§ 6.37 p.m.
§ The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Amos)
My Lords, I should like to repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. The Statement is as follows:
"With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a Statement on Northern Ireland.
"As the House will be aware, a major robbery took place at the Northern Bank in Belfast just before Christmas. At the end of last week, the Chief Constable of Northern Ireland indicated that, in his professional opinion, responsibility for that robbery should be attributed to the Provisional IRA. He also made the point that, quite apart from the massive scale of this robbery, over £26 million, it was in no sense a victimless crime.
"Two families were kidnapped and threatened with death if they did not co-operate with the criminals concerned. In the case of one of the families, the gang, masquerading as police officers, tricked their way into the house by claiming that a family member had been killed in a car accident. Once inside, they donned masks, produced guns and threatened the family. One of the hostages was later taken to an isolated forest where her car was burned and she was abandoned in the snow. She was forced to struggle in severe weather and in darkness across country to seek assistance in a highly distressed state and suffering from hypothermia. I want to reiterate my utter condemnation of those who planned and carried out this appalling crime.
"The chief constable's public remarks were necessarily constrained by the ongoing investigation. He has briefed me fully on the background that led him to make the statement he did. I have no doubt that the chief constable's opinion is well founded. He did not rush to judgment.
"The Police Service of Northern Ireland thought initially that five groups could have been responsible for the robbery. Only when a great deal of evidence had been sifted did the chief constable make his statement. He is a man of the highest calibre and integrity, leading a professional team of officers acting entirely independently and objectively in pursuit of the criminals concerned. 197 "The Irish Government have also made their views on this aspect of the matter entirely clear. There will, of course, be a further dispassionate assessment of the position when the Independent Monitoring Commission makes its next report. I shall be discussing with the Irish Government the timescale in which that report should be made.
"On the immediate follow-up to the robbery, I welcome the announcement by the Northern Bank of their intention to withdraw from circulation their current banknotes and replace them with notes of a different design and colour. This decision will reduce very materially the value of the robbery to the perpetrators. We will be discussing with the bank how best to publicise the detailed arrangements.
"Since the Chief Constable's statement, there has been much comment about the impact of these developments on the political process in Northern Ireland. I cannot hide my own judgment that the impact is deeply damaging.
"On 9 December I came to the House to report on the proposals by the British and Irish Governments for a comprehensive agreement which had been published the previous day. They represented a series of statements that would have been made if there had at that stage been an overall agreement. They included a statement to the effect that paramilitary activity by the Provisional IRA would cease immediately and definitely. There was also a statement, to which the Democratic Unionist Party was committed, that after a period during which the good faith of the Provisional IRA's commitments had been demonstrated, an inclusive power-sharing executive would be re-established in March this year. I need hardly remind Members of the House that this would have been nearly two and a half years after the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland were suspended.
"In the event, there was an outstanding issue which could not be resolved in relation to the transparency of the process of decommissioning. But as I said to the House in December, we had made significant and substantial progress, not least in rebuilding the trust and confidence which is the essential requirement of a stable, inclusive, cross-community devolved administration in Northern Ireland.
"Today, I deeply regret that that progress has been put in jeopardy. I cannot forecast with certainty when it will prove possible to re-establish an inclusive power-sharing executive, which the Government continue to believe provides the best long-term guarantee of peace and stability. We shall not abandon our commitment to that ultimate goal.
"We are, however, in no doubt that that can be achieved only if the Provisional IRA gives up not only terrorism but also all the other forms of criminality in which it is implicated. Unionists in Northern Ireland have made clear that if those tests are met, they will work with Sinn Fein in a power-sharing executive. As my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has 198 said repeatedly, it is entirely reasonable for Unionists to withhold their co-operation until those tests are met.
"We have consistently made clear that if a political settlement is to be achieved, any illegal activity has to come to an end. The documents published before Christmas were unambiguous on that point.
