HC Deb 10 July 2002 vol 388 cc262-84WH

11 am

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon)

I am pleased to have secured the debate, as this is a particularly relevant time to discuss the future of the Northern Ireland peace process.

Last week, the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach chaired discussions with pro-agreement parties at Hillsborough. On Sunday, the world witnessed once again the dark side of Northern Ireland with the now almost ritual violence at Drumcree, and there have also been heightened tensions and serious sectarian clashes in parts of east and north Belfast.

Virtually everyone in Northern Ireland agrees that, as we approach the crucial Assembly elections in May next year, there is an urgent need to end the current drift and restore some momentum to the process. Otherwise all the hope and optimism that surrounded the signing of the Belfast agreement in April 1998 risk evaporating.

Like most other hon. Members, I warmly welcomed the agreement. After so many years of appalling terrorism and stalled political progress, it finally seemed as though Northern Ireland really was putting the past behind it. At long last, it seemed as though the organisations, both loyalist and republican, that were responsible for inflicting so much misery and suffering were intent on making the transition from violence to what the agreement describes as exclusively democratic and peaceful means". Many aspects of the agreement are working well. The Executive and the Assembly are demonstrating the benefits of having locally elected politicians who are accountable to the Northern Ireland electorate and responsible for the key decisions that affect people's everyday lives. Even those who oppose the agreement do not want devolution to end. Indeed, the two Democratic Unionist party Ministers are regularly cited as two of the most effective members of the Executive.

The north-south bodies are showing that practical, common-sense co-operation between Northern Ireland and the Republic does not, despite the fears of some, necessarily represent a slippery slope towards a united Ireland. We now have an agreed constitutional framework. Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Republic's constitution have been amended, and Northern Ireland's position in the United Kingdom is guaranteed for as long as that is the wish of the people who live there.

Those developments might reassure the broader community in Northern Ireland were it not for the fact that, unfortunately, that represents only part of the overall picture. One area in which the agreement is clearly not working or living up to expectations is the ending of the cycle of paramilitary violence.

For many people, in particular the Unionist community, it was the prospect of an end to paramilitarism that convinced them to back the agreement. That persuaded them to set aside their revulsion at the sight of prisoners walking free from jail early; to take Sinn Fein on trust and tolerate its inclusion in the Government of Northern Ireland despite the fact that the decommissioning of illegal weapons had not even begun; and, reluctantly, to accept painful changes to the police. Yet the end to violence and paramilitarism has not happened. That fact is the biggest single factor undermining confidence in the agreement, and it threatens to destabilise the peace process.

Under the agreement, decommissioning was supposed to have been completed by May 2000. Instead, we had to wait until last October for the first batch of arms to be put beyond use, and that happened in response to the events of 11 September and pressure exerted by the resignation as First Minister of the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble).

In April, there was a second act of decommissioning, and this time it was clearly designed to increase Sinn Fein's prospects in the Irish general election. Without questioning the integrity of General de Chastelain, neither act of decommissioning was carried out in such a way as to maximise public confidence, which was the promise made by the IRA in its statement of 6 May 2000. Any remote hope that those two acts represent a genuine conversion to exclusively democratic politics has been completely devalued by subsequent events that have seriously called into question the credibility of the ceasefire on both sides.

We have had continuing revelations of IRA activity in Columbia, and its involvement with the narco-terrorists FARC—the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia—including, if recent reports are to be believed, the testing of new weapons. It has also been reported recently in Washington that techniques passed by the IRA to FARC may have been responsible for 117 deaths in a bombing that took place as recently as 9 May.

The break-in at Castlereagh police station is widely believed, by the police and others, to be the work of the IRA. Documents discovered during an arrest in connection with Castlereagh showed that the IRA are continuing to target politicians and military bases on the mainland. Only last week we learned that several leading Northern Ireland and Westminster politicians and others have been warned by the police of a serious threat to their lives.

There is continuing street violence in areas such as the Short Strand and Cluan place, which is being orchestrated by paramilitaries, loyalist and republican alike. Many hon. Members no doubt met the Short Strand residents last week, who came over to put their catalogue of despair. So-called punishment beatings, shootings and mutilations continue almost daily. There are other manifestations of paramilitarism, such as the smuggling, racketeering and organised crime that was highlighted by the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs in its report published last week.

So extensive is the criminal network that we now have evidence that it has outgrown the Irish market. The paramilitaries are seeking to set up legitimate businesses on the mainland as fronts for their activities. Of particular concern to me as a west country Member of Parliament is the fact that their tentacles may be spreading to the west country. I have heard reports suggesting that such criminals are targeting the west country and trying to launder their money through legitimate pubs and tourism-related businesses.

I welcome the Government's attempts to address that very worrying development through the formation of the organised crime taskforce for Northern Ireland and the proposal for an assets recovery agency, but I ask the Minister to respond to the concerns of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that that agency is substantially under-resourced if it is to tackle the problem seriously. Will the Minister make a commitment to provide it with the resources it needs from day one?

Quite apart from the misery that organised crime is causing many people in Northern Ireland, there is also the cost factor. Dr. Silke has calculated that for every £1 raised by paramilitaries in Northern Ireland in 1993 and spent in the pursuit of terrorism, the average cost to the Governments of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland in countering and repairing terrorist damage was £130. Based on those figures, Dr. Silke estimated that the overall cost of Northern Ireland terrorism to the Government in 1993 was in the region of £2 billion. No doubt the figure is now substantially higher.

Faced with all the evidence of ongoing activity, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that, when the Government say that in their view the ceasefire remains intact, they are using the paramilitary definition rather than that set out so clearly by the Prime Minister during the 1998 referendum campaign. It seems that, for the Government, the meaning of a ceasefire is a period in which soldiers and police officers are no longer killed, but virtually anything else goes. The Prime Minister casually refers to the transgressions of the ceasefire as imperfections, but he cannot argue that they are consistent with maintaining a complete and unequivocal ceasefire.

The clear and urgent task of the British and Irish Governments now is to take action to restore confidence. The university of Ulster published a report on 9 July based on the annual Life and Times survey. It found that Protestants had less confidence in the peace process than six years ago, and that fewer people thought that relations between Protestants and Catholics were better.

Restoring confidence was supposed to be the purpose of the meeting with the pro-agreement parties at Hillsborough last week. Regrettably, little progress seems to have been made, and little progress will be made until those parties in breach of their obligations under the agreement finally face up to their responsibilities.

