HL Deb 11 January 2005 vol 668 cc209-12

7.25 p.m.

Baroness Amos

rose to move, That the order laid before the House on 17 November be approved [First Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the decision to despecify the UDA/UFF was taken by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland following a period of contact between officials in the Northern Ireland Office and the political representatives of loyalism. The Secretary of State himself spoke to them directly prior to making a final decision.

In explaining his decision to despecify, the Secretary of State said that it was a further step towards resolving the problems that had dogged political progress in Northern Ireland and towards achieving an inclusive future for all, based on an enduring political settlement. However, the Government are mindful of the consequences of the decision for others, particularly victims. I take this opportunity to reassure victims that we have not forgotten their suffering, and we shall continue to support and work with them.

When the UPRG made its statement on 14 November 2004, it contained a number of important undertakings. The first was 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. It reaffirmed that the UDA will desist from all military activity and declared that the organisation's strategy will focus on community development, job creation, social inclusion and community politics. The second was its agreement to enter into a process with the Government which will see an end to all paramilitary activity. The third was confirmation that it will re-engage with the decommissioning commission. Indeed, I understand that that has already begun.

However, the Government have always made clear that, while they welcome this initiative, all paramilitary organisations will be judged by their deeds and not by their words alone. To that end, I have taken a close interest in reports of loyalist paramilitary activity over the past few months. I am encouraged by information provided to me by the PSNI which shows that, since the UPRG statement in November, the number of incidents involving loyalists generally, and the UDA/UFF in particular, has fallen dramatically.

In recognising that, I wish to acknowledge the efforts of the UPRG. I am also appreciative of the contribution of members of other political parties who have helped to create the conditions whereby this initiative has at least been given a chance to develop.

It is my sincere hope that all paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland will recognise that the Government are willing to encourage and facilitate those who are prepared to leave violence behind and create a new way forward for their communities. We agree with the UPRG that the loyalist community's enemies are issues such as poverty, social deprivation, drugs and crime. Those are not problems faced only in loyalist communities; they are issues which affect everyone in Northern Ireland. I earnestly hope that all organisations which claim to represent their communities will acknowledge that fact and work with us to tackle common issues so that all in Northern Ireland, no matter where they come from or who they vote for, can enjoy a society free from the burden of paramilitary and drug-related crime.

In mentioning crime, I remind the House that the UDA remains a proscribed organisation. The police will pursue relentlessly any criminal activity undertaken by its members or those of any other group. All in this House who have followed the undoubted progress in Northern Ireland since the signing of the Good Friday agreement 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.

The future that we all seek for Northern Ireland can come about only through inclusive, peaceful, political engagement. This order is an important move in that direction and I commend it to the House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the order laid before the House on 17 November be approved [First Report from the Joint Committee].—(Baroness Amos. )

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness the Lord President of the Council for introducing the order, but when it appeared on the Order Paper I must say that I was concerned and not altogether delighted.

My personal view is that it is almost tactless to leave the order on the Order Paper after the happenings of recent days. It is an extremely unwise time to pass such an instrument. As I understand it, there is no special hurry for it, and a little more due consideration of the involvement of people in the bank robbery, about which we know nothing, would have been wise. It would not have landed the Government in any difficulties just to have postponed the order quietly. I am not at all happy. I shall not divide the House, but I wish the Government to know that I am far from happy about the order. I think that they are making a mistake.

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran: today is hardly a propitious time to move the order.

We shall not oppose the order, but I will take the opportunity to ask the noble Baroness the Lord President of the Council what exactly the term "ceasefire" means. We have asked that question before. It seems to be a very elastic, ambiguous, ill-defined concept. It seems to be defined by all and sundry as they like, with the result, as I said, that there has been a tendency to focus on paramilitary cessation, while crime is not taken into account—hence, perhaps, the Northern Bank robbery.

It is also true that crime by loyalist paramilitaries is continuing. It is not so much paramilitary or military activity as what was once called "normal, decent crime". It is as corrosive as anything of moves towards the restoration of peace. The Government should come up with their own definition of "ceasefire" and tell us what it embraces and what it does not embrace. We cannot pick and choose about this. We have been led by the nose by the IRA and by loyalist paramilitary organisations, who have imposed their definition of "ceasefire", rather than having the body politic impose its definition.

Lord Maginnis of Drumglass

My Lords, when I have to consider such an order, I do not know whether I am mad, the Government are mad or the world generally is mad. When we have just been discussing the difficulties with the criminality that exists in Northern Ireland, there is something wrong with deciding to despecify organisations such as the Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Freedom Fighters.

Johnny Adair is a member of one of those organisations. Apparently, he was released from prison today. God help the people of Bolton: he has been inflicted on them for some reason. I am led to understand that the Government provided him with free transport out of the Province. I read at the weekend that he does not feel himself to have been banished and that, when he wants to come back to settle old scores, he will do so.

We are talking about two despicable organisations here. They have killed members of the Catholic tradition and have killed each other, and they would be willing to kill members of the Catholic tradition and each other again for monetary benefit. They run the drugs trade and use it to get the finance that enables them to portray themselves as the defenders of a particular tradition. I belong to that tradition—the Protestant or Unionist tradition in Northern Ireland—and I despise every last one of those individuals.

I feel that the Government have made a horrible mistake. The horror of it may not be seen at the moment, but it is a horrible mistake. I want to be wrong when I predict that the horror of it will be seen on the streets of Northern Ireland. We have had disappointments, but Northern Ireland is moving forward. It may be two steps forward and a step back, but at least people are beginning to think of normality. We should not turn the Province into a gangster state.

There is no reason to despecify the two organisations. I am horrified that the Government have made that decision at this time. I just hope that I will not be standing here in a week, a month or a couple of months saying, "I told you so".

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I begin by saying that I totally appreciate the concerns expressed, especially in the light of the discussion that we have just had, but perhaps I can say two things to noble Lords. The first is that the Government have always made it clear that there is no acceptable level of violence. We have also made it absolutely clear that there is no room for criminality. However, it is also important, particularly at this point, to remember that, while we seek to punish the behaviour that we seek to eradicate, we must also encourage the behaviour that we seek to promote. Noble Lords will know that the decision that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State made about these organisations was made in the round. He took account of all the criteria, and he made a judgment.

The noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, asked specifically what "ceasefire" meant. That question has been asked on a number of occasions. The requirements for an organisation to be considered on ceasefire and, therefore, eligible for despecification are set out in the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998. It does not mean that an organisation has ceased all activity. I know that we have discussed that point many times. It is precisely why the UDA remains an illegal organisation and why the police continue to pursue those in it who continue to commit crime. To the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis of Drumglass, I say that despecification has no impact on Johnny Adair.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, raised the issue of timing. Once my right honourable friend the Secretary of State had come to a decision that the UDA met the requirements of the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998, our legal obligations under the Human Rights Act 1998 required us to give effect to that decision and despecify the UDA at the earliest opportunity.

I recognise the degree of scepticism around the Chamber. We all recognise that in such processes the unexpected as well as the expected can happen. At the moment I am hanging on to that, given the disappointment of the Statement that I made earlier this evening. I appreciate what noble Lords have said about not praying against the order. We shall continue to discuss these matters, not only in the Chamber but also outside. I value the way in which noble Lords have conducted the discussion this evening.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until eight o'clock when the Committee stage of the Education Bill will resume.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 7.40 to 8 p.m.]