"Let me, however, reiterate to the House that this Government will not promote a political settlement in which a party inextricably linked to an organisation which has carried out major criminal acts can assume responsibilities again in a devolved administration. Nor could it take on the further responsibilities implied by the devolution of justice and policing while criminal activity of the kind we have just seen, and the capacity to plan and undertake such activity, continues in existence. It would be ludicrous for anyone to suggest that the people of Northern Ireland, from whatever background, voted for a political settlement on that basis in the referendum held in 1998.
"Against that background, it is clear to me that decisions and responses on this are now needed from Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA. The comments from the Irish Government in recent days indicate that they share that view.
"Without the required responses from Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA I cannot see how we shall be able to reinvigorate the political talks that must precede a comprehensive settlement. And without those responses the Governments, and indeed this House, will need to consider how best in the changed circumstances to bring pressure to bear on the republican movement to complete the transition to exclusively peaceful and democratic means, including any penalties that might be applied to Sinn Fein.
"I spoke to the Irish Foreign Minister on Friday and will be meeting him when he returns from a visit to the tsunami-stricken areas of Asia. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister will be meeting the Taoiseach towards the end of the month. In the mean time, I expect to be talking to the Northern Ireland parties over the course of the next two weeks with a view to hearing first hand their assessments of the current position and their views on a number of difficult questions that now face us, including, for example, on the appropriateness of continuing to pay the salaries and allowances of the individuals elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly in November 2003 and on our proposed way forward on the regulation of donations to political parties in Northern Ireland.
"I cannot disguise my deep disappointment at what has happened. But my disappointment is as nothing by comparison with the disappointment of the people of Northern Ireland. They deserve better, given the progress in so many areas of their lives in recent years. 199 "The Government, continuing to work in close partnership with the Irish Government, will be doing everything they can to ensure that this progress is not lost and that we can continue to move forward as soon as possible to a comprehensive political settlement. In the meantime, my colleagues and I will continue to apply ourselves to governing Northern Ireland as effectively as possible in the absence of a devolved administration"
My Lords, that concludes the Statement.
§ 6.46 p.m.
§ Lord Glentoran
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness the Lord President of the Council for repeating the Statement made in another place earlier today by the Secretary of State. I am also grateful to her and to the Secretary of State for allowing us early viewing of the Statement.
Today's Statement comes as a profound disappointment to all of us who want to see the restoration of devolution in Northern Ireland on a stable and inclusive basis, and I am sure as a massive disappointment to the majority of the population of Northern Ireland. At this stage, I should like to offer our commiseration with the victims of this crime who must have been seriously traumatised by their experiences; and with the lady who must have very nearly died of hypothermia that night. This crime will have serious implications for the future of the political process.
On Friday the chief constable was unequivocal in apportioning blame for the robbery at the Northern Bank last month to the Provisional IRA. He quite rightly described it as a brutal and violent crime, totally at odds with a commitment to "exclusively democratic and peaceful means" and paragraph 13 of the Joint Declaration issued in 2003.
The Provisional IRA is, of course, one part of the republican movement—"inextricably linked" with Sinn Fein, as the Independent Monitoring Commission said in its report last April. Some senior members, of Sin Fein are also senior members of PIRA. Sinn Fein, particularly through their senior members, are in a position to exercise considerable influence on PIRA's major policy decisions.
Therefore, is it not clear, as the Taoiseach himself said at the weekend, that senior members of Sinn Fein would have known about this robbery at precisely the same time that they were negotiating a process which, if successful, would have seen them have four ministerial posts in the Government of Northern Ireland?
Does the Secretary of State agree that this renders Sinn Fein completely unfit to hold ministerial office for the foreseeable future unless and until they have turned their backs on all paramilitary and criminal activity for good?
Is it not entirely reasonable and justifiable in the light of the chief constable's statement that other political parties should refuse to entertain any thoughts of sharing power with Sinn Fein while that party remains linked in any way to organised crime, gangsters and terrorists?