Surely the time has come to introduce into the process some sanctions against parties that are failing to fulfil their obligations under the agreement. That is true of all parties, but particularly of Sinn Fein, because it has Ministers serving in the Northern Ireland Executive. As my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), the shadow Secretary of State, has made clear in the past, that does not necessarily require the pressing of the nuclear button that could bring the whole Assembly crashing down. Rather, it could be done on an escalating basis, beginning with the ending of Sinn Fein's special status in this House, not proceeding with the proposed amnesty for the so-called "on the runs" and not allowing those with terrorist convictions to sit on district policing partnerships.

If none of those measures works, the Government must seriously reconsider, as the Prime Minister promised in his famous side letter to the right hon. Member for Upper Bann on the morning of the Belfast agreement, the exclusion mechanisms in the agreement and the Northern Ireland Act 1998. They must be prepared to take on the power to exclude, rather than leaving it to a cross-community vote in the Assembly.

One thing is certain: it cannot be right for Ministers belonging to a party that is, in the Government's own words, inextricably linked with an active terrorist organisation to sit on the Executive indefinitely. Last Wednesday in the House, the Prime Minister repeated his assertion that there can be no halfway house between democracy and violence. He now needs to show that that is no longer simply empty rhetoric, and that he is prepared to act on his words.

Like other right hon. and hon. Members, I want this process to succeed. I believe that it retains the potential to bring lasting peace and stability to Northern Ireland, yet we cannot go on giving concession after concession, in what already appears to many people in Northern Ireland to be a one-way street. A peace process or any other process, suggests ongoing progress. I contend that it is currently difficult to see what progress is being made along the lines envisaged in the Belfast agreement.

All those who desire the cessation of violence and long-term peace in Northern Ireland have invested much in the peace process and, necessarily, taken a lot on trust. Unionists have taken a number of risks, not least in being prepared to sit in government with Sinn Fein before the completion of decommissioning. Some might argue that they have been stretched to the limit in order to keep the process alive. However, unless something is done as a matter of urgency to restore credibility to the process, it potentially faces its biggest crisis and most difficult test so far. There is a narrow window of opportunity through which the current underlying lack of confidence can be tackled. I urge the Government not to squander it.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Frank Cook)

Order. I ask right hon. and hon. Members to remain standing so that I can gauge how many want to speak in the time left. I can inform those who have not participated in debates in this Chamber before that it is customary to commence the three winding-up speeches 30 minutes before the end of the debate. Comments from the Floor must therefore have finished before 12 o'clock. I ask hon. Members to bear that in mind when making contributions and when making or receiving interventions, which should be crisp, clear and to the point.

11.14 am
Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North)

I listened with interest to the hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire). I should like him to cast his mind back to five years ago today when 20,000 Orangemen assembled at Drumcree. A nationalist from Belfast sent a relief convoy to the Garvaghy road and five Catholic families received bullets marked Ballymoney through the post. Sky TV broadcast scenes of hand-to-hand fighting across the barricades. In the middle of the night of 11 July 1998, three Catholic children—Richard, Mark and Jason Quinn—died in their bedroom. Victims of loyalist firebombs, their young lives were snuffed out.

By the following weekend, Drumcree IV had resulted in 2,561 public order incidents: 144 homes and 165 other buildings attacked; 178 hijackings; 467 vehicles damaged; 615 attacks on security forces; 24 stonings; 45 blast bombs; 284 arrests; 632 petrol bombs and 837 plastic bullets. Last weekend, there were nasty scenes at Drumcree, but one cannot compare that with five years ago and say that no progress has been made—this time there were three plastic bullets. Progress has been made, and it has been made on security.

We all deplore knee-cappings, punishment beatings and what is going on in the Short Strand and north Belfast, but progress has been made. The hon. Member for East Devon repeatedly referred to the role of the IRA. The IRA is doing more to undermine the peace process than to support it. It allows the hard men to say that they are not doing anything in an organised manner, and thus claims that it has honoured its ceasefire. However, every time we make progress it is belittled.

Like everyone else present, I have no desire to see private armies. I want them all to decommission their arms. I believe that there should be only one security force, but it must have and retain the support of the whole community. However, we will betray the people of Northern Ireland if we continually harp on about decommissioning and its associated problems.

We should consider what has been achieved by the parties and the Executive in Northern Ireland. An Assembly elected by fair proportional representation has created its own institutions and procedures, and it has adopted the symbol of the flax flower to reflect inclusive ideals across both communities. The Assembly Members have debated the most contentious issues of the day with passion and feeling. They have drawn up and begun to implement a programme of government for Northern Ireland, and have targeted social need wherever it is identified. New bodies for co-operation between the peoples of Ireland have been created. All-Ireland institutions have already demonstrated their practical value for the people of Ireland. Long overdue reforms in health, education and social services have begun. Progress has been made towards the abolition of the 11-plus and selective education—Northern Ireland is many years behind us in that, but is doing well. A Children's Rights Commission has also been established.

The Northern Ireland Executive have already started to address the chronic under-resourcing of the infrastructure, and are focusing on stable economic progress. Their programme of government is based on a vision of partnership, equality and mutual respect. Northern Ireland is building on its dynamic business community, its resourceful voluntary sector, cooperation in its industry and its vibrant and creative cultural heritage. On policing and criminal justice, a start has been made towards creating a representative and accountable criminal justice system in which all, sides of the divided community can share a sense of ownership. On the values of a divided society, we have created new institutions for the protection and promotion of equality and human rights. Every public body has a positive duty to promote equality and fair treatment.

Those are great marks of progress, but there are still obstacles to overcome. Let us consider what is happening while those obstacles are being overcome. The vast majority of former political prisoners are helping to rebuild their communities. The Parades Commission is regulating provocative marches, surveillance towers and army checkpoints are being dismantled and the decommissioning of terrorist weapons has begun. Decommissioning has been slow, and there has not been enough of it. We all want decommissioning, because there is no place for private armies. Those who have visited Northern Ireland in the past year will have noticed that one has to look hard to find a policeman or Land Rover on the streets of Derry and Belfast. [Interruption.]The reason for that is that people have confidence. The streets are crowded with shoppers in the villages, towns and cities, and it is a great sight.

Lady Hermon (North Down)

Will the hon. Gentleman comment on the low number of police officers available for duty in Northern Ireland? He will be familiar with the recommendation in the Patten report that the number of regular police officers should drop to 7,500 over 10 years. In the two and a half years since the Patten report, the number of police officers has dropped to 6,900. Will he comment on that?

