

Personally, I have been greatly in my noble friend's debt since in 1992. Twelve years ago, I inherited the invaluable fruits of at least 12 months of brilliant work by him in securing an agreed basis for what came to be called the "talks about talks". I am inclined to believe that those talks helped to prepare the tortuous way for much of the undoubted progress that has since been made. It is of great pleasure to me to see the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux of Killead, in his place, because his courage and vision in taking his party's negotiators—or some of them at least—down to Dublin was just one of the mould-breaking "firsts" that were able to be achieved during those talks. Irish Ministers, no less than four of them, used to come to negotiate with, among others, the DUP and Mr Paisley. The sky did not fall in, although there was a good deal of thunder. That was the beginning of a process which I believe secured real advances in the subsequent years.

I return to the report. What the commissioners demand is, first, that reality be faced—and by everyone. They are utterly even-handed, as we all must be, in their denunciation of criminal violence and intimidation by whomsoever they are committed. These crimes, they report, are giving the paramilitaries on both sides an "increasing stranglehold" over some communities. The UVF and their political henchmen in the PUP are no less ruthless or vicious than the PIRA—and are killing and maiming almost twice as many victims.

The commissioners say: The people of Northern Ireland should not have to suffer violence which in equivalent terms would cause outrage elsewhere in the UK and in Ireland". The noble Baroness, Lady Park, mentioned that. The figures for the murders, shootings and assaults which they extrapolate from Northern Ireland to the whole of the UK since 1 January 2003 horrifyingly make their point. They can be found on page 25 of the report. This is a picture which, I am afraid, the Government, six years after the Belfast agreement and seven into their stewardship, will not expect to be greeted with congratulation.

The commissioners are not sparing of criticism of many in Northern Ireland who, with no connection with any such organisation, or any political party connected with them, display what they describe as a certain tolerance towards those organisations. In what I find an especially perceptive passage, the commissioners speak of paramilitary control being the greater, because of a degree of tolerance in circumstances in which that is not justified and not imposed … We think that this tolerance may be widespread but we find it entirely inappropriate. It is an issue which affects society as a whole, including statutory agencies". They say that they plan to return to that matter. I hope that they will. I have often experienced from some surprising people, after their ritual disclaimer of any support for violence, a distant look, a certain smile and the words: "But I can see where they are coming from".

I want now to turn from the general to the particular. The commissioners say: But PIRA nevertheless remains active and in a high state of readiness. It has been undertaking training in the early part of this year. It maintains a capability on intelligence, both on political events and on potential targets, and on weaponry. This provides ample evidence of an organisation maintaining its capacity to undertake acts of violence or to participate in a terrorist campaign if that seemed necessary to it". The PIRA is, they say, highly active in paramilitary shootings short of murder". It has been responsible for eight such attacks this year. It is engaged, they say, in the use of serious violence, which, we believe is under the control of its most senior members". This is the gang of which the commissioners find that some senior members of Sinn Fein are members, including, in their words, senior members". So intimate is their involvement that the commissioners say: We … want to make clear that had the Assembly been functioning we would have recommended in respect of Sinn Fein and the PUP measures up to and possibly including exclusion from office". The response by Messrs Adams and McGuinness to that perception has been revealing. It has been to reject the report and to impugn the independence of the commissioners. Apparently, they are poodles of the British intelligence services. That response speaks for itself. It has about it the degree of effrontery that they have made their specialism. They have, in some quarters, so often seemed to get away with that. But not this time, I suggest; not in the face of—to cite Mr White's words—this body independent of government but wise in the ways of the world.

On 24 April, the Irish Times described as "incredible" Mr Adams's denial in recent public exchanges with the Taoiseach and the Minister for Justice. The report, it said, had brought Sinn Fein and the IRA to the point of no return. They had to decommission their army if they wished to participate in devolved government.

What will the Government do now? We all look forward to the speech of the noble Baroness who will reply to the debate. So long as Sinn Fein and the PIRA continue in their course, the Government will surely continue the suspension of the Assembly. We must all hope that Ministers, together with us all, will draw lessons from the recent past.

The Belfast agreement was a bold act of hope, and no doubt also of faith, which put Sinn Fein and others to the test. It was right to take that step. I thought so at the time; I think so now. I am sure that the Government hoped—did we not all?—that the successive "acts of completion", each unilaterally made, would in time be requited. At the forefront of those, we must surely place the continued release of the convicted paramilitary prisoners, even though their associates were maintaining, and stepping up, their campaigns of violence and intimidation at the same time. That was a key decision.

Decommissioning remains a mirage more than a reality, yet that precious lever was unfortunately thrown away in unblushing breach of the Prime Minister's hand-written assurance. I suggest that this sequence of unilateral acts of completion must now come to an end. It is a mistake to reward betrayal, and the Government have been betrayed. The Government must surely now prosecute the war against terrorism consistently. As a sign of that, I suggest they should state that the on-the-runs—the OTRs—will face the full process of the criminal justice system if they return. They must not be shuffled back into the midst of their communities, as one understands was promised, with a minimum of criminal process.

I suggest that the Government must give their fullest support to the PSNI—support which Sinn Fein continues to withhold. Let them heed also the Chief Constable when he says that his job is to police the present and that, if he has to police the past, he cannot do his job. Let them, above all, heed the findings of the Independent Monitoring Commission and its future reports, and stand firm against all the assaults which will surely be made upon it and upon its stalwart members.

6.23 p.m.

Viscount Brookeborough

My Lords, I, too, thank my noble kinsman for bringing forward this debate today. I also welcome the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwell to one of our Northern Ireland debates.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, mentioned, in relation to the report, the readiness of the IRA to take up action again. I add only that nowhere is that more evident than where I live in County Fermanagh and our neighbouring county, County Tyrone. Four times the amount of military patrolling takes place there than in any other single area in Northern Ireland. It is due totally to what was brought out by the report.

I wish to concentrate on a major concern relating to the situation, which is the lack of a working Assembly and the lack of an Executive. The broad reason for that is the continued involvement of paramilitaries and their connections to some political parties in the Province.

I also congratulate the Independent Monitoring Commission on its first report. I believe that it surprised many with its blunt findings and the fact that it was not afraid to put them into print. I do not wish to go through everything that is in the report; it is all there for anyone who wishes to read it. It was put together by people of high reputation, and they are independent.

The report has also been supported in recent months by others in the Governments of the US, this country and the Irish Republic. Inasmuch as Sinn Fein would try to ridicule it, it remains the first accurate summary to be produced in such a way. It is an extremely valuable document and I believe that it changes our approach to the whole subject.

I shall concentrate on the organised crime aspect but, before doing so, I must declare an interest, first, as a member of the Policing Board and, secondly, by saying that my brother-in-law is in charge of moving large sums of cash around Northern Ireland for Securicor, and he comes to the attention of the paramilitaries all too often. However, I want to mention one topic in the commission's report which comes outside that area.