200 There is no way that we in my party could support any legislation designed to devolve powers over policing and criminal justice to Northern Ireland until we are certain that all the ministers concerned in a devolved executive are committed to supporting the PSNI and the rule of law.
I have a number of further questions for the noble Baroness and the Secretary of State. In the light of the intelligence now in the possession of the chief constable, is there not a case for looking again at the cases of individual criminals released early on licence under the Belfast agreement?
In view of the suspicion that the profits of crime are helping to fund political parties with paramilitary links, will the Secretary of State reconsider the Government's decision to continue the exemptions that political parties in Northern Ireland have from the normal rules on publishing their accounts and receiving foreign donations? If nothing has changed for the better when the relevant statutory instrument comes before your Lordships' House, I shall be arguing against it.
Will the Secretary of State, the noble Baroness and her colleagues table a Motion in the House of Commons to suspend the privileges and parliamentary allowances that were exceptionally given to Sinn Fein's four MPs, even though they refused to take their seats? It is just wrong, I suggest, for taxpayers' money to be doled out in this way to a party that remains "inextricably linked" to organised crime.
Finally, just before the Leeds Castle talks in September, the Prime Minister said that if there was no deal:I think we've got to look for another way forward".There is no deal. It is time to look for another way forward. Either we seek to restore devolution without Sinn Fein until that party comes up to the democratic standards expected of everyone else, or, as both the Irish News and the Belfast Telegraph have suggested in the past couple of days, we should continue with a more accountable form of direct rule. I emphasise the words "accountable form". I know it is difficult for Ministers in the Northern Ireland Office, but there are some very serious issues before the representatives of the Northern Ireland people. They need the democratic process that will enable them to have their say and to hold Ministers accountable.
In the words of yesterday's Belfast News letter, it is time for the political process to move on and for a society that is peaceful and prosperous to be created. The people of Northern Ireland deserve nothing less.
§ 6.52 p.m.
§ Lord Smith of Clifton
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness the Lord President of the Council for repeating the Statement made in another place. I should like to express the sympathy of noble Lords on these Benches for those victims who were abducted in the course of this robbery.
That said, I have to ask: what was the purpose of the chief constable's statement? We accept what he said; Mr Orde is a chief constable of the highest quality and 201 integrity, but the fact is that this statement is almost without precedent. It would have been more reassuring to have had a statement that a number of arrests had been made. Can any be expected, or is the chief constable's statement to be a substitute for such arrests? There is a real problem in that there has been too much concentration, in terms of the ceasefires, on regulating and diminishing paramilitary activity, as opposed to criminality. We have seen the results of that differential policy in the Northern Bank robbery.
If the purpose of the chief constable's statement is unclear, the consequences, as the Statement says and the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, has confirmed, are stark and obvious. I predicted more than a year ago that if devolution was not restored fully by last November, a year after the elections to Stormont, it would be put off for a generation. I suspect that the events of the past few days will lead to that conclusion. None of us would like it, but I think it is becoming almost inevitable.
The restoration of devolution will not be practical if Sinn Fein is excluded. The idea that there can be devolution involving the other parties but not Sinn Fein is politically not on.
We have to pick up the pieces from the fallout. There are two immediate reactions. First, I was pleased to note that the pay and allowances for members of the Legislative Assembly are to be looked at seriously. I have asked for this to happen for more than a year. I believe— and I ask the Leader of the House to consider this—that we should give notice that these will be stopped three months hence. There is no point in continuing to pay half a million pounds a month of taxpayers' money to keep a show going that is not on the road.
Further disapplication for Northern Ireland parties from the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 would be a serious mistake. I wrote to the Leader of the House about this yesterday, and the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, has also raised it. Such a move would make money laundering into the coffers of a party that much more easy if there is no proper set of accounts listing donations. As I have said privately to the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, we, too, would find it extremely difficult to support such an order.