Mr. McNamara

Yes, and the comment that I would make is that some members of the old Royal Ulster Constabulary did not like the new set-up and took advantage of the generous redundancy terms. I should like more people from both communities in the police force, as recommended by the Patten committee. Everyone wants a full police force in their society. There are still problems with implementing the reforms in the Patten report and taking proper control over special branch. Indeed, the oversight commissioner has indicated to the Government that extra progress must be made quickly.

Enormous problems exist on the streets, and nobody should deny that. The fear and insecurity felt by parts of both communities in Belfast has to be recognised. Some leadership is being given, but leadership is not provided when people constantly threaten to resign. Leadership is not given when people say that concessions are only being made to the IRA and the SDLP. The original Police (Northern Ireland) Bill and the Patten report were gutted. We were unable to debate on the Floor of the House the changes to the Criminal Justice and Police Bill, which was also gutted. Concessions have gone both ways.

Lady Hermon

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. McNamara

I shall finish my sentence and then I shall be delighted to give way. I want security measures that both communities support. The SDLP, with tremendous courage, joined the Police Authority. It had the right to expect that the reforms that were promised in the Patten report and elsewhere would be carried through to the letter, and there is disappointment that that has not yet been achieved.

Lady Hermon

I apologise for interrupting the hon. Gentleman halfway through his sentence, and I appreciate his giving way to me a second time. Will he clarify what he means when he says that the Patten report was gutted? He will recall that last autumn the American, Irish and British Governments and the Catholic Church with one voice said that the implementation plan and the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000 represented the spirit and letter of Patten. How can he say that it has been gutted?

Mr. McNamara

I understand what the hon. Lady is saying. The Weston Park agreement—

Hon. Members

It was not an agreement.

Mr. McNamara

The Weston Park meeting—as hon. Gentlemen said, it was not an agreement. At a conference at Weston Park, undertakings were given that what had been left out of the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill would be inserted and that the necessary legislation would be introduced. I want the Government to tell us when that will happen.

It is wrong to keep picking up the agreement as though it were a flower in a garden and looking at its roots to see how it is developing. It has developed strongly and well due to the courage of people in this Room who have represented opposing traditions for years but who met together for the good of Northern Ireland. The agreement is the possession of the parties in Northern Ireland but, more particularly, of the people of Ireland, north and south. We must make it our duty to ensure that, whatever the shortcomings, we work towards constructive, purposeful elections to the Assembly next year and that we defend the peace process and not just the position of individuals, no matter how eminent they may be.

11.26 am
Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

I congratulate the hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) on securing a debate on this important topic. I never thought that the hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) would portray himself as a latter-day Dr. Pangloss, but that is what he has done in the past few moments.

There has been considerable political progress in Northern Ireland, and Members of the Assembly and I are happy to take credit for it. However, the difficulty that we are in at the moment is entirely because the paramilitary organisations—I use the term collectively—have not made the progress that we wished. In the past few months there have been very serious problems at street level, mainly in Belfast, which have largely been caused by paramilitary organisations. Loyalist paramilitaries have been partly responsible, but the greater share of the responsibility lies with the republican movement, in particular the IRA.

The hon. Member for Hull, North may not take my word for that. I refer him to the words of the Assistant Chief Constable responsible for Belfast, Mr. McQuillan, who said in an interview after a particularly vicious outbreak of rioting in east Belfast: And certainly, in terms of street disorder, on the republican side, we have seen large numbers of republicans, large numbers of members of the IRA, many of them from outside the area, and we believe that they're involved in organising the violence. Mr. McQuillan was then asked about the shooting of five Protestants during the rioting. He was not prepared to rule definitively on who was responsible, but went on to say that people who know the Short Strand well will know that the IRA have huge influence in that area, they are the main republican paramilitary group in that area, and we see very clear evidence of orchestration of the riots in that area. Hon. Members might like to reflect on what would have happened if any of the five persons who were shot by republicans on that occasion had died and where the peace process would have been in that situation. The process was that close to collapsing. For that reason, we must reflect again on these matters.

The hon. Member for East Devon referred to the definition of a ceasefire that the Prime Minister gave in May 1998. I shall not read it out, because hon. Members should be familiar with it. It is very different from the definition given recently by Martin McGuinness, who said that a ceasefire is when they are not shooting soldiers or policemen and everything else to be permissible. Unfortunately, it seems that the Northern Ireland Office operates largely by reference to Mr. McGuinness's definition rather than that of the Prime Minister. The matter should be carefully reconsidered.

One good thing that came from the Prime Minister's visit last week was that he made it clear in his press conference that the transition that should be occurring needs to continue. He said: Transition means transition, full transition from violence to democracy. Now, we've got to look therefore at the ways that we make that clear, that we lay down the clear principles that we have to abide by, and what happens if people don't abide by them. He also said that he would make proposals and declare the position that he set out before Parliament rises. We are expecting that, between now and the rise of Parliament, the Prime Minister will return to the matter and spell out more precisely what a ceasefire means, how that transition should progress and what happens if the paramilitaries breach those lines. It may take the form of a redefinition of "ceasefire", and I hope that it will be closer, if not identical, to the definition given by the Prime Minister in May 1998.

However, we need more than just that. We need a procedure by which the definition has credibility and there is popular confidence in it. Regrettably, there would be no confidence in the definition if the determination of whether the ceasefire had been broken was left to a Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I do not think that there would be credibility in Northern Ireland, because of what has happened in the past.

David Burnside (South Antrim)

My right hon. Friend will remember a policy submission that the Ulster Unionist party made to No. 10 to try to help the Prime Minister to define decommissioning. It suggested setting up a Privy Council Committee with representation from the Government, the Opposition, the General Officer Commanding Northern Ireland and the Chief Constable to define whether the Provisional IRA was adhering to the Mitchell principles. Would he consider resubmitting that to the Prime Minister?

Mr. Trimble

My hon. Friend is close to my next point. I said that there would not be popular confidence in a judgment by a Secretary of State—I am speaking generally—because there has been lack of confidence in the successive occupants of that post. We need some objectivity. My hon. Friend referred to proposals for a rather elaborate procedure, and I note with regret that although we thought at that time that the Chief Constable and GOC should be part if it, I am not sure that in the present circumstances a procedure resting partly or wholly on the Chief Constable would command confidence or be effective. It is clear that the Irish Government have no confidence in the comments made by the Chief Constable of Northern Ireland and they showed that clearly concerning the Castlereagh raid. The former Chief Constable and the current acting Chief Constable have both said clearly and repeatedly that the police believe that the Castlereagh raid was the work of republicans, but the Irish Government still have their head in the sand and, like some hon. Members, refuse to accept that judgment. We must look further than that.

