HL Deb 15 November 2004 vol 666 cc1260-9

6.45 p.m.

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Amos)

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

"With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a Statement. I announced on Friday 12 November my intention to despecify the UDA, incorporating the UFF. I signalled my intention to lay an order before this House to give effect to that decision and today I have taken the earliest opportunity to do so. This House will also be aware of the statement made yesterday by the Ulster Political Research Group on behalf of the UDA. I welcome that development, which I think is positive, and will say more about the detail in due course.

"First, I want to explain my actions in terms of despecifying the UDA. I have reviewed the status of all specified and other paramilitary organisations, as I am obliged to do under legislation, and concluded that there are sufficient grounds to despecify the UDA/UFF. For some time now, there has been contact between my officials and their political representatives. I, too, have recently met them. I view this as part and parcel of an overall strategy to bring final closure to the problems that have hindered progress in Northern Ireland and to set in place an inclusive future for all, based on an enduring political settlement.

"The UPRG announced a 12-month period of 'military inactivity' by the UDA/UFF, known as the Gregg initiative, on 23 February 2003 and announced an 'indefinite extension' of the Gregg initiative on 24 February 2004. I have taken advice from the chief constable and others and, as I am obliged to do under the terms of the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998, I have reviewed the status of all specified and other paramilitary organisations. It is my judgment, made in the round and having regard to the Act and other relevant issues, that the UDA ceasefire is now holding and is genuine.

"I appreciate that some may question this decision in light of negative comments in recent IMC reports. I have carefully studied both relevant IMC reports and support the strong language directed against a range of paramilitary organisations. But it is clear, between the first and second relevant reports, that there has been a reduction in UDA activity. Other material provided to me would endorse that view.

"I am persuaded by the advice I have received that it is appropriate to despecify the organisation. I have taken this decision cautiously and prudently, considering the full consequences of my actions, and the effect on others, particularly victims. I am only too conscious of the impact on victims of violence and the terrible consequences of both sectarianism and feuding within communities. I would reassure victims that this Government have not forgotten their suffering and that we will continue to support and work with them.

"But there is now an opportunity to move forward. The statement made yesterday by the UDA contained a number of important undertakings. First, there is its commitment to work towards the day when, to use its own words, there will no longer be a need for the UDA or the UFF, its reaffirmation that the UDA will desist from all military activity and its declaration that the organisation's strategy will focus on community development, job creation, social inclusion and community politics. Secondly, there is its agreement to enter into a process with the Government which will see the eradication of all paramilitary activity. Thirdly, there is confirmation that it will re-engage with the Decommissioning Commission; indeed, I understand that it has already begun.

"These undertakings, which are commitments and not aspirations, are positive ones. The Government agree with the UPRG when it says that the loyalist community's enemies are issues such as poverty, social deprivation, drugs and crime, and we will work energetically with it and others to tackle those problems.

"The other issue is to end paramilitarism, and we will he discussing equally urgently with the organisation how this is to be achieved. The UDA says that it wants lasting peace and that it can prove to the people of Northern Ireland that it can change. I believe it should be given the opportunity to do so.

"However, the Government have always made clear that they would judge paramilitary organisations by their deeds and not by their words alone. So I will be watching the actions of the UDA very carefully over the coming weeks to ensure that it lives up to the commitments that it has made. The UDA remains a proscribed organisation and the police will pursue relentlessly any criminal activity undertaken by its members or those of any other group.

"In coming to a final judgment on this matter, I wish to acknowledge the work that has been done in terms of political leadership by the UPRG. I also want to recognise the contribution that members of other political parties have made to creating the conditions in which loyalism can take these important steps. I also want to use this opportunity to call on other groups engaged in violent activity to take similar steps.

"I know that the House will agree that the time has long since passed for all paramilitary groups—loyalist and republican—to cease their activities once and for all and to decommission the weapons which have brought so much suffering to the people of Northern Ireland. As my right honourable friend the Prime Minister said in Belfast in 2002, the Government want to see all paramilitary groups complete the transition from violence to exclusively peaceful means. I believe that yesterday's announcement by the UDA, together with political dialogue which is currently taking place with other interested parties, constitutes a significant step towards achieving this goal—a goal which unites every Member of this House and every decent person in Northern Ireland".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

6.52 p.m.