In paragraph 6.9, the commission refers to the imposition of local discipline, and I entirely support its view of the unacceptability of that. The beatings and shootings are well known, but less well known is the setting up of groups using the normally well respected title of "Restorative Justice". Elsewhere in the world, as in this country, such schemes involve the judicial and police departments. However, in Northern Ireland, such republican groups have no connection at all with anyone else—least of all the authorities. Can the Minister tell the House what the Government's policy is on such groups and whether their activities are legal, illegal or criminal? If they are the latter, are the Government prepared to act against them?

In paragraph 6.1, the commission states that it will come back to the subject of non-terrorist crime, funding and local control, which, due to the short timescale of the report, was difficult for it to do. In the context of the fight against organised crime, I want to say, first—at no time am I speaking for the whole Policing Board but as an individual—that we in Northern Ireland are very sorry that Jane Kennedy has left the NIO. As Minister of State and chairman of the Organised Crime Task Force, she was well respected and highly thought of. Her enthusiasm and approachability has made a tremendous difference since that force has come into being. We shall miss her.

Excise fraud and smuggling are the most lucrative form of organised crime in Northern Ireland. I am sorry but I want to add some figures to the report so that one sees what is really going on. In 2002, such fraud was estimated to amount to about £340 million.

Although the report has not yet been published, I understand that in 2003 there will be a rise in that figure of 7 per cent. In 2002, up to 20 per cent of all tobacco sold was smuggled. Estimates are that that percentage will rise to about 30 per cent over the next three to four years because tobacco presents such a difficult problem to counter. Last year, the seizures were down slightly at 31.5 million cigarettes, of which half were also counterfeited.

The counterfeiting of alcohol—especially vodka—is rife. Neat alcohol is imported in plastic sacks that normally go into the middle of wine boxes. It is also brought in disguised in creosote boxes. Stolen empty bottles are used and filled with watered-down smuggled counterfeit alcohol. The bottles are properly sealed—this is not a "round the corner" job—by a machine imported into the country, and they are fitted with new, counterfeit labels and sold as vodka.

Such fraud and smuggling funds paramilitaries on both sides, although perhaps the loyalists to a slightly lesser degree. As we have already heard, and as has been well documented in many places, the republicans are involved in the massive practice of fuel smuggling and fuel laundering, of which all noble Lords will have heard. Inland Revenue fraud is a target for paramilitaries in two areas—particularly the construction industry and in avoiding the tax on illicitly earned gains.

The paramilitaries are heavily involved with money laundering in order to reuse the money which they have made illegally. The Money Laundering Regulations 2001 have made it much more difficult but, as can be seen, organised crime has found ways in which to continue to launder as much, if not more, money than ever. They then invest it in legal businesses, and it becomes much harder to find. Although I shall not talk about it, the Assets Recovery Agency is key to this problem.

Another area is drugs, in which mainly loyalists are involved. Very large amounts of money are involved for small quantities of drugs. However, although the republican paramilitaries are not directly involved, some nationalists are, and the terrorist groupings on that side take their cut. It does not go on without their knowledge—nothing does.

Paramilitaries from both sides are using extortion as a cornerstone of fund-raising. The figure in paragraph 6.4 is but a small example. It is a day-to-day crime and the costs tend to be already built into contract bids from the start.

Intellectual property crime is estimated to be 7 per cent of all world trade, and in 2002, seizures by police of goods in Northern Ireland exceeded those by police in all other areas of the United Kingdom put together. That is just over 50 per cent. Last year, it totalled £6.77 million. That included some surprising items, such as clothing at £1.5 million, video games at £1.3 million and DVDs at £1.27 million. Even power tools are included; they are sold at markets, and are highly dangerous into the bargain because of the electronics. However, the 2003 figure is about £7.6 million, so it has gone up 10 per cent or thereabouts. I am not knocking the ability of the police—I support them absolutely, and not only as a member of the Policing Board. But these are the facts, and this is how difficult it is. That figure is accepted as 5 per cent of the market—more than £150 million. So it is a colossal sum.

Bank and cash in transit robberies are down by 38 per cent, which is a great success for the working relationship between these businesses, the robbery squad and the Organised Crime Task Force in particular. In 2002, the figure was 219 attacks. In 2003 it was well down at 136—in 92 of those cases, firearms were used. This is still a great deal of hard cash—a total of £1.5 million.

In general, the paramilitaries have been said not to be heavily involved. However, in one recent incident, which I shall not highlight here, it is quite clear that they were. Therefore, they may be more involved than we are aware of and recent reports have stated. At any rate, they still take a cut of up to 50 per cent, even when they are not involved.

The police service and many other bodies are doing their best to make Northern Ireland a safer place, but examples of a lack of joined-up communication repeatedly put their aims at risk. For instance, on 27 November 2003, Michael Nolan was given eight years for armed robbery. On 22 February 2004, he was given compassionate parole from the prison. He broke the conditions of his parole, and eventually came back. On 8 March, he was again given compassionate parole. There was no escort and he disappeared. What is more, the robbery squad was not told until 23 March. I know that the police service is not involved with the Organised Crime Task Force, but if that sort of thing is going on, there has to be something wrong.

Perhaps the last major form of organised crime is counterfeiting currency. Seizures peaked in 2002 at £750,000, but one particularly big incident distorted the figures. Last year, the figure returned to about £400,000. The paramilitaries are reaping an easy harvest. They were the first people in Newtownabbey to counterfeit euro notes, which they dispatched throughout the EU.

I have tried to explain that paramilitaries are even more active than one might suppose by reading this initial report.

I commented recently during the short debate on the Statement on the report that I took mild issue with the statement on page 19 about the situation being better as far as deaths were concerned. In 1995 there were eight deaths during the ceasefire, in 1996 there were 16 and in 1997 there were 22. Therefore, the figure of 13 this year is not the vast improvement that we might have hoped for, but it shows that the terrorists switch it on and off at will.

I would like to ask the Lord President of the Council, whether it is possible, even with the wildest stretch of the imagination, to believe that the paramilitaries could ever extricate themselves from their present level of involvement in illegal activities before the next report. What happens if they do not?

Even if they do, how many clear reports do they require before they are admitted back into the fold? In farming terms, if a cow goes down with TB and you have what is called a reactor, it is no good having one clear result—before you can trade again, you need two or three. Will this apply to the paramilitaries?

Due to time constraints, I have not commented on the Assets Recovery Agency, but I congratulate the Government on forming it and the manner in which it is carrying out its tasks.

6.35 p.m.