Secondly, again I echo the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, in asking how government by direct rule is to be held publicly accountable with adequate scrutiny. It is quite clear that the existing Westminster structures cannot do justice to the amount of Northern Ireland legislation we are having to consider. One has only to recall our recent attempts in this House to look at the budget. We had only a couple of hours. As my noble friend Lord Shutt pointed out, he, as a local councillor, would normally have spent eight weeks considering the budget for Calderdale local authority. What are we going to do to revamp our provisions for looking at Northern Ireland legislation?
Can some provision be made for pre-legislative scrutiny by local Northern Ireland politicians? I suggested some time ago that perhaps the Assembly Members could be used as a committee for pre-legislative scrutiny, which would greatly help us in 202 Westminster. While the Assembly may well have to be stood down, I wonder whether it is beyond humankind's contrivance to create a consultative body which could help us here.
As others have said, this is a very sad time for Northern Ireland, coming at the end of a process where hopes had been raised to expect a return to devolution. That has not happened, it is not going to happen, and we must now look at the consequences.
§ 6.57 p.m.
§ Baroness Amos
My Lords, I totally share the disappointment expressed by the noble Lords, Lord Glentoran and Lord Smith of Clifton, about the process.
On the specific questions, let me say to the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, that I totally agree that Sinn Fein and the IRA are inextricably linked. The Taoiseach is right to point that out, as this Government have done consistently. As the chief constable said, it is too early to establish exact details, but it is clear that the activities of the IRA undermined the political negotiations which took place before Christmas.
In this process, we have made it absolutely clear that criminality must be eradicated. There is no place for terrorists within the Northern Ireland Government. That was the Government's position and it remains their position. It is absolutely clear that the political institutions of the agreement will not function while criminality continues. It is our view that the onus is on republicanism to find a solution by bringing a definitive end to all its illegal activities.
The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, said that it is important to look for another way forward. Of course we need to talk to the parties. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is already going through that process. We need to talk to our colleagues in the Irish Government.
As regards the specific issue of parliamentary allowances and Sinn Fein MPs, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has made it absolutely clear that we shall be considering a range of possibilities in the coming days. We need to consider the most effective way of bringing pressure to bear on the republican movement to ensure that it makes a definitive break with violence. A whole range of options is being looked at. I know that it is an issue to which we shall return and debate not only in the Chamber, but also I hope with my right honourable friend the Secretary of State in a more informal atmosphere.
The question of accountability was also raised by the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton. I totally recognise the concerns which were raised across the Chamber. As noble Lords know, proposals have been made by the SDLP and the DUP which suggested a committee of the Assembly. The noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, spoke about the importance of pre-legislative scrutiny. We will be looking at all of these proposals because I entirely agree that the present situation as regards the accountability of direct-rule Ministers needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. 203 As regards the issue of licensed prisoners and their recall if they are connected with the robbery—a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran—I know that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland would not hesitate to use the powers that he has to suspend the licence of any ex-prisoner involved if he is satisfied that he has broken, or is likely to break, any licence conditions. That has always been the position and it continues to be so.
Regarding the continued exemptions for Northern Ireland political parties from the normal rules on publishing their accounts and receiving foreign donations, I hear very clearly what has been said by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, and the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, who has written to me on the point. Noble Lords know that we intend to move away from the current exemptions. We have been discussing new arrangements with the Northern Ireland parties, the Irish Government and the Electoral Commission. Legitimate concerns have been raised about intimidation and the need for Irish citizens to be able to donate to nationalist parties. I indicated that we would be seeking an extension of the current exemption. I hear the concerns expressed in the Chamber about this issue. I shall be talking to my right honourable friend about it and will report back to noble Lords as soon as I can.
The noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, said that he was not clear about the purpose of the statement made by the chief constable and that it was without precedent. It is not without precedent in Northern Ireland, but it is in England and Wales. There is always a huge amount of pressure in Northern Ireland as regards attribution. Noble Lords will remember, for example, Tohill last February. When he made his statement the chief constable made it absolutely clear that speculation on the matter was beginning to interfere with the investigation and he felt that the time was right to make the attribution. But I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, that this is not a substitute for arrests. The investigation is in hand involving more than 40 officers working around the clock.