The precise objective mechanism is a matter for further consideration, but there is clearly a need for something that will give credibility to the ceasefire and the judgments that are made on it. There is also a clear need for a sanction, and that was foreshadowed in what the Prime Minister said about what happens if people do not abide by the ceasefire. The sanction must be credible. If there is no credible sanction, the present instability, which was caused by the paramilitaries, will continue.

I am concerned about the approach to some matters, particularly by the Prime Minister. During the press conference he commended the republican leadership and expressed confidence in its commitment to making the peace process work. I want the Prime Minister to reflect on that. I do not think that the republican leadership intends to return to a full-scale terrorist campaign at present, but it is clearly committed to a strategy of tension, not to exclusively peaceful means. That strategy is demonstrated in the orchestration of riots. The primary target for those riots is the SDLP, the party led by the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume). The republican leadership is trying to discredit policing and, through that, to discredit the SDLP's valuable support for policing arrangements in Northern Ireland.

Republicans are following the strategy of tension so that others carry the strains of the process, not themselves. They are moving as slowly and as grudgingly as they can, and are leaving it to the SDLP and my party to carry the strain. The Prime Minister must reflect on that, too. Indeed, the problem is highlighted in the comments made at that press conference by the man who was returned to serve as the Member of Parliament for Mid-Ulster, but failed to do so. He said: You see the big difference is this, Tony Blair has got to know us, David Trimble has yet to make that journey". I would rephrase such sentiments. I have got to know Sinn Fein very well indeed. I hope that the Prime Minister gets to know Sinn Fein just as well and appreciates that things are not as simple as they seem. We shall wait for his judgments to be announced before Parliament rises, but I underline the need for the Government to get a grip of the situation and to recreate confidence in the community. I say firmly to the Government that, if they do not now tackle the continuing instability and create the necessary confidence, the prospects for next year are not good at all.

11.37 pm
Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

We need to be honest about what is happening in Northern Ireland. That involves recognising the arguments of my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara), who talked about the progress that has been made through the Assembly and the Executive and what it is like to shop on the streets now compared with what it was like previously. Such matters need to be at the forefront of our minds.

We must also realise that many serious problems have emerged in Northern Ireland as the process has developed. Many people are detaching themselves from the commitment to the Belfast agreement. There are reasons for that, some of which were explained by the hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire). We must be aware of them, because they lead to disillusionment within the Protestant camp. We must also bear in mind the behaviour of the paramilitaries, but to some extent they had an excuse for their actions. Their argument was that the means justified the end. They were either for a united Ireland or opposed to it.

The paramilitaries have degenerated from that unacceptable position into mafia-type organisations that operate for their own benefit. To some extent, the Real IRA has picked up the old mantle of the Provisional IRA and is raking money off for its own use. We must be aware of the lessons that we can learn from such problems.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North drew conclusions that were based on the arguments that he put forward. He does not want us to listen too much to other considerations, because he wants us to give great weight to the advances that have been made. Can we not recognise those advances while also recognising the difficulties? The problem with stressing the difficulties is that it encourages those who are trying to uncouple the whole agreement. We must try to exert pressure on paramilitary organisations in order to overcome the difficulties that exist in communities.

The report by the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, of which I am a member, on the funding of paramilitary organisations shows part of the way forward. It points out that if it were possible to cut off the funding of paramilitary organisations, they would be destroyed because they would not be able to carry out their political agenda or their mafia activity. The report suggests developing the work of the organised crime taskforce and the asset recovery agency, and ensuring that those organisations have the back up and funding available to equivalent bodies in the Republic of Ireland. Such matters need great consideration.

The final report of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in the last Parliament was about paramilitary intimidation and the fact that many people are placed in exile. Some are exiled in the Republic of Ireland and some are in internal exile in Northern Ireland, but great wodges of people are exiled in Britain. That is unacceptable, and we must be concerned about such issues if we are to have a proper picture of what is occurring.

I suggest an action that the Government can take, which I hope is practical. They should have an all-embracing attitude to the situation in Northern Ireland. It is unfortunate that matters are too often left to the Northern Ireland Office and the Northern Ireland Executive, with occasional interventions by the Prime Minister to nudge things along. Other Departments sometimes act as if Northern Ireland does not exist and should not be taken into account. The Treasury, in particular, has problems getting its head around the fact that Northern Ireland is a considerable section of the United Kingdom with massive problems.

The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee produced a report on the relatively minor issue of aggregate tax. It was obvious that the Treasury had not taken account of the impact of Northern Ireland's border on the introduction of aggregate tax. There have been many good arguments for the aggregate tax, but quarrying activities operate in the Republic and trade starts to transfer to Northern Ireland.

Current investigations by the Committee, which are based on a previous report, relate to the smuggling of petrol. Consideration should be given to the duty increases that affect Northern Ireland and the disparity that that causes with the Republic of Ireland. That is seen as a minor factor because only 3 per cent. of the population of the United Kingdom live in Northern Ireland, and money is thrown at Customs and Excise to tackle the problem. We should grasp the wider issues.

It is important to pay attention to Northern Ireland, to be honest about what is happening, to listen to both sides of the argument, and not to use what is happening as a defence for the preconceived set of values that we happen to have.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. We have little time left before the witching hour of 12 o'clock. Three hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye, not all of whom heard the admonition that I gave earlier, which was that we need to hand over to the Front Bench spokespersons at midday. Moreover, not all of them have given prior indication to the Chair that they want to intervene. I shall try to give everyone a chance to speak, and I urge hon. Members to be brief, and to try to resist the temptation to make interventions.

11.45 am
Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley)

I shall be brief. The hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) made a point about the levels of violence, but his definition of that was very narrow as he referred to the situation around Drumcree. The statistics from the police service make the overall picture clear: the levels of violence in Northern Ireland were higher in 2001–02 than they were in 1998, which was the year that the agreement was signed. That is an indisputable fact, and if we gloss over such facts, we will not address the problems. We should acknowledge the extent of the problems.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to the streets being free from police officers. In my constituency, crime is markedly up: pensioners are being brutalised in their homes, police stations are under threat of closure, and patrols are being withdrawn from rural areas. Those are problems, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, as he must deal with policing matters in his own constituency. If the suggestion is that policing and crime issues have gone away, that is not the reality.