Lord Stewartby

My Lords, I rise to speak in this debate with considerable trepidation, because I have not in recent years been in a position to keep as much in touch with affairs in Northern Ireland as I would have wished. But when my noble friend Lord Brooke drew my attention to this debate on the Order Paper and, with great charm, suggested that I might participate, I began to read some of the things which I ought to have known long ago. That persuaded me that it might be of some use to your Lordships if someone who had some background as far the subject was concerned but nevertheless had not been closely involved in it in the recent past gave some impressions of how the current situation struck him. Whether it would be of value to your Lordships, I will leave you to judge.

The establishment of the Independent Monitoring Commission and its process of reviewing and reporting is a major development which gives me some grounds for hope. In other respects, I feel rather pessimistic, particularly regarding the prospects for a power-sharing Assembly being re-established in a way which will endure. I do not think one can have an organisation of that kind set up and running, then suspended, after which direct rule comes in, then set up and suspended again. There is a limit to the number of times that that sort of process can happen.

Therefore, there is a difficulty in terms of time. Most of what needs to be done in Northern Ireland requires a longer time scale than people have normally been ready to admit. I do not mean that they have deceived themselves, but the natural hope and expectation leads one to think that these things can be done within a time scale which is probably shorter than actual events will require.

Will the noble Baroness the Lord President of the Council, say something about the review which was set up at the beginning of the year but suspended in February as a result of a particular incident which created a furore and is now, I gather, about to continue? When the legislation was originally introduced, it surely was not anticipated that the review would take place at a time when the Assembly was suspended. In order to review the process and suggest possible amendments and improvements, the Assembly would have to be in working order at the time to be able to make relevant proposals. I hope that the noble Baroness can say something about how that is being worked out.

Clearly it is an advantage, quite apart from the immediate political gain, to have an operating devolved system of government. Dealing with paramilitaries and the problem of crime, to which the noble Viscount has just referred, is easier if there is a stable and ongoing political base within Northern Ireland. If there is a political vacuum, which is what so easily happens, clearly, that can encourage illegal organisations to try their arm, and many other such things to develop.

Everyone realises that we need a complete end to paramilitary activity before we can get the whole political structure in Northern Ireland back on an even keel, but that is very much easier said than done. The reason that I welcome the IMC report and look forward to future ones is that it is very substantially more pragmatic than anything we have seen for a long time.

Over the years I have gained the feeling that there is too much blind eye and not enough hard nose in the way that we approach these problem areas. It seems to me that the report suggests that the commission—which, with one or two obvious exceptions, has generally been very strongly welcomed—is right to draw attention to the hard facts of the situation. So often in the past one has felt that there has been a reluctance to face up to the seriousness of the reality. If we do not face up to the reality, we cannot deal with it. The report, with its many important practical suggestions, offers some hope of a proper way forward.

It will be very difficult to get the broader political scene back in order until the underlying problem of paramilitaries and the related crime is dealt with. But facing the truth is at least an important first step and one which, obviously, we should like to have seen a long time ago. In some respects the report makes grim reading, but it is better to know what we are faced with, otherwise the right sort of responses cannot be made.

So, how do we deal with these unbiddable groups? We do so partly by police and other security measures. However, it seems to me that they will not want to give up this way of life. As the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, said, they may be attached to this way of life—that is often what happens with underground and illicit organisations and those who participate in them—and they will not give it up just because of lectures from Parliament or well-intentioned public initiatives by Ministers. As well as the practical measures proposed in the IMC report, there will have to be serious pressure from mainstream groups who sign up in full to the democratic commitment. If we could get that in conjunction with the practical measures, I think we could hope that decent progress could be made.

What I do not think we should do is think that we have a quick solution to problems that have been with us for a very long time. It has been the case that whatever part we have played in these matters, because of our natural wish to see things improved, we have all tended to assume that things can be achieved faster than they really can. We will have a continuation of two steps forward and one-and-a-half steps back. But at least if we can keep making the half step forward, we shall, over time, make progress. However, it is important to realise that the timeframe may be much longer than we all want.

I conclude by thanking my noble friend Lord Brooke for giving us an opportunity to discuss these matters at a particularly important and sensitive time.

6.44 p.m.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I too pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, for giving us the opportunity to have this debate and for his contribution in opening. His contributions to debates on Northern Ireland are always important whether they are in this House or on the British-Irish Interparliamentary Body, of which I am also a Member and where again, I enjoy listening to what he has to say.

Before the IMC was set up, I had a conversation with a former paramilitary in Northern Ireland. It took place not long after there had been a particularly newsworthy paramilitary event in Northern Ireland, one which did not attract sums of money but which had a political significance. I said, "I find it hard to understand why they do these things. There are no political benefits in it for them. Can you explain?". He proceeded to tell me a story with which many Members of this House will be familiar.

It was about a scorpion that wanted to cross a deep river. The scorpion could not swim and said to a dog, "Will you help me across the river? I very much want to get over to the other side. It would be helpful to me and an enormous favour". The dog said, "All right, get on my back and I'll take you over". So, the dog swam across the river and got to the other side, at which point the scorpion stung the dog with his venom. As the dog lay dying it said, "Why did you do that?" and the scorpion said, "Because that's what I do". The former paramilitary to whom I was talking said, "That is what they do". That is no excuse and it is not even much of an explanation.

I turn to the report of the IMC. Despite criticism from some of the elements in Northern Ireland, I have not seen a serious challenge to the accuracy of the report in terms of describing the situation. It has not been fundamentally challenged and it seems to me that it puts over very clearly and alarmingly something which most of us knew existed but perhaps the report puts in starker terms.

To my mind, the facts have not been challenged. The motives of the Government in setting up the IMC have been challenged. Sinn Fein has put out press releases and so forth to that effect and the conclusions have been challenged. Nevertheless, I think that it is a very important report, and one which everyone has looked at with interest and concern. It states clearly that for the past two or three years there has been a much higher level of loyalist than republican paramilitary activity. But whatever the amounts that can be attributed to either side, loyalists or republicans, the fact is that this is an activity which is criminal, involves smuggling, extortion, drugs, intimidation and attempts to undermine the political process. As such, there can be no doubt that such paramilitary activity has to cease if we are to have a law-abiding democratic society in Northern Ireland.

Indeed, I would argue that paramilitary activity is a more serious threat to the peace process as an issue than decommissioning. Paramilitary activity threatens the lives and wellbeing of many individuals in Northern Ireland whereas if the arms that ought to be decommissioned are not being used, decommissioning is not as serious an issue, important though it is. I do not minimise its importance but I think that paramilitary activity is more serious.

I fully understand that in the light of this report the Secretary of State had to impose some sanctions or penalties. Had he not done so, it would have undermined the strength of the report. On the other hand, I think we all agree that the suggested remedy of fining certain individuals, while perhaps necessary is really a poor punishment or penalty for the activities that are going on. I am not entirely sure whether people like David Irvine are not trying to bring sense into the situation. In a way, penalising him is penalising the one person on that side who is making the most positive contribution. But that may be a matter of judgment with which everyone may not agree.