On the final point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, as regards allowances to the Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, I can tell him that we shall be looking at it in the very near future.
§ 7 p.m.
§ Lord Rogan
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement. This was not a victimless crime. Families were intimidated, families were kidnapped and families were terrorised. I also send out tonight my sympathies from this House and hope that these families may rebuild their lives quickly.
The noble Baroness said that her disappointment in this escapade is nothing compared with the disappointment of the people of Northern Ireland. I could not agree more. But is not the Minister also aware that this is the latest in a long line of links between Sinn Fein/IRA and criminality that the people of Northern Ireland have had to endure over many years?
204 The Northern Bank robbery follows the break-in at Castlereagh police station, the Stormont spy-ring, the well known activities of the Colombian three with the FARC rebels, not to mention the nightly punishment beatings and continued violence, all of which were, and continue to be, sanctioned and carried out by IRA/Sinn Fein personnel. Do not the Government understand that the confidence of the people of Northern Ireland, already at breaking point, as a result of this latest heist, has been absolutely and completely shattered? If confidence in Sinn Fein/IRA is in tatters then this Government do not fare much better in the eyes of the Northern Ireland people. Without firm and decisive action against Sinn Fein/IRA, this Statement tonight will be seen as little more than an empty, meaningless gesture.
The Government must show strength and their willingness to stand up against terrorists and criminals. Such people simply cannot be allowed to continue to be the driving force in Northern Ireland's political agenda. The driving seat should be reserved for democratic parties only.
I am pleased to hear tonight that, perhaps; as an indication of the Government's willingness to take action, they will seriously consider, where the evidence suggests that it is necessary, recalling those republican prisoners currently out on licence who have been involved in criminal and terrorist activities.
On a final note, the noble Baroness mentioned that the Government were looking at the regulation of donations to political parties. While we all welcome the transparency of donations, is such an idea not actually counter-productive? Sinn Fein does not need political donations, it robs banks!
§ Baroness Amos
My Lords, perhaps I may make three points in response to the noble Lord, Lord Rogan. The Government will continue to work for a peaceful outcome in Northern Ireland. We will continue to work for an inclusive process. I also agree with the noble Lord that we must look at the areas where action can be taken. We have made it absolutely clear that there is no room for criminality in the political process. That remains our position and we will work very hard to find the best mechanisms at our disposal to take action as regards what has happened.
§ Viscount Brookeborough
My Lords, I must declare an interest, not in the robbery, but as a member of the policing board in Northern Ireland. In saying that, I should like to defend the police to a certain extent against some of the barracking they have had. It is amazing that, knowing how forensically aware the terrorists are and how clever and thorough they are at covering their tracks, the chief constable has been able to say what he said and that is to his credit.
Paragraph 12 of the Statement refers to required responses from Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA. We have to get down to the practical problem. We should forget about the consequences for one minute, but consider what is happening. What are the responses now that the Government require? We want to know what they are in detail: most certainly 205 Sinn Fein will want to know to see how to get round them. We need to know those responses now. We need to know the timescale of those responses. We need to know for how long Sinn Fein/IRA have to run clean before we are asked to believe them again. What or where will there be verification of what they say because it is quite clear that the verification that the Government were standing by until very recently is not enough and it is lacking?
If you are dealing with criminals such as these and totally untrustworthy, dare I say, liars, there is only one form of verification that can apply—the intelligence from behind them. I am well aware, and so are many others in your Lordships' House, that the intelligence-gathering effort has been greatly decreased against the very echelons of the people who committed this crime— and that includes against the Sinn Fein leadership. No one should be afraid of the intelligence services listening in or doing whatever if they have nothing to hide. But we have seen a large reduction in intelligence gathering. I am not saying that it would have prevented this crime—the perpetrators have had practice for this in Strabane, kidnapping people and so on—but not having that reduction might have contributed much to preventing it.