I have read the report from the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on organised crime. All the paramilitary organisations raise huge sums. I have a concern about that, which the Minister might wish to address. I understand that only 10 officers in the police service are assigned to investigate organised crime by paramilitaries—that is, to deal with the matter in general, rather than with specific cases. That figure highlights a huge inequity when it is contrasted with the fact that 103 staff are employed by the police ombudsman's office to investigate the police. Ten times more people are employed to investigate the police than to investigate organised crime by paramilitaries, even though that is acknowledged to be an enormous problem. I hope that the Minister will address that point. We have the organised crime taskforce, but we need to do even more to tackle this problem, because the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) is right when he says that it will do the paramilitaries enormous damage if we hit their funding.

At the heart of the peace process are the Mitchell principles of democracy and non-violence, which were signed up to by all the participants in the negotiations that culminated in the Belfast agreement. The reality is that all the paramilitary organisations are in breach of those principles—by their actions and, in some cases, by their words. There is talk that we might need a new set of principles, or that we should beef up the Mitchell principles. I do not believe that we need to do that. I am entirely satisfied that the Mitchell principles are wholly adequate to deal with the issue of people moving from violence to peace and democracy. The difficulty is that the Government are failing to act on the breaches of those principles. That is at the heart of what the hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) said in his opening remarks. It is time for the Government to take action on those breaches.

After the general election in the Republic of Ireland, the Irish Prime Minister said that he could not have Sinn Fein as a partner in his Government until the IRA disbanded. However, we in Northern Ireland are expected to accept a different standard: Sinn Fein can be in our Government while the IRA continue violence on the streets, engage in international terrorism in Colombia, and run guns from Florida and through Cuba. As the Assistant Chief Constable, Mr. McQuillan, said, it can orchestrate violence on the streets of Belfast, and yet the Government say that the ceasefire is intact, and that they need take no action. That is just plain wrong; the Government do need to act. If they are to restore confidence in the peace process, they have to sanction those parties and paramilitary organisations that are in default.

I recently heard the remarks of Richard Hass, President Bush's envoy, who suggested that we draw a line after events such as Colombia and Castlereagh, and create some new rules which we expect people to adhere to. I do not think that that is acceptable. We cannot draw a line after Colombia and other recent events, because that goes to the heart of the republican movement's intentions and its commitment to exclusively peaceful means. It also concerns the actions of loyalist paramilitaries on the streets and their commitment.

On 22 April 1998, before the referendum on the agreement, the Prime Minister told the House of Commons: Meanwhile, it would obviously be a travesty of democracy if parties associated with paramilitary organisations"—[Official Report, 22 April 1998; Vol. 310, c. 812.] continued in the Government of Northern Ireland while they were threatening or using violence. I agree with him, but I think that he has forgotten his words. The situation is a travesty of democracy, and it is time that that was addressed.

11.51 am
Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)

I am grateful for the opportunity to make a few comments. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) on securing the debate, and welcome his interest in the subject. It is important to endorse the trailer for the business of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs that was given by my colleague from the Committee, the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes), and its report on the funding of terrorism in particular. That report shows clearly that those organisations are active not just in getting funds but in the use of those funds for terrorist purposes.

The Belfast agreement is fatally flawed, and not simply on the basis of those features for which support is a matter of political judgment, such as the destruction of the Royal Ulster Constabulary—brought about by the agreement—the release of terrorist prisoners who had not served their sentences, the setting up of unaccountable executive all-Ireland bodies, and the representatives of the terror machine of the Provisional IRA's entry into government.

I am talking about the central principle of the agreement, which is that there should be cross-community support. That does not exist, and I would argue that it never has, but no one can say so definitively, because no one knows precisely what each section of the community did in the course of the referendum. All we know is that it was remarkably close in terms of whether the Unionist community voted for or against the agreement.

It was clear that the majority of those elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly from the Unionist community were elected on a manifesto that was opposed to the Belfast agreement, and that is what they told their electorate. I see the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) shaking his head. That is because some of the colleagues who stood for his party made it clear to the electorate that they were opposed to the principles that he stands for, and his support for the Belfast agreement.

The reality is that many of us who have been involved in politics in Northern Ireland for a long time will have seen various structures set up, and will have seen them fall. The Unionist community was happy with the old Stormont Parliament; the nationalist community was not, and no matter how much it may have been liked by the Unionist community, it did not have sufficient cross- community support for it to have life and be stable. It fell—a sad fact of life for Unionists. When the power-sharing Executive and the Council of Ireland were set up, the nationalist community received them happily, although the Unionist community did not. Again, for nationalists, the sad fact of life was that that process did not have the necessary cross-community support, and it fell.

I would have thought that that lesson would have been learned by the time that we entered into the current process. Indeed, the Deputy First Minister, Mr. Mark Durkan, and I travelled to South Africa with others to consider the experiences of that country, in particular the principle of sufficient consensus, which was built into its process. We tried to bring that back to Northern Ireland to ensure that whatever structures were set up would have sufficiently robust support from both sections of the community to be stable and lasting. That has not happened and, whatever the position might have been at the time of the referendum, the position now in relation to the Belfast agreement is overwhelmingly that the Unionist community does not give its support and has no confidence in the agreement.

The reality is all around us. The Unionist community does not support the agreement for a range of reasons, not simply because of the principles that I mentioned earlier which undermined that support, but in terms of the practice—how things have worked out on the ground. People can see that the Provisional IRA is not wedded to the peace process. Far from it: since its so-called ceasefire began, it has murdered 14 people, shot 160 people, carried out paramilitary beatings on 250 people, run guns in from Florida, carried out exercises in training narco-terrorists in Columbia, and raided the Castlereagh special branch offices to gather information so that it can better target people. It has even targeted members of the Conservative party.

In my own constituency, five Protestants have been shot by the Provisional IRA. We have seen the interface violence in which IRA members have been engaged as well as the ongoing rackets and other work at that level within the community. One would expect none of the activities that I listed from an organisation wedded to a peace process. We have a Minister of Education who is responsible for looking after young children in Northern Ireland. In his other capacity, he sits down as a member of the army council of the Provisional IRA and takes the decisions to do the things in my catalogue of activities. That can never inspire confidence within the community, and it is not acceptable.

Decommissioning has not happened. More guns have been coming into the IRA stockpile than have been going out at the other end. Clearly, there is no basis on which the Unionist community could have confidence in the process. We will never have a stable political structure in Northern Ireland until we renegotiate the basis of the agreement and have one that is balanced and capable of enjoying the support of Unionists as well as of nationalists.

11.57 am
David Burnside (South Antrim)

I was not involved in the negotiation of the Belfast agreement—there is no reason why I should have been because I was not an elected Member of any House or an adviser—apart from a telephone call that I had from Mo on Good Friday. She told me, "We've written a letter from Tony to David," because my party was having problems signing the agreement. She said, "Use whatever influence you have to send a message through to Castle buildings."