Viscount Bridgeman

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement today and for her customary courtesy in giving us early knowledge of its contents. From these Benches, we want to he in a position to welcome yesterday's statement on behalf of the Ulster Defence Association. We hope that there will now be, in the words of yesterday's statement, an eradication of all paramilitary activity.

But it is not by mere words that we shall judge the UDA; it is by its actions on the ground, and, in that respect, there is clearly a long way to go. The Independent Monitoring Commission has highlighted in two reports the extent to which the UDA has been involved in murder, shootings, assaults, exiling, organised crime and drugs. It has painted a graphic picture of the way in which the UDA imposes a mafiastyle terror on entire communities.

Representatives of the UDA often talk about the problems affecting loyalist communities, but does the Minister not agree that organisations such as the UDA are the main problem affecting loyalist communities? The most recent IMC report concluded that the UDA, remains heavily involved in many kinds of organised crime and remains an active organisation capable of more widespread violence, with the will to commit it if judged appropriate". Yet all these paramilitary and criminal activities have taken place over a period when senior UDA figures have reiterated their commitment to the 1994 cessation of military activities. That alone should lead us to be cautious; so, too, should the deplorable incident last night when an SDLP councillor in Larne, who has previously been targeted by loyalists, had to fire shots to defend himself.

I have a number of questions which I should like to ask the Minister, but I understand that she has a very important engagement. If she is not able to answer them comprehensively, I am sure that we shall have the benefit of a letter being placed in the Library of the House. My questions are as follows. Does the Minister agree that an eradication of all paramilitary activity must include an end to all other forms of criminal activity? What assurances has she had from the UDA that the organised crime, the drug dealing, the racketeering and the intimidation will stop? And does she agree that it must include the complete decommissioning of the UDA's illegally held weapons?

The Minister's right honourable friend the Secretary of State is clearly taking the UDA at its word in taking it off the list of specified organisations. Will the Minister confirm that, unless all its activities now cease, she will have no hesitation in putting it back on the list? Will she also confirm that, notwithstanding yesterday's statement, there will be absolutely no letup in the work of the police and the Assets Recovery Agency in pursuing the UDA figures who have amassed vast fortunes on the back of crime and terror?

Finally, there will certainly be speculation within Northern Ireland that these announcements are an integral part of a sequence designed to bring about restoration of the political institutions in Northern Ireland. We know that the British and Irish Governments are planning an initiative which is designed shortly to restore the institutions of Stormont. Will the Minister confirm that there can no longer be any room for fudge and that everyone, including the paramilitaries on all sides, must do what is required of them to make this initiative really effective?

6.56 p.m.

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. We on these Benches find it a surprising decision, given the latest IMC report of only 10 days ago that outlined continuing loyalist paramilitary violence. In response to my Question earlier in the year, the Minister's statistics revealed that loyalist atrocities were running at twice the rate of those perpetrated by republicans.

Astonishingly, as the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, remarked, early this morning, hours before the Secretary of State was known to be despecifying the UDA/UFF, a gang of loyalist paramilitaries attacked the house in Lame of a local SDLP councillor, Mr Danny O'Connor, where he lived with his mother. His brother had previously been murdered by the loyalists. Does the Minister agree that the timing of that incident does not augur well for the proclaimed ceasefire and the withdrawal by the UDA from all forms of violence?

The Statement is very vague as to the precise reasons for the Secretary of State's decision to despecify. In the light of today's attack on Councillor O'Connor, general utterances of the kind used in the Statement do not carry the credibility that more specific and detailed reasons would have done. Can the Minister elucidate more specifically on her right honourable friend's reasons for coming to the decision that he has?

Furthermore, can she expand on what is meant by the term "ceasefire'? The past 10 years have shown that it is not a robust operational concept. Should we not now be speaking more precisely by insisting that paramilitary organisations become fully committed to paragraph 13 of the Joint Declaration?