Indeed, it is also a matter of judgment whether Gerry Adams and Martin McGuiness are doing their best to persuade the IRA to drop paramilitary activity, or whether they are failing to do so. That again is a matter of judgment. I think that they are probably trying to do so and do not have the power to do more. I fully accept that some noble Lords will disagree with that as a matter of judgment.

If fines on these people are not adequate, it is difficult to see what else the Secretary of State could have done. The real question is whether people who are active in the paramilitary organisations, or senior people in the political bodies that are linked to the paramilitary organisations, have the power to stop this activity, or whether they are not sufficiently strong within the organisation to do so.

I am not entirely sure what the answer is. What I do know is that the situation in Northern Ireland is more serious than it was when the Good Friday Agreement was first agreed.

The next report of the IMC in six months' time will be even more serious and crucial than the current one. This report has given notice to the paramilitaries of the situation, and the Secretary of State has endeavoured to take some action. I wish that I could feel optimistic that those indicted in this report will take action in the next six months to do something about it.

The noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, in his interesting speech referred to the cost of some of this paramilitary activity in terms of the money that the paramilitaries were siphoning away from ordinary people in Northern Ireland. Perhaps my noble friend will give some idea of the financial burden of this activity. Certainly, I fear it is enormous in terms of hospitals and schools not built and public services not supported. But we will have to see.

The Assets Recovery Agency appears to be working well. Has that agency enough resources to do its job as well as it might? I have a very high regard for the Chief Constable Hugh Orde. I have met him on a number of occasions. What he is seeking to do is very impressive. Does he have sufficient resources to tackle this paramilitary activity? I hope that there are no "no-go areas" for policing in Northern Ireland. Somebody said that there were. I hope that is not true, but I would like to feel that the police have the resources to deal with these particular activities.

Nevertheless, I still believe—and I am not making light of the paramilitary activities—that the people of Northern Ireland have still had a better and a more peaceful life since the Good Friday agreement. That is no comfort to victims of paramilitary activity, but I hope that it will be seen in the context of an important improvement while we have still a long way to go.

Let me turn very briefly to two other issues. I am appalled at the outbreak of racism with violence that has taken place in Northern Ireland, particularly in parts of Belfast. I think this has been a real stain on Northern Ireland. It is utterly depressing that, after years of the Troubles, we have moved into a position where people who have had nothing to do with the Troubles are being victimised and intimidated out of their homes in a way which would be utterly unacceptable in Britain. I hope that all the resources of the police and the various agencies dealing with race relations and so on will be brought to bear to tackle what is an absolute blot on Northern Ireland. It has become a lot worse recently.

My last point concerns something dear to my heart, which is integrated education. I believe that if children are educated separately—that is, children of one community are educated separately from children of another community—and never meet each other, they demonise the other community. They demonise children they have never met because they are Catholics or Protestants, from whichever point of view that is put.

I am not saying that there should he integrated education and no other model. I am chairman of an All-Party Parliamentary Group on Integrated Education in Northern Ireland. I should like to feel that all parents in Northern Ireland would have the choice of whether to send their children to an integrated school or to a school that attracts children from one denomination only. I would like to feel that choice would be there. Of course there should be full opportunity for religious teaching of whatever faith the child wants in an integrated school. I should like the Government to make a little more progress in moving towards integrated education. Some progress has been made. I understand the economic difficulty of setting up schools if there are not enough children to go to them, although I am bound to say that most of the integrated schools I have visited were heavily oversubscribed. Parents, therefore, are voting for integrated schools when choosing schools for their children, where they have that choice.

Finally, direct rule in Northern Ireland should end as soon as possible. I believe that it is damaging to democracy in Northern Ireland. It is damaging to the rights of the people in Northern Ireland that their own local politicians should not make decisions over a whole range of matters that affect their day-to-day lives, Therefore, I am depressed that we are having a debate with this particular mood. We are being realistic to have this mood, but I am depressed that that is the situation in Northern Ireland. I hope very much that before too long devolution will be resumed and that the people of Northern Ireland can have their own local politicians making decisions that affect their day-to-day lives.

6.56 p.m.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville, could not have selected a more relevant timing and subject for this debate His family background and ministerial experience combine to equip the noble Lord with sound judgment and understanding of what will work and what will fail. That is a very important qualification. Sound judgment is essential at this crucial stage in our part of the United Kingdom. I know we have benefited greatly from the contribution of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew of Twysden. He, too, served along with the noble Lord. Lord King. Earlier today we had present another Secretary of State, the noble Lord, Lord Mason, who had to leave for another engagement.

I hope that the right reverend Prelate will take some comfort from the knowledge that in Northern Ireland, which he knows very well, there is growing co-operation between the various main Churches. Without boasting, I can reassure him on that. This month I attended two services where the clergy of the four main Churches participated—they were not spectators. At one of them, I sat at the feet of his colleague the Bishop of Connor.

I have said that sound judgment is crucial at the present time. I do not think that anyone will quarrel with that. It has been repeated on several occasions. The situation is now different, because behind us is the distraction of urban terrorism because the world has moved on to, what one might call, "undeclared wars between states". Gone are the days when the IRA could rely on fellow terrorists such as the Basque fringes, murder groupings in the Middle East, not to mention Libya, which supplied four very large consignments of arms to southern Ireland, only one of which was intercepted by the Royal Navy. I understand that the Blair/Gadaffi conference paved the way for tracking down the other three consignments, now hidden in remote areas of southern Ireland. That will be of help.

These and other weapons are now of limited use. Because the IRA has been so successfully penetrated by our security forces, suspicion and distrust has led it to such a level of casualties that many planned murders had to be cancelled by IRA commanders. I pay tribute to the Army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary, which fought the battle at that crucial time. That meant that the Belfast agreement was in a sense unnecessary. Regrettably, however, the British, Irish and American governments made the mistake of continuing to reward evil men who gambled and lost. That blunder encouraged terrorists to threaten and to gain more concessions. Six years on, concessions continue, mostly at the expense of those who supported and voted for the Belfast agreement, which they now see as a disastrous experiment. Hardly any of its original sponsors, supporters or voters now survives.

When I was elevated to your Lordships' House six years ago, I did my best to warn of the dangers for democracy. Some present on that occasion—I do not hold it against them—accused me of being negative, pessimistic and sending the wrong signals, whatever they were. Those same accusers now complain about the growing loss of confidence that stems from the basic features and failures of the Belfast agreement, and that providing for joint British/Irish rule over our part of the United Kingdom was an offence and a great mistake. Unfortunately, the public now treats with derision assurances that such joint governance is merely co-operation similar to that within the European Union.