I do not think that my message went through, but when I read the content of Tony's letter to David, I thought, "That helps the ambiguities that are inherent within this agreement". The promises have not been delivered. I went along with the Blair promises and ambiguities. As a Unionist in Northern Ireland, I voted for the agreement along with almost the majority of the traditional Protestant community as well as the Catholics who vote unionist with a small "u", who should not be forgotten.

I humbly suggest to the hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) that a better description for this debate would have been Northern Ireland political rather than peace process, because it is the political process that is failing. All the elected representatives in Northern Ireland—all who take our seats in the House—want the peace process and to get away from the past 30 years of tension, sectarian violence and terrorism from all directions. What emerges from the Select Committee report is the increase in criminality that happens through the front of the terrorist organisations in Northern Ireland. Hon. Members should read the report if they have not done so. It has not been widely reported in the press, and should be reported much more widely.

We need a new political process. Decommissioning is now a farce. Under the Mitchell principles for the destruction of the paramilitary terrorist organisations, delivery should have been completed after two years. The Government have now disgracefully made the deadline 2008, which will have no effect because there is no sanction. Decommissioning is a farce, which is now more to the advantage of Sinn Fein-IRA than to the democrats in the political and peace process. The deadline has no sanction.

My neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson), referred to the Mitchell principles. We need nothing better; they are admirable. They need to be implemented, and they need sanction. They are not being delivered on. For Sinn Fein in government, please read the report. I wanted to believe that terrorists could move from terrorism and holding an Armalite in one hand and the ballot box in the other to holding just the ballot box, but that is not working. The system at Stormont is not as accountable as was promised.

The Secretary of State throws across in his Parkhead style to us on the Unionist Benches the message that there is no alternative, but there is. The alternative is involving Ulster Unionists, Democratic Unionists and the SDLP and excluding Sinn Fein from the process because it is not fit to be part of the democratic process or in government. Martin McGuinness has no remorse or regret for his involvement in terrorism and is still involved in it. He should not be put in that position. The process is not working. We need a fundamental renegotiation of the Belfast agreement.

12.01 pm
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)

I thank the hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) for having made the discussion possible. I am pleased that his party has abandoned its short-lived withdrawal from the cross-party consensus on Northern Ireland. That always struck me as an unsustainable position, and it is to the Conservative party's credit that it is inside, rather than outside, that process.

Liberal Democrats have always been firm supporters of the Good Friday agreement, because it is necessary to use such an agreement to provide legitimate institutions of government in a deeply divided society. The agreement reflects many aspects of policies that Liberal Democrats have long felt to be important, including devolution, power-sharing institutions, accountable north-south structures, the principle of consent and civil liberties. By itself, however, the agreement amounts only to conflict management. Strategies must be developed to move from conflict management to conflict transformation, and ultimately conflict resolution, if the new dispensation is to prove durable.

Those deep divisions in Northern Ireland society have yet to be tackled. The difficulty is that in many ways the phrasing of the Good Friday agreement has institutionalised the assumption of two communities, an issue that I have often raised. It is all very well to say that the two communities are equal but separate, living in peaceful but separated co-existence. The state beyond that—true normality—is when we regard Northern Ireland as one community that is nevertheless diverse and when everyone in Northern Ireland respects the variations and different beliefs and creeds that it contains. Until we reach that point, we have a hostage to fortune that inevitably wells up as visible stress in the streets of the Province when divisions are manifested in face-to-face conflicts.

Nevertheless, huge progress has been made. I take a different view from that of the hon. Member for East Devon on Drumcree. It is closer to the position of the hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara). We should praise the Orange Order for having taken a strategic, measured and sensible approach by de-escalating the issues.

Let us make no mistake. The troubles on Sunday were caused largely by maverick, anti-agreement loyalists mainly from east and south Antrim, not the Orange Order. It is important to emphasise that, because the Orange Order's actions show its willingness not only to move forward from the past but to take a sensible and measured approach towards grievances that it has the right to raise, but that it is now raising within a political framework. It is incumbent on nationalists and republicans in the Drumcree area to reciprocate, and I am optimistic that, if they do so, they will receive a positive response.

In that sense, I am more optimistic than the hon. Member for East Devon, but it is clear that there are flaws in the implementation of the agreement. Those flaws are manifested in the continuing strains and the intensity of conflict that we still see in certain places. Few, if any, of the outstanding issues are now matters of principle, and they are certainly not intractable.

There are matters ranging from how we interpret the Good Friday agreement right through to the degree to which various parties have been able to implement their side of the bargain. Those issues remain tense. However, we should remember that all the pro-agreement parties have—nominally, at least—supported the goals of decommissioning, stabilising the institutions, police reform and security normalisation. There have been problems of interpretation and sequencing, debating who is responsible for implementing the actions and—to a degree—the absence of trust, which causes various parties to feel that if they do move, they will be regarded as losing to the victorious other side. The spirit of compromise and accommodation that made the Good Friday agreement possible is perhaps absent to some extent now.

Related to that is the inability of the paramilitaries to provide sufficient confidence in the durability of their ceasefires through the decommissioning of weapons and the ending of violence. The consequences of that are manifest for all to see. In effect, republican and loyalist paramilitaries need to demonstrate in a much more factual and practical way willingness to trust their political representatives in the political process. Until they do that, there is just cause for grievance on both sides as things fail to move forward. Although I have always felt that the decommissioning of weapons is primarily a symbolic action, I would say that it is very important. The paramilitaries need only consider the benefit that they received by doing that in a rational and organised way, to see that they would help their own side by continuing on that basis.

We have already heard during today's debate that there are pressures on parties, including the Ulster Unionists and—I suppose—Sinn Fein, with regard to how far they can push their hardline members without causing fractures in their organisations. There is no point pretending that that is not happening, but one of the challenges for the Government is to make it as easy as possible for the pro-agreement elements on all sides to negotiate in their own organisations and argue the case, as I attempted to just now, that an inclusive philosophy requires a degree of vulnerability resulting from the giving up of some of the traditional norms in the relevant organisations.

That means that the Government's proposal to handle "on the runs" in a particular way has to be considered in the context of what can be sold to the various parties in Northern Ireland. I am very concerned that what looks like a de facto amnesty for "on the runs" is not symmetrical. It does not take account of the pressures in the loyalist and unionist communities to see parity of treatment. The institutionalism of ethnic divisions is a danger because many people do not regard themselves as members of the Protestant or Catholic communities.

The hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) and others have felt that a fundamental renegotiation of the Good Friday agreement is required. I do not share that view. I feel that the agreement itself is not bad, as long as sufficient flexibility and trust is generated on both sides to give a little bit of space for those negotiating on behalf of the different sides to implement it in a gentle but progressive fashion. In effect, the agreement requires a shared, non-sectarian Northern Ireland with a more united community than that of separate but equal groups. I would be interested to hear the Minister's views on how the Government can smooth our way from a time of stabilising separate groups to an integrated society where those groups live together. Integrated education is important in that context, and so is mixed housing. Those policies need a drive by the Government to become reality. I do not underestimate the tensions involved in doing that, but perhaps that is the single biggest lever that the British Government, working with the Irish Government, can offer.

Human rights are important. Individuals should feel that their rights as individuals, not just as members of collective groups, are upheld. It is necessary to develop a coherent and devolved strategy for Northern Ireland—indeed, for the whole of the British Isles—that would make it easy for individuals to express their identity without having to be forced back into one section of their communities. The Minister might want to say something on that.

Finally, I accept that reforms need to be made to the agreement, but those reforms should take account of such things as the very entrenched voting system in Stormont that caused the Alliance party to have to redesignate in order to play the game of achieving certain shared results in Northern Ireland.

I have raised questions to which I hope the Minister can respond, but let us remember that the whole debate is in the context of the forthcoming 2003 elections. The clock is ticking, and the more that the Government can do now to remove the divisions, the more optimistic I will be that we will have pro-agreement manifestos in abundance during next year's elections in Northern Ireland.

12.10 pm
Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

First, I should like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) on securing this debate and on his excellent speech introducing it. I would want to expropriate nearly all of it for the Front Bench, shortly before he is expropriated in person for the Front Bench, given the quality of his presentation today.

It is inappropriate that this debate is happening in this second-division Chamber at this time. Although I commend right hon. and hon. Members who represent Northern Ireland constituencies for attending in a first-division manner, the fact is that this debate should be taking place on the Floor of the main Chamber of the House of Commons, with contributions from the Prime Minister and the principal spokesmen for the other parties.

David Burnside

As the Prime Minister has given a commitment to make an announcement to the House by 24 July, no doubt by means of a statement, will the hon. Gentleman ask the Government to give the House the opportunity for a full debate on the subject?

Mr. Blunt

I would certainly prefer a full debate, but I shall ask the Government this morning for a commitment to a statement to the House by the Prime Minister before we rise on 24 July. I understand that the Prime Minister has given such an undertaking, but I should like the Minister explicitly to repeat that this morning.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Devon has made it clear that relations between the communities on the ground, particularly at interface points, have got worse. The evidence of that is the building of walls—the spread of walls and the increase in their height. They are a shame on a modern European city, a city that aspires to be the European city of culture in 2008, but that is what is happening to the physical geography of Belfast.

The hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) demolished his own case when he said that the IRA has honoured its ceasefire as it sees it. I am afraid that that is not the test. The right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) made a point about the need for sanctions. It is for the Government to come forward with those details, but I shall have some suggestions on that towards the end of my remarks. I commend the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) on his balanced and honest approach—an approach that we have come to expect from him—to all the problems in Northern Ireland.

The hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) drew our attention to the important work done by the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs and the need for the Government to increase the resources to be given to the recovery of assets from criminals. As the Committee said, it is unacceptable for 40 officers of the Gardai to be devoted to that, but only 10 in Northern Ireland. I assume that those are the figures to which the hon. Member was referring. That is, of course, not the totality of people devoted to the attack on organised crime, but that unit is extremely important and needs urgently to be reinforced.

The hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), in his customary way, gave us a full catalogue of the activities of an organisation not wedded to peace. It is very difficult to gainsay the evidence that he adduced. The hon. Member for South Antrim (David Burnside) referred to the ambiguities in the agreement. I must tell the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) that the Conservative party has been wedded to the aim of finding a solution to the problems in Northern Ireland and, during its terms in office, produced the Sunningdale agreement under Sir Edward Heath and the Anglo-Irish agreement under my right hon. and noble Friend Baroness Thatcher, and played an active part in the current peace process, which I would argue began under my right hon. and noble Friend, Lord Brooke, when he was Secretary of State. My right hon. Friends the Members for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), the then Leader of the Opposition, and for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay), the then shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, campaigned alongside the Prime Minister and the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland for a yes vote in 1998.

Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North)

I respect the hon. Gentleman for his comments about his party's commitment to the continuation of the peace process. In that connection, I sincerely regret a facetious comment that I made when leaving a meeting yesterday, which referred to the hon. Gentleman. I withdraw it entirely and without reservation.

Mr. Blunt

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that handsome withdrawal of an appalling remark. He and I are now roughly in balance. Once or twice my sense of humour has got the better of my sense of judgment, so I accept his full apology.

Lembit Öpik

I praise what the Conservatives have done in the past, particularly John Major, who was instrumental in the current process. However, I was concerned earlier this year when I understood that the Conservatives were pulling out of the cross-party agreement. They sound as if they are now on board, for which I have unequivocal praise.

Mr. Blunt

We have always been on board, and it is the hon. Gentleman's understanding that has been at a loss.

The Belfast agreement, on which the whole peace process is built, was based on a commitment by the parties to end violence. The assumption was that Sinn Fein would deliver the IRA, and that was not an unreasonable assumption to make since the people who represent Sinn Fein, as the hon. Member for Belfast, East made clear, are by and large the same people who sit on the army council of the Provisional IRA. The agreement was sold to the people of Northern Ireland by the Prime Minister, and the Minister will remember his speech at the Balmoral show ground, which bears repeating. The Prime Minister said: The problem is this: I believe that most people would be ready to accept even the hardest parts of the Agreement if they had genuine confidence that the paramilitaries were really ready to give up violence for good. I welcome Sinn Fein's endorsement of the Agreement and all that it implies. This is a historic shift. But after the experiences of the last 30 years, and some recent statements about no decommissioning, it is hardly surprising that for many, that confidence is simply not there. I refer right hon. and hon. Members to the comments that followed: These factors will provide evidence upon which to base an overall judgment—a judgment which will necessarily become more rigorous over time. That was the basis on which people in Northern Ireland voted for the agreement. I do not know why that speech has disappeared from the No. 10 website, or why it is no longer referred to. I sincerely hope that, given its importance, it will be listed again by No. 10 as one of the Prime Minister's seminal speeches.