Can the Minister assure the House that absolutely no understanding has been reached with the UDA that would permit it to preserve elements of its paramilitary infrastructure, especially as it has recently said that it retains, the right to defend its own communities"? Finally, will the Minister confirm that government undertakings to work with a reformed UDA on community development and economic renewal will not undermine the role of democratically elected representatives both at the local level and in the Assembly?

Northern Ireland has seen too many false starts and disappointments in the past. We must hope, against the odds, that this will not he yet another. Sinn Fein now needs to persuade the IRA to take similar action and totally decommission, as the Secretary of State has called for in the Statement.

With fingers crossed, we on these Benches are inclined to support the Secretary of State in his latest move but we will be helped by the Minister's responses to the queries that I have raised.

6.59 p.m.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, and the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton. I particularly thank the noble Viscount for acknowledging the pressures on my time. As ever, parliamentary engagements take precedence and I am happy to reply to all questions that I am able to answer. If I am unable to address a question I shall, of course, write to the noble Lord concerned.

I agree with the noble Viscount that the Statement will be judged by the actions. It is not about words alone; but very much about action that needs to be taken. I assure the noble Viscount that the Government's policy remains the same: we are looking for complete decommissioning by all parties. Any decision of this kind has to be kept under review and I know that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State will keep his decision under review.

I turn to the specific questions that have been raised. The UDA has given assurances that eradication of paramilitary activity will include organised crime, but as I said earlier, words must be matched by action and the action must be swift and consistent. We all know that the drugs trade is a scourge and impacts on the young in Northern Ireland. It must be part of the process and I think the UDA recognises that.

The noble Viscount also sought assurances that there will be no let up in the work of the police and the Assets Recovery Agency. I am very happy to give him those assurances. The police and the Assets Recovery Agency carry out good work and they will continue to do that work.

The noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, asked about the reasons for the decision. The noble Lord will know that under the Act the Secretary of State is required to take into account four issues when considering whether an organisation should he despecified. The four are as follows: whether an organisation—

  1. "(a) is committed to the use now and in the future of only democratic and peaceful means to achieve its objectives;
  2. (b) has ceased to be involved in any acts of violence or of preparation for violence;
  3. (c) is directing or promoting acts of violence by other organisations;
  4. (d) is co-operating fully with any Commission of the kind referred to in section 7 of the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997".
That paragraph continues. The Secretary of State has taken account of and, as has been made clear in the Statement, has weighed up those factors very carefully indeed.

Again, I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Smith, that no undertakings have been given to the UDA. All groups must decommission. There is certainly no intention to undermine the role of democratic representatives through this process. However, we have welcomed the statement by the UDA which says that part of its activity should be geared towards community cohesion and community development.

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, can she say where the attack on Councillor O'Connor last night comes in the spectrum of violence on the part of paramilitary loyalists?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, of course, we absolutely condemn the attack that took place last night. As far as I am aware, there is no evidence that it was committed by the UDA, but the police are investigating the incident. The noble Lord also asked me earlier about the sequence of events. There is no choreography here, but it is clear that we want this to be a helpful part of the political process.

7.3 p.m.

Lord Laird

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in welcoming the Statement from the Lord President. Like everyone else, I am keen on the policy of wait and see. As other noble Lords have pointed out, we have been here before: we have had other dawns that have not matured into the full daylight that we would have expected. Does the noble Baroness recognise that there is great annoyance in the Province and that people are upset about the attack on the SDLP councillor in Larne overnight, only 45 minutes after the so-called change in attitude of the UDA was supposed to take place. If it is discovered that the UDA was involved in this matter, can we he assured that appropriate action will he taken?

One of the most insidious and nasty things that has come out of Northern Ireland in the past couple of years has been the Protestant paramilitary attacks on racial targets. That is something that the community will not stand for; it is one of the most disgusting, despicable things that can possibly happen. People who have suffered difficulties, possibly in their own land, come to Northern Ireland for a fresh start but are then subjected to violence from thugs and hoods masquerading as loyalists.