The agreement will probably never recover from its dramatic collapse after six years. The truth of that collapse will probably never be known. Mystery surrounds what happened on the November evening when everything fell apart. I doubt whether we will ever know exactly what happened. The press was lined up; cameras were focused; we were all sitting on the edge of our chairs; and suddenly everything went wrong. Nobody has ever explained why it went wrong, which makes the situation even more baffling and leaves one even more pessimistic.

The people of Northern Ireland deserve progress. The Thatcher government in 1979 had workable proposals, which were wrecked by the forerunners of the Belfast agreement on the grounds that the Thatcher plan was "not enough". Of course it was not enough for those who wanted to blackmail one government after another, and who landed us, largely by deceit, in the current situation.

On a more optimistic note, I accept that, 25 years on, adjustments may be necessary to the Thatcher plan. But the basic principle remains: start with a modest elected council, with a place for all elected representatives and parties; give it administrative powers as a beginning and then add to those powers until the end product would match, for example, those enjoyed by Wales.

I have been greatly encouraged by some of the successes, of which I shall give two examples. In the past it was thought that Sinn Fein would never co-operate and could never be trusted. Yet recently one of its well-known members served very well as Lord Mayor of Belfast. The current mayor, a successor to the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, is a prominent member of the SDLP. In addition, my own experience in local government persuades me that mutual trust could be ours for generations if we tried to he realistic.

7.15 p.m.

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, we are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville, for introducing this debate. It is one of those rare opportunities for us to have a general review of the situation in Northern Ireland.

By way of context, I should like to begin by stressing three points. First, as I have said before in your Lordships' House, as divided societies go, levels of violence apart at the moment, there is nothing particularly unique about Northern Ireland. The difference is that, unlike Sri Lanka, Cyprus, the Middle East and Kashmir, both sides of the divide purport to worship the same God. It is welcome to hear from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwell that great efforts are being made in interfaith co-operation. Like the other societies that I have mentioned, Northern Ireland politics are effectively stalled at present.

Secondly, Northern Ireland is now blessed with an increasingly prosperous economy. It is now well off the bottom of the UK regional economic league, where it had languished for decades. There is still too much reliance on state subsidies for economic development, but there are signs that such dependency will be reduced. Growth has undoubtedly been greatly assisted by the presence of a well-educated and relatively stable workforce. It is to be hoped that that increased prosperity will act as a major solvent to Northern Ireland's problems over the years, but that will necessarily take time.

Thirdly, the outcome of the Assembly elections last November meant, at the very least, that a false political equilibrium would no longer be sustained. That was an increasing consequence of the suspension of the Assembly after October 2002. Mandates have now been renewed, and the ancien regime has given way to a new albeit much more polarised situation. Sinn Fein and the DUP are now the big political players. That must be accepted as the new reality. Nostalgia has no role to play now.

It is perhaps not easy to come to terms with that in your Lordships' House. As my noble friend Lord Shutt of Greetland observed, neither the DUP nor Sinn Fein has a voice here. The UUP has representation, but it is now a minority voice. It has shared the same fate as the SDLP, and however much we may regret the demise of what passes for the middle ground in Northern Ireland politics, that must not blind us to the new reality of the dominance of the DUP at one end of the political spectrum and Sinn Fein at the other. The choices and challenges are starker than before, and we hope that that may concentrate minds on both sides. So much is by way of context.

As everyone will agree, the present situation is critical for the restoration of a devolved administration. Lack of progress to this end has created a political vacuum, as the noble Lord, Lord Stewartby, has observed. That has undoubtedly contributed to the increases in paramilitary atrocities. Both sides are increasingly active, with loyalist outrages outnumbering republican ones by a ratio of 2:1. Another contributing factor, as other noble Lords have mentioned, is that the PSNI is unduly constrained in its operations by the lack of wholehearted political support across the community, as vividly illustrated by the noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth.

Much of the blame for increasing paramilitarism can be laid at the door of both political unionism and political republicanism. The former has no control and precious little influence over the actions of the loyalist paramilitaries. That is largely because, politically, unionist leaders have abdicated from their responsibilities in this regard. They retreated and then effectively abandoned the difficult areas in north and west Belfast. That allowed extremists and paramilitaries a free reign to move in and cause mayhem at will. By that neglect, unionist leaders are to be criticised for that act of omission.

On the republican side, as is commonly recognised, there has been a symbiotic relationship between its political and armed wings. There was a considerable overlap between Sinn Fein and the IRA, and there still is, as the first report of the Independent Monitoring Commission so recently demonstrated. By the standards of democracy, therefore, republican political leadership is clearly to be criticised for the continuation of the Sinn Fein/IRA relationship. What is clearly needed now is for the DUP, for its part, to address seriously the issue of loyalist paramilitarism. It is not enough to condemn such paramilitarism rhetorically; the DUP must now tackle it head-on, not least because it is the greatest source of paramilitary outrages.

Sinn Fein is at a critical historical moment, which is why it is coming under so much pressure from London, Dublin, Washington and elsewhere. The future of the peace process and the question of whether devolution is restored soon is squarely in Sinn Fein's hands. The initiative lies with Sinn Fein. It must unequivocally renounce any involvement with paramilitarism and fully embrace democratic principles. It should then take its place on the Policing Board. That is the only key to opening up a restoration of the Assembly and the Executive.

I turn to the immediate future. In October 2002, I predicted—accurately, as it turned out—that the suspension of Stormont would be a long one. I now have a strong feeling that, if devolution is not restored by next November—a year after the last elections—it will not he restored for another generation. I fervently hope that that will not happen and that there will be a quick restoration of devolution. In that regard, I share the sentiments of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, although the forebodings of my noble friend Lord Alderdice and the observations of the noble Lords, Lord Fitt and Lord Molyneaux of Killead, are not encouraging.

Were there not to be a restoration, the pattern of Northern Ireland government would be that which now obtains. There will be Civil Service rule, run in collaboration with a plethora of non-governmental organisations in the voluntary sector and overseen by direct rule from London, in a very close collaborative partnership with Dublin. It will be a condominium in all but name. That intergovernmental partnership will foster an extensive network of cross-border agencies, something that, in itself, I would not object to.

Some may be content with that outcome, if it is all that can realistically be achieved. It may come to that. However, the price to be paid will be a much less direct, less publicly accountable system and little effective input from the citizens of Northern Ireland on how they are governed or, more accurately, administered. To avoid that state of affairs, new ideas and innovations are needed. On 6 April, when we discussed the Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Modification) Order 2004, I suggested that we should convene the Assembly and have it act as an agent for pre-legislative scrutiny. Its deliberations would be more thorough and informed than those at Westminster could ever be. That would give enormous assistance to both Houses of Parliament, who are formally responsible for Northern Ireland legislation for as long as direct rule obtains. It would give the MLAs a proper function and a proper job of work, and they would, in part, be earning their salary.