Part of that reduction is in the total number of patrols in Northern Ireland. The military are being told, "You are not to patrol". The police are being told, "You have got to do it on your own and call in the military only when necessary". Intelligence is not just what one person hears over a mobile phone. Intelligence is gathered from grass roots leading up to that. It is association; it is people being seen with other people; it is people carrying out "reccies" of buildings and so on.
My question to the Government is, what are they going to do about it? It is no good saying that these statesmen are their friends and they will not look in their back yard. It is not good enough for us.
§ Baroness Amos
My Lords, perhaps I may tell the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, that the Government have made it absolutely clear that not only do we want to see an end to all violence, but we want to see an end to all criminality. In seeking that we want to see the actions taken on the ground which will deliver that. With respect to the noble Viscount's statement on intelligence and policing, I reject his claims about a reduction in intelligence gathering. I understand that the senior investigating officer in this case has access to all the intelligence, irrespective of where it comes from. Of course I have full confidence in the investigation team.
§ Viscount Brookeborough
My Lords, I was referring to prior to the incident, not the amount of intelligence received after £26 million had gone. I was talking about the six months in the year prior to it.
§ Baroness Amos
My Lords, I am aware of that, but one of the reasons why the Serious Organised Crime Agency was created in relation to Northern Ireland 206 was precisely to bring together the intelligence and policing aspects, so that they were able to share information.
§ Lord Mayhew of Twysden
My Lords, did not the Government recently justify their decision permanently to reduce the overall infantry strength of the British Army on the grounds that the Police Service for Northern Ireland needed now, and would need, less support from the Army in providing security for Northern Ireland? Was that decision not founded upon the Government having been persuaded that Mr Adams, Mr McGuinness and Sinn Fein were trustworthy? Where does that leave that decision now and should it not be urgently revisited?
§ Baroness Amos
My Lords, that decision was made on the basis of the length of time that we have seen ceasefires in operation in Northern Ireland and the implications of that for our military and for policing in Northern Ireland.
§ Lord Maginnis of Drumglass
My Lords, I believe that the political repercussions of this matter will reverberate for a long time, but I do not wish to ask a question about that. I am grateful to the Lord President for repeating the Statement in this House, but I must ask her whether she believes that there has been adequate transparency in terms of what really happened.
We know that Northern Bank notes are distinctive. We know that many of them can be traced. But are we not being led to believe that the whole £26 million is traceable? We have not been told what notes from other banks, including used notes and notes from the Bank of England, form part of that £26 million and whether it will be easy for the criminals to disperse that money. So we need some information on that if we are fully to understand how these criminals, even at this late stage, can be thwarted in benefiting from the money that they have stolen.
It has been suggested—indeed, a member of my own party suggested to the Secretary of State—that the numbers that are available on banknotes that are traceable should be circulated to every household and business in Northern Ireland. The citizenry of Northern Ireland—and that is the only place that Northern Bank notes are likely to be circulated— should be recruited to a man and to a woman over the next 20 weeks, which will be critical, given that that is the time it will take for the Northern Bank to print new notes and withdraw the old notes. Can the Minister assure us tonight that the numbers on traceable notes will be circulated to every household and business in Northern Ireland? That would help.
I also wish to ask the Minister about policing. I share many of the doubts that have been expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, about the chief constable. Although he ameliorated what he had to say, I shall not do so, because I believe that we have a police command which is preoccupied with statistics. As your Lordships know, statistics can be misleading. If there was any intelligence available—and there 207 should have been, given the background intelligence in Northern Ireland over 30 years—that there would be a robbery of some sort, why, when there was a tip-off from a traffic warden that something suspicious was happening outside Northern Bank headquarters, were two "peelers" sent along on foot instead of a tactical support group dispatched to deal with the incident?