The racial minorities are a valued section of society. I would like to see them well integrated into Ulster society. They fulfil a very good function and many of them undertake extremely worthwhile jobs. As far as I am concerned, they are extremely welcome. I ask the Minister to ensure that anyone conducting racial attacks will be subject to the law.

There is a perception that a lot of money goes to paramilitaries. They just have to put up their hands, say they are a paramilitary group and they receive funding right, left and centre. Those of us not in paramilitary groups but in community groups try to get funding and government support but always seem to be subject to cutbacks, allowing funding to go to paramilitaries. Does the noble Baroness recognise that that is an unfair state of affairs? That was very much reflected in the words of the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, when he said that we cannot ignore the democratically elected people in Northern Ireland—they play a very important part. Those community groups that have nothing to do with paramilitarism should not he punished by a lack of resources.

The House should recognise that if the effect of the Statement and the effects of the statements made yesterday by the groups come to fruition, that will be to the benefit of everyone in the Province.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Laird. Of course, I recognise the concerns in Northern Ireland about the attack that took place last night. As I said earlier, the Secretary of State will keep this decision under review. I too condemn the rise in racial attacks in Northern Ireland. We have discussed the issue in this House before. I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Laird, that our ethnic minority communities in Northern Ireland are a very valued section of society.

On the issue of funding, I reiterate that we will not ignore democratically elected groups. Yes, there are different priority areas with respect to funding in Northern Ireland. Very often different groups compete for the same pot. We have to consider that very carefully, but from his own work the noble Lord will be aware that clear criteria are established for the funding of community organisations in Northern Ireland.

Lord Fitt

My Lords, it is regrettable that there is no Minister in this House who has sat down face-to-face with the UDA and asked all the questions that needed to be asked at the time. We have been down this road before. I vividly recall five or 10 years ago someone called Gusty Spence calling in the press and photographers and telling them that the UDA had given up violence. We all know that in the intervening years innocent Catholics have been murdered by the UDA.

The Statement says that the Secretary of State took a decision after having discussions with all the appropriate agencies and people in Northern Ireland. The PSNI, formerly the RUC, must have had an opinion on the activities of the UDA. The Minister may not be able to answer my question this afternoon—that is why I wish there was another Minister—but did the PSNI say that the UDA in its opinion was going to become a non-violent organisation? If it did, then it would appear to be in conflict with the decision that has been taken by the Minister. I think we should be very careful about this.

Two or three weeks ago we received the IMC report. I glanced at it and was surprised to see that members of the IMC were referring to a bunch of murderous thugs in the UDA as brigadiers. All those people have taken fancy titles for themselves; for example, supreme commander. They look on themselves as a legitimate army. In any dealings the Government have with them I would suggest that they treat them as what they have been and what they still are in my mind—criminals.

I ask the Minister a specific question. She was not at the talks, but in briefing the noble Baroness for this afternoon did the Minister say that the PSNI is of the opinion that the UDA is honest and is going to stop its ways of violence?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, perhaps I may refer the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, back to the Statement. It states: I have taken advice from the Chief Constable and others and, as I am obliged to do under the terms of the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998, I have reviewed the status of all specified and other paramilitary organisations". My right honourable friend the Secretary of State then went on to say that it is his judgment, made in the round and having regard to the Act and other relevant issues, that the UDA ceasefire is now holding and is genuine". I appreciate absolutely the concerns being expressed in the Chamber about the IMC report. It shows that the UDA remains an active organisation. It also shows that there has been a marked reduction in the level of violence from the group and that the leadership has reaffirmed the intention to hold to the terms of the ceasefire.

I recognise the scepticism being expressed around the Chamber, but we all know that, when we are dealing with such peace processes, sometimes decisions have to be taken in the round, as my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has done.