When I made that suggestion at the plenary meeting of the British-Irish Interparliamentary Body in west Cork just over a week ago, it received a large measure of general support, until it was pointed out that such a move could not be made without a change in legislation. That is a great pity. I suppose that it would be impossible to jump out of the strict constructionist mindset that so bedevils Northern Ireland political discourse and contrive a way of having some measure of pre-legislative scrutiny.

As it is, the proposed reforms of the Irish Senate, leaked today in the Irish Independent, will give it a particular responsibility for overseeing North/South cross-border bodies. That will mean that the Republic of Ireland will have a more enhanced capacity for public accountability than Westminster. That is all the more reason for restoring devolution in the North. What are the Government going to do now?

7.13 p.m.

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville for introducing this timely debate on Northern Ireland affairs. He does so with the authority of having served as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, as did my noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew of Twysden.

Despite our hi-partisan approach to Northern Ireland affairs, Her Majesty's Government are, ultimately, the Government, and we are the Official Opposition. I believe that it is our job to criticise the Government when we think that they are failing. I hope that the Government will realise, after what they have heard from this side of the House this afternoon, that we are by no means satisfied with their stewardship since the Belfast agreement. If they pay particular attention to the points made by my noble friend Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville, my noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew of Twysden and my noble friend Lady Park of Monmouth, they will find some valuable advice and some serious criticism from which, I hope, they will learn.

What has characterised today's debate is the fact that every contribution has been made from a position of deep knowledge and understanding of the problems facing the political process in Northern Ireland. The only conclusion that one can draw is that the situation right now is bleak. There seems to be little chance of any progress towards restoring the political institutions that were suspended by the previous Secretary of State in October 2002. As the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, said, it has been a long suspension, and I am afraid that it may be much longer. There seems to be little immediate prospect of so-called acts of completion by the paramilitaries, and there seem to be few ideas coming out of London or Dublin on how we can move things forward. Put bluntly, we appear to be in a position of complete paralysis. Certainly, we are a long way from the scenario envisaged in the Belfast agreement that was signed, amidst so much optimism, just over six years ago.

Before the noble Baroness the Lord President of the Council accuses me of being the prophet of doom, I shall say this: I readily accept that, for a great many people, life in Northern Ireland today is infinitely better than it was a decade or so ago, when my noble friend Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville and my noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew of Twysden were working so painstakingly to begin the process that led to the Belfast agreement. Generally speaking, people go about their daily life and business in a manner that would not have been possible 10 years ago. Security checks and routine army patrols are a thing of the past. People are not being killed in anything like the same numbers as before, although the statistics presented this afternoon by the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, are pretty chilling. Bombs are no longer ripping the commercial heart out of Ulster's cities and towns.

All of that is reflected in a new sense of economic confidence in Belfast, Londonderry and elsewhere. One need only look at the number of new restaurants, bars and hotels that seem to open every other week to see evidence of that. Wearing another hat, I have had some involvement over the years in the redevelopment of the area around the old Belfast docks through the Millennium projects and through an organisation called Positively Belfast. It has led to a welcome increase in tourism that, we hope, will continue to grow.

Those successes, however, only put into sharper focus the other side of life in Northern Ireland, so vividly illustrated in the Independent Monitoring Commission report published last week. It is good to see the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, in his place today taking part in the debate. He and his fellow commissioners deserve our congratulations and our thanks for facing up to reality and having the courage to lay reality face-up on the table before us all. I refer, of course, to the paramilitary activity that continues to blight people's lives and to disfigure society in Northern Ireland.

Many people were persuaded to support the Belfast agreement on the basis that it would lead not just to the decommissioning of illegal weapons but to an end to all paramilitary activities. What a forlorn hope that has become. The opposite has happened. The main paramilitary organisations—loyalist and republican—remain armed, capable and ready. They participate in all the activities set out in paragraph 13 of last year's British-Irish Joint Declaration. In the words of the Independent Monitoring Commission's report: the level of … paramilitary violence has been and continues to be considerably higher than before the Belfast Agreement". There have been no acts of completion. Entire neighbourhoods are held in the grip of thugs who dispense their own perverted form of justice with the bullet and the baseball bat.

I wish that years ago the Government had faced up to the intransigence of paramilitaries, both Sinn Fein and Loyalists, and that they had not failed the Unionist population and lost their confidence, although I have signs that the present Secretary of State is starting to do so. It is sick, barbaric and totally unacceptable, and it is happening on a daily basis on the streets of the United Kingdom.

The Independent Monitoring Commission and the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, are clear that the leadership of paramilitary organisations, rather than seeking to prevent such activities, is directing it. In respect of Sinn Fein, it confirms what we all know; namely, that senior figures in that party, as other noble Lords have pointed out today, are also senior figures in the IRA.

The Taoiseach in the Irish Republic says that until that link is broken, Sinn Fein cannot be considered as a fit partner in any coalition government in Dublin. My party believes that the same rules that apply in Dublin must apply in respect of any Executive in Belfast. We have been pressing the Secretary of State today and every day to come to that conclusion himself.

Sinn Fein has been given ample opportunity—six years—to complete the transition to what the agreement describes as, exclusively democratic and peaceful means". It has been taken on trust and allowed to enter the Executive three times and has then gone on to abuse that trust. I suggest that that cannot go on.

So we support the Government in imposing the sanctions recommended by the IMC against Sinn Fein and the PUP, which remain linked, respectively, with the IRA and the UVF. But we feel strongly that there are at least two areas where the Government could have gone further. It is quite unacceptable that if those parties are to be punished financially at Stormont, Sinn Fein should continue to be allowed access to offices and allowances at Westminster. That does not make any logical sense. I put that to the Lord President when she read the Statement in this House a few days ago. I know that my right honourable friend David Lidington did the same in the other place. Furthermore, both the Provisional IRA and the UVF should be placed on the list of "specified", as well as illegal, organisations.

In addition, they should be looking at how the law might be strengthened against paramilitary organisations to ensure that there are more convictions. In July 2002, the previous Secretary of State, John Reid, said that he would be asking the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General to do that. Unfortunately, that seems to be the last word we heard on the matter. It would be helpful if the noble Baroness the Lord President could tell us where we are on the matter of strengthening the legislation in Northern Ireland to allow more convictions of paramilitaries, as offered by the former Secretary of State, John Reid, in July 2002.

It is because of paramilitary activity that the political institutions were suspended in 2002. It is because of paramilitary activities—so graphically illustrated in the IMC report to which we have all referred—that they remain suspended. Without an end to paramilitary activity, and a dramatic move by Sinn Fein and the IRA, it is difficult to see how the 1998 model of devolution can be revived and how direct rule can be ended—at least, this side of a general election.