Those are questions that people like myself, who have served in the security forces over the years, wish to know, because we feel that there is an incompetence in policing that should not happen and that the responsibility rests with the chief constable.
§ Baroness Amos
My Lords, while I can appreciate the frustration of the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, I know that he will understand that I really cannot comment on the details of the investigation. However, I will tell the noble Lord that the chief constable did cover in some detail in his statement on Friday the amounts and the types of notes that were stolen. I also said in the Statement that we will be discussing with the bank how best to publicise the detailed arrangements once the bank has put in place its intention to withdraw from circulation its current banknotes. I appreciate the frustration, but I cannot say any more at this stage.
§ Baroness Park of Monmouth
My Lords, can the Leader of the House say whether the Special Branch has been severely reduced in the past two or three years, on the recommendation of the Patten commission? It has been said in the press—and I do not know the truth—that a number of the normal police sources have had to be discarded because they were considered to be potentially criminal. You do not get inside criminal groups without having someone with normal connections with them. I should very much like to know whether the police have in any way been given the reasonable prospect of penetrating the IRA at this level.
I greatly respect the work of the Serious Organised Crime Agency and I think that the Government are right to treat this as a straight criminal, rather than political, issue. But it is a political issue, too—all the more so because we have seen the Stormont break-in and the IRA activity in the Special Branch involving the removal of records. Nothing has been done about either of those incidents and we are always told that that is because there are legal procedures which cannot be hurried. We are talking about three years. I feel that something needs to be done to enable the police to do the job that they should be able to do.
§ Baroness Amos
My Lords, I hope that I can reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Park. A great deal of concern has been expressed about a reduction in numbers as a result of the merging of the two groups. I can say to the House that the chief constable has said consistently that the police have adequate resources in place to deal with any situation that may arise, and they are of course supported by the military as necessary. I said in response to an earlier question that the decisions on the military in Northern Ireland were made in relation to the decisions on the ceasefires.
208 It remains absolutely vital that the police and other security forces can respond flexibly within the context of Northern Ireland. My understanding is that they feel able, and sufficiently resourced, to do that. If any concerns in that respect are brought to my attention, I shall of course write to the noble Baroness.
§ Lord Fitt
My Lords, can the noble Baroness tell us whether, in advance of the Statement made by the chief constable, discussions were held with the British Government, the Irish Government and, more particularly, with the American Administration? Has she any idea how the American Administration view this crime?
There is another serious element to this matter. When the robbery took place, two of the people who were so badly mishandled by the robbers were Catholics. A story has been going around Northern Ireland over the past few weeks that this was an inside job. People in Northern Ireland believe that, if it was an inside job, it certainly did not involve any Orangeman, Protestant or Paisley supporter. The suspicion is that it was a Catholic employed in the bank. That puts every Catholic who is in any position of trust in any bank in Northern Ireland in severe jeopardy. Did the IRA take that into consideration?
The noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, desperately seeking a way to continue with the peace process, said that committees should be set up to inquire into the government of Northern Ireland. On those committees would sit two MPs—McGuinness and Adams—who are Members of this Parliament and also Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly. As they exclude themselves from sitting in the House of Commons, would they be excluded from the committees advocated by the noble Lord?
On the question of finance from abroad, I vividly remember speaking in this House against any exoneration when I was trying desperately to include the IRA in the legislation at that time.
I think that the noble Baroness may be able to answer the following question but I ask it directly of the Prime Minister. In the absence of arrests and of some of the money being found, will members of Sinn Fein be permitted to run daily into Downing Street? Are we going to be told that we are still in search of a political solution by way of devolution? From what I hear, the Taoiseach in Dublin would be totally unable to have further discussions with them if the present situation were to be maintained.
§ Baroness Amos
My Lords, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, that in the Statement it is made clear by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland that he was briefed on the background by the chief constable. As I said in response to a number of questions, my right honourable friend will now be having meetings with the parties, the Irish Government and others in order to look at ways of taking this matter forward.