What has happened over the past four years? We have had the procurement of weapons in Florida, and weapons testing has been carried out in Columbia in conjunction with narco-terrorists, with appalling consequences for the Columbian people. Updated targeting information has been uncovered, and shooting and beatings have risen since 1998. Most regrettably of all, we have witnessed the attitude of Sinn Fein's leadership to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, which is a key and symbolic test. When the chairman of Sinn Fein was not prepared to condemn the attempted murder of a Catholic recruit to the PSNI, what message did he send to the whole community of Northern Ireland about Sinn Fein's commitment to peace? I said to him yesterday that it remains absolutely necessary for him to make it clear that Sinn Fein abhors violence and is fully committed to peace. If he will not do that, what conclusion are people expected to draw when they hear Gerry Adams say that the PSNI will be treated the same as the RUC?

Everyone knows what conclusions they should draw. The judgments that have to be applied to Sinn Fein and the republicans are different from those that have to be applied to loyalists. The Progressive Unionist party and the Ulster Democratic party, which no longer exists, are not in government. I have heard the leadership of the PUP be more explicit in its condemnation of loyalist violence from its community than Sinn Fein ever has of violence coming from the republican community.

The Government face three options. The ideal option is for Sinn Fein to show leadership and condemn violence in the republican community, and to make it unequivocally clear that it is fully committed to the peaceful, democratic process. That is what we are looking for, and it can show leadership by further acts of decommissioning, joining the Policing Board and taking a constructive attitude towards the police in Northern Ireland. It can even show leadership in the language that it uses to the republican and nationalist community in Northern Ireland. The SDLP has already bravely given such leadership.

If that does not happen the Government will have to show leadership and deliver on the Prime Minister's Balmoral speech, which is the second option. If the Government do not deliver, we will look to the SDLP and the Ulster Unionist party, which have been fully committed to the democratic process, to exercise their responsibilities, which is the third option. However, it should not be left to them.

It is now down to the Prime Minister again to show the leadership that he used in negotiating the Belfast agreement four years ago. He should make it clear that in word and in spirit the Belfast agreement and the peace process will continue.

12.21 pm
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Jane Kennedy)

The hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) deserves our gratitude for offering us an opportunity to debate a subject that rightly generates passion and interest across the House. He further deserves our compliments for the thoughtful and eloquent way in which he opened the debate. In his speech he displayed a depth of understanding of the issues that set the scene for this debate at—I would be the first to concede this—such a difficult time.

The hon. Gentleman made a point to which I should like to refer before I deal with the wider issues. He and other hon. Members referred to the Select Committee report, which is very interesting and I commend it to those who have not read it. The Select Committee says that it has been encouraged by the evidence … that the Government is tackling organised crime and links to paramilitarism and are developing powerful and effective strategies to counter them". It also says: Those who are actively engaged in the difficult and dangerous work of tackling paramilitaries and serious criminals have a right to expect not only a formal commitment to their work but properly resourced support by Government for the long term. The report is weighty and comes from a serious Select Committee that has done some serious work. I should like members of the Committee who are present to accept that the Government take the recommendations in that enormously interesting report seriously.

It is not possible to draw a straight numerical comparison between what the Government are doing in Northern Ireland to tackle organised crime and policing in the Republic of Ireland. I shall say this about the way in which the PSNI tackle organised crime. Two reserve police officers on duty in Newry in the middle of the night spotted a suspicious vehicle that was dripping oil. They were unable to stop the vehicle, but they followed the trail of oil and discovered a fuel laundering plant that was laundering 1 million litres of fuel each month, which was creating a £500,000 loss to the Exchequer. One cannot say that the number of officers that the Chief Constable of Northern Ireland allocates to tackling organised crime is insufficient, because the whole of the PSNI turns its hand to tackling organised crime and deserves to be commended.

I shall now deal with the main subject, which is the general future of the peace process in Northern Ireland. The debate comes when we are confronted with significant challenges for the implementation of the agreement, which must be met before we can move ahead and make further progress. As we promised, we are considering how we overcome the challenges. We must overcome them, because the process can only go forward on the basis of commitment to entirely peaceful methods by those who are engaged in it. The Belfast agreement has brought us a long way, but it has the potential to take us much further, and we must hold to that fact.

As we become more distant from the awful days before the ceasefires, it is easy to forget what a transformation there has been in many aspects of life in Northern Ireland. My hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) was right to refer to the achievements that the agreement has made possible.

The most obvious development is that there is less violence. There is still too much street violence, and too many murders and scenes such as the utterly indefensible displays at Drumcree on Sunday. That is unacceptable. I should like to make it clear that the Government do not believe that there is any acceptable level of violence. Nevertheless, the contrast between what we have now and the days of the all-out terrorist campaigns is striking. There is too much violence—we could discuss the average number of deaths and so on—but it is important to hold to the fact that there have been many fewer deaths. In that context, what happened on Sunday in Drumcree must be kept in perspective and, for that reason, the comments of the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) are very telling.

The two acts of IRA decommissioning were of enormous symbolic significance and should not be dismissed lightly. The second was acknowledged by the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning to involve a "varied and substantial" quantity of weapons.

Lady Hermon


Jane Kennedy

If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I shall resist interventions, because I have very little time left to deal with these very serious issues.

There has also been a massive rapprochement between political points of view, which for so many years have been in diametric opposition. A great deal of economic improvement has taken place. It has been under way for some years, but the prospect of peace has done a great deal to accelerate and embed it. Belfast has a vibrancy and character like never before. On a Saturday night in the city centre, hundreds of young people from all backgrounds visit clubs, pubs and restaurants and talk and laugh on the streets, as one would expect in any prosperous, up-and-coming city centre anywhere in the United Kingdom. The Government have done all that they can to sustain the process of economic development.

The Government and others have made enormous efforts to implement the agreement. However, the unfolding of the implementation process has given rise to legitimate concerns, which have grown in recent months. We must acknowledge that the benefits that I just mentioned have not been fully enjoyed by all in Northern Ireland. As has been too frequently and chillingly depicted on our television screens, there are areas in which reconciliation and partnership appear to be a remote prospect.

I acknowledge that hope has become tarnished as anxiety has grown that there may be a less full-hearted commitment—I put it no stronger than that—to peace and partnership among players on both sides of the community than we had hoped for at one stage. Such concerns have been at the centre of discussions between the political parties and Governments, including the proceedings at Hillsborough last week, which were led by the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach.

In the minute that I have left, I shall not go into the detail of the Government's thinking on the issues, nor shall I give the commitments that have been sought today. The Government must be permitted to take all the issues seriously and to respond carefully, as we promised we would in the commitment that we made last Thursday. I am grateful to the hon. Member for East Devon for giving us the opportunity to debate the issues.