Against that background, it is puzzling that the Government have not used the IMC report to put more pressure on the paramilitaries and, rather than seeking a way forward, cancelled the discussions that were due to take place this week because they were not adequately prepared. It would also be helpful for the Government to confirm that, had the Assembly been sitting and had the IMC recommended exclusion from office, as the report indeed says, they would have acted to do just that. I know that we are not supposed to ask questions of the Government that could be termed hypothetical, but this is hardly hypothetical.

As this debate has shown, the political process in Northern Ireland is stalled and there is no obvious way forward. The actions of paramilitaries are depriving the people of Northern Ireland of the devolved government that the overwhelming majority of the people want. We on this side—like all other noble Lords in your Lordships' House—believe that devolved government is the right road for Northern Ireland to go down. But for that to work, everybody-I repeat, everybody—must play by the same democratic rules. If certain parties cannot bring themselves to do that, we shall have to consider how politics can move ahead without them. I have also, perhaps sideways, asked the Secretary of State to consider that. We cannot tolerate for ever a situation in which the innocent continue to be punished in equal measure with the guilty.

7.25 p.m.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, perhaps I may begin by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville, for opening this important debate. His speech ranged over many issues, reflecting his wide experience and knowledge of Northern Ireland matters. I should also like to thank him for his tribute to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State and for his confidence in my ability to follow in the footsteps of the late Lord Williams of Mostyn. I should also like to thank other noble Lords who have spoken in the debate, bringing all the weight of their experience, knowledge and insight into the situation in Northern Ireland.

A number of noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Fitt and Lord Shutt, raised the question of how the Government now intend to secure the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland on a stable and inclusive basis. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, raised concerns that restoration may take a long time.

The Government are clear that what is required is the culmination of the process—that is, an end to all paramilitary activity and a commitment on all sides to operate the institutions of devolved government in good faith. Last week's report by the Independent Monitoring Commission starkly underlines what steps need to be taken if we are genuinely to move forward to stable and inclusive devolved government. I shall return to some of the detail of the report.

I must say that I cannot agree with the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, when he says that we have failed the unionist population. The Government remain convinced that the way to advance along the path of inclusive, devolved government is through dialogue. It is in that way that we have made progress in the 10 years since the IRA ceasefire and in the six years since the Good Friday agreement. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, called it a bold act of hope.

My right honourable friends the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State will continue to meet all the parties in Northern Ireland to explore how we can achieve the basis for a restoration of the devolved institutions. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, that the peace process requires the exercise of leadership. In that context, the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, is right that Sinn Fein needs to play a role. In a powerful speech, the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice—a member of the IMC, intimately connected with the processes mentioned—talked about the importance of shining a spotlight on those who operate in the shadows and the need to hold people to account personally and publicly. I think that all noble Lords would agree with that.

In terms of the way forward, the noble Lords, Lord Shutt, Lord Stewartby and Lord Smith of Clifton, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, all stressed the next steps, particularly with respect to the review. We will continue discussions on the review of the operation of the agreement. The Secretary of State and Irish Government Ministers met yesterday to discuss with the parties the proposals that they have made on the operation of strands 2 and 3. Those discussions will continue next week. There will be of course a pause for the European elections, but we hope to begin intensive talks soon on delivering a return to power sharing under the agreement on the basis of a complete transition to peaceful and democratic means and on an inclusive and stable basis.

The noble Lord, Lord Brooke, asked specifically about Sinn Fein and the Assembly elections. He queried the exchanges with Sinn Fein last year over an election date for the Northern Ireland Assembly. I understand that discussions with Sinn Fein during the second half of last year covered wide ground and certainly addressed its concerns about the postponement of elections earlier in the year. Those concerns, I recall, were widely shared in this House.

I turn to the Independent Monitoring Commission mentioned by the majority of noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Brooke, Lord Stewartby, Lord Alderdice and Lord Smith of Clifton, the noble Baroness, Lady Park, my noble friend Lord Dubs, the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew. The specific finding of the commission's report is that although it believes that the situation it is now addressing is much better than it was in past years—a view endorsed by the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, while drawing our attention to the other part of what the IMC said—paramilitary activity remains at a disturbingly high level on the part of both republican and loyalist groups. During the debate on the Statement referring to the IMC, it was clear that there was a feeling that the report reflected what people on the ground in Northern Ireland know. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, agreed with that view in quite robust terms.

Both the British and Irish Governments endorse the conclusions and recommendations in the commission's report. It is not acceptable that parties with aspirations to participate in government should have links with paramilitary groups, nor that senior politicians should be in a position to exercise significant influence over the activities of such groups. To that end, we agree wholeheartedly with the steps that the commission has recommended.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, expressed his support for the sanctions. My noble friend Lord Dubs commented that the measures announced last week by the Secretary of State that he intended to impose on Sinn Fein and the PUP in the light of the commission's report perhaps do not go far enough, while the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, pointed out that sanctions may get in the way of future progress. I understand the strength of feeling on this. However, the commission's report specifically states that in the absence of a sitting assembly, the Secretary of State, 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 PUP". That is what we have done.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, asked specifically about removing parliamentary facilities for Sinn Fein. I understand the point made by the noble Lord, but we are trying to encourage republicanism to make the final transition to peaceful and democratic means. The Government are not persuaded that, at this point, driving republicans away from democratic institutions would serve that purpose. That said, it is clear that we need to keep the situation under review in the light of progress.

The noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, asked about the next IMC report and in particular whether it would be possible to give the Provisional IRA a clean bill of health. The next regular report of the commission is due in October and we all hope that the Provisional IRA, along with all paramilitary groups, will make rapid progress towards the acts of completion we have called for. It would not be right for me to guess at the contents of the commission's next report, or to try to anticipate the context in which it will be published. However, naturally the Government will be extremely disappointed if there is no substantial progress.

The noble Baroness, Lady Park, and the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, also raised the question of organised crime. There is no doubt that a range of individuals with paramilitary links, both loyalist and republican, are involved in organised crime. Any involvement in such criminal activity is completely unacceptable and the Government are determined to tackle it wherever it surfaces, including through the work of the Organised Crime Task Force and the Assets Recovery Agency. Some successes have already been achieved, including the dismantling of 60 of the top-level organised crime groups.

I turn to the issue of the financial burden of paramilitary activity imposed on public services, a matter raised by my noble friend Lord Dubs. There is no global figure, but clearly the burden on public services is considerable and the cost not only in financial terms, but also in terms of human misery, is great.

The issue of the Government's stance on community restorative justice schemes was raised by the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough. This was considered as part of the criminal justice review, which concluded that such schemes could have a valid role to play, but only if they operate within the context of the criminal justice system and only if they are based on respect for the human rights of all those concerned.