Lord Carlile of Berriew

My Lords, I declare an interest as the independent reviewer of the Terrorism Act 2000, in which position I sat face to face with the political parties and community groups in the Province. From that viewpoint I strongly welcome the Statement made by the noble Baroness and the Secretary of State this afternoon, especially if the actions of the UDA are consistent with the words which it has spoken and the intention it has declared. It will go a long way towards the normalisation of the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland.

However, does the noble Baroness agree that for there to be a real advance towards normalisation of the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland, it is absolutely essential that all paramilitaries should now start to disengage from their very large-scale involvement in organised crime?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord. Lord Carlile, for welcoming the Statement. The noble Lord has a great deal of experience and expertise in this area. I agree also that the actions need to be consistent. The noble Lord is quite right that on other occasions Members of this House have expressed concerns at the link between paramilitarism and organised crime. That concern is shared by the Government. My right honourable friend has been assured by the UDA that it will tackle that. We will have to look at its actions. But I entirely agree with the noble Lord that this link has to cease.

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, first, I apologise to the noble Baroness for not having heard her deliver the Statement which I heard earlier in the day in the other place.

Does the noble Baroness agree that it is one thing to make a statement that one intends to give up violence; it is a distinctly different thing to give up the capability of violence and to surrender or put beyond use one's arsenal of weapons? Will she be able to come to the House before very long with a statement on the disarmament of the UDA?

Baroness Amos

My Lords. I agree with the distinction made by the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit. That is why the Government have been absolutely clear that decommissioning by all paramilitary organisations remains their priority in Northern Ireland.

The noble Lord knows that I cannot put a time-frame on that action. We have been working actively and serious acts of decommissioning have been overseen by the decommissioning authority. We want the UDA to take that action. It has already, as I understand it, begun talks with the decommissioning commission. We have to watch the action and not the words.

Lord Shutt of Greetland

My Lords, I too welcome the decision made and trust that it really is of some satisfaction. Whereas I take account of the points made by my noble friend Lord Smith and the noble Lord, Lord Laird, it seems to me that there has been a huge difference in the mental state of those people who have been involved for many years as men of violence for them to make that transformation to men of peace. Can anything be done by Her Majesty's Government, either with the UDA or with its friends the Ulster Political Research Group, in order to assist in that transformation?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, asks a pertinent question. I am not a psychologist but I entirely take the point he makes. I shall investigate and see whether the Government are taking any specific action—I am not aware of any—or whether we are having any discussions around this particular issue or theme.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville

My Lords, pursuant to one of the questions asked by the noble Lord, Lord Laird, and to the words with which the Minister answered that question, can we take it that when the Government take comfort from the declaration of the UDA, that the organisation's strategy will focus on community development … social inclusion and community politics", the Government believe that the UDA will not only desist from all military activity, which is also in the Statement, but that it will also desist from the racial activity to which it has recently been prone?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, we expect it to desist from all unlawful activity. That is part of the process we are going through. Again I repeat what I have said in response to other noble Lords: we now have to look at the actions. The statements have been made. Everyone in this House wants the political process to move forward and for peace to come to Northern Ireland as quickly as possible, but that requires certain action on the part of paramilitary groups. We have to hold them to account as best we can.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I understand that the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, wishes to make a personal statement to correct something.

Viscount Bridgeman

My Lords, I wish to apologise to the noble Baroness and to the House for my failure to address her properly as Lord President.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, I welcome, as I think we all must, the Statement in many ways, but I should like to hear from the Lord President whether the disarming of the paramilitaries will be done in a different way from the decommissioning that has so far taken place through the decommissioning commission.

That has tended to deal with arms in the hands of a group that call themselves an army, whereas what we are talking about now—and should have been talking about since 1997—is removing the guns from the hands of the people in the little back streets of Belfast who have terrorised everybody all these years. I hope very much that something will be done to ensure that they give up their arms, rather than the UDA making some symbolic gesture very secretly with the decommissioning commission, as happened with the IRA.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I can assure the noble Baroness, Lady Park, that this is about decommissioning all illegal weapons, it is not in any way about making a distinction between small arms. There was a report over the weekend which seemed to give some credence to that. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland today described that as rubbish. I can do no better than he did.

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