On the general question of policing, a matter raised by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, the noble Baroness, Lady Park—who was concerned about the attempts of Sinn Fein to undermine policing in Northern Ireland—and mentioned by the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, I am pleased to have this opportunity to pay tribute to the work of the Police Service of Northern Ireland under the clear leadership of the Chief Constable, Hugh Orde. Much progress has been made, which was acknowledged by the Oversight Commissioner in his report published only yesterday. He said: I remain impressed by the pace of change, by the policing institutions themselves and by their demonstrated willingness and effort to bring about the new beginning envisaged by both the independent Commission and the Belfast Agreement, particularly on the part of the Police Service itself". The question of resources was raised by my noble friend Lord Dubs. The Chief Constable has made it clear that he has sufficient resources for the tasks in front of him, and from April 2003 to March 2006, a total of £2.1 billion has been allocated to policing in Northern Ireland. On the funding of the Assets Recovery Agency, the Government have increased the overall budget from £13 million last year to £15.5 million in 2004–05, a 19.2 per cent increase. I understand that within that total, the budget for the Northern Ireland branch of the agency has increased from £2 million last year to £3 million in 2004–05, a 50 per cent increase.

I turn now to the Corrie report, raised by the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, and the noble Baroness, Lady Park, who was very critical of it. The Government are determined that, where there are allegations of collusion, the truth should emerge. In response to the report, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has announced that inquiries are to begin as soon as possible into the cases of Hamil, Wright and Nelson. We shall shortly begin the search for tribunal members. On the issue of the cost and length of these inquiries, we are determined that these should not escalate, and my right honourable friend will have control under the terms of the police and prison Acts in Northern Ireland. I shall be happy to write in more detail to the noble Baroness on that point.

The noble Lord, Lord Brooke, expressed concern about who was interviewed and, in particular, at the outcome of the Corrie report. Lord Justice Corrie's terms of reference allowed him to consult widely, and it was for him to determine who he should interview in the course of his investigations. Noble Lords will know that in the foreword to the report, Lord Justice Corrie said: My task was not to make final determinations of fact or attributions of responsibility. My findings are provisional only and cannot be taken to be the final determination of any matter". That foreword was added at the Government's request, because we were mindful of our responsibility of ensuring fairness to individuals.

The noble Lord, Lord Brooke, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, again raised the issue of the "on the runs". At Weston Park, the British and Irish Governments recognised that the issue of terrorists on the run needed to be addressed and they undertook steps to do so. We are still considering the alternatives for delivering that undertaking. But as my right honourable friend the Prime Minister made clear, the Government will contemplate steps on difficult issues such as OTRs only in the context of acts of completion. I am happy to repeat that assurance.

The noble Baroness, Lady Park, and the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, spoke about the funding of Sinn Fein. Let me be absolutely clear that all political parties must draw their funding exclusively from legitimate sources. The full rigour of the law will be brought to bear where there is any evidence to suggest otherwise.

My noble friend Lord Dubs mentioned the racist attacks in south Belfast. Ministers are determined on a proportionate yet fair response to recent race attacks in south Belfast and other incidents. I join my noble friend in expressing concern about those attacks. The criminal justice response is obviously the key. The police have reported a decrease in the ferocity and frequency of the incidents, but are continuing to monitor the situation closely.

On the issue of integrated education, also raised by my noble friend, the Government respect the rights of parents to have their children educated in accordance with their wishes, balanced of course with the acknowledged need to provide an effective education and to avoid disproportionate cost. As my noble friend said, the integrated education movement continues to grow in response to parental demand. I am confident that my honourable friend the Minister for Education in Northern Ireland will continue to respond positively to viable proposals for new schools in line with the responsibility of his department to encourage and facilitate integrated education.

The noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, raised the administration of Northern Ireland business in the context of his concerns about the length of time it may take to restore devolution. We agree that the Order in Council process is not ideal and, of course, not as satisfactory as scrutiny by the Assembly. We have to work, as successive Governments have done, on the basis of Orders in Council. But I have heard the points made by the noble Lord and his ideas on pre-legislative scrutiny by the Assembly and I am sure that these points will be taken on board by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State.

I turn to the progress of prosecutions relating to Stormont, raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Park. Three people are charged with serious offences under the Terrorism Act arising out of searches on 4 October 2002. I can assure the noble Baroness that the accused will be brought to trial in due course.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, pressed me on specification. A decision to specify sends a strong message about the status of the paramilitary organisation and enables prisoners to be recalled if they have supported or are likely to support a specified organisation. But these are case-by-case decisions. Specifying the Provisional IRA or the UVF would not result in the automatic recall of prisoners. Specification is not a panacea for the problems identified in the IMC's report and the IMC has not suggested that the Secretary of State should consider specification.

On further legislation, Section 108 of the Terrorism Act was introduced after the Omagh atrocity. It enables a superintendent's opinion on membership to be admitted in membership prosecutions. This was introduced to assist prosecutions for membership of specified organisations. Section 108 could be amended to apply to all proscribed groups and the Secretary of State has not entirely discounted the possibility of doing so at some point in the future. But the IMC has not recommended this and we continue to take the view that the balance lies in the careful targeting of such a provision against specified organisations.

I want to conclude by referring to the important speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwell. He is right in saying that we need a commitment to peace, justice and reconciliation in Northern Ireland. The role of the Churches is obviously central to this. As the right reverend Prelate said in a powerful speech, this is about human contact and relationships.

The noble Lords, Lord Smith of Clifton and Lord Glentoran, spoke of Northern Ireland's thriving economy. The people of Northern Ireland want peace, which will enable them to draw the full benefits of that prosperity. The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, spoke of the importance of delivering peace, stability and reconciliation. The noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, whose long experience is valued in this House, said that the people of Northern Ireland deserve progress. It is up to us to work together to deliver this.

7.46 p.m.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville

My Lords, there are debates and debates in your Lordships' House. However, today's debate will be remembered longer than many others by those who from all corners of the House took part and by those, too, who generously and honourably, in numbers that often matched those taking part, have stayed on into the evening to listen to our deliberations.

Some may have wondered, when I tabled the Motion before Easter, whether it was worth the candle. Thanks both to a series of outstanding and cogent speeches, allied to the timeliness of the event, I think the endeavour and the patience and diligence which have accompanied and sustained it, have made the candle more than worthwhile. I was grateful to those who thanked me for my modest action in initiating it, but I am far more grateful to everyone—each and every noble Lord, speakers and audience—who gave the debate its compelling quality.

I thank the Minister for her comprehensive response and I hope she will have appreciated that the underlying motivation of those who took part genuinely is to improve the prospects of peace without resiling from what that arduous task continues to require. That latter phrase, of course, includes the action of the two governments in setting up the IMC.

Finally, I share the curiosity that the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, expressed about the Papers. But I shall deny my curiosity and beg leave to withdraw my Motion for them.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

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