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House of Commons

Wednesday 24 January 2001

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked--

Royal Ulster Constabulary

1. Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): If he will make a statement on the future of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. [145474]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Peter Mandelson): The men and women of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and those acting in their support provide an excellent service to the people of Northern Ireland, as recent successes against terrorism demonstrate. I know that the police service will continue to do so as the changes arising from the Patten report are implemented. I should like to add on a personal basis that they are embracing those changes with typical resilience and professionalism. It has been my great privilege to support them, including their Chief Constable, in their valiant work.

Mr. Brazier: In view of the deadlock in the negotiations and the uncertain--to say the least--security position, will the Secretary of State, as his last official action in the Chamber, do a little more to lift the shadow from that brave, impartial and disciplined service still known as the Royal Ulster Constabulary?

Mr. Mandelson: The Government's aim throughout this process is to develop a modern police service in Northern Ireland that is both effective and representative of the community it serves, and that commands the widespread support and confidence that it needs to do its job effectively. The changes being implemented will, in the Government's view, achieve that. The Government have made it clear that they are committed to the radical vision expressed by Patten, which, in our view, will contribute as much, if not more than anything else, to long-term peace and stability for all the people in Northern Ireland.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde): May I say to my right hon. Friend that very many people in both communities in Northern Ireland will view his statement today with deep dismay and regret? He has

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always given of his best in ensuring the interests of the people of both communities in Northern Ireland and he will be sorely missed.

On the issue of police reform, may I tell my right hon. Friend that I for one have every trust in the sheer professionalism of Ronnie Flanagan and his senior officers in implementing the necessary reform? In him and Commissioner Pat Byrne we have two very high-ranking and extremely competent police officers who will do their best to take forward the peace process.

Mr. Mandelson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his generous remarks. What no one should underestimate is the radical transformation that is already under way in policing in Northern Ireland. The Patten report is no longer just theory; it is becoming a daily reality. With the police ombudsman in place, the oversight commissioner at work, new district commanders appointed, the district command structure being put in place, a new recruitment agency to recruit new recruits to the Police Service of Northern Ireland almost in place, the severance scheme and the restructuring of headquarters, many changes are taking place now. That is why we have to resolve any remaining political difficulties and continue firmly with the tasks that we have set ourselves in bringing about the much-needed changes in policing in Northern Ireland.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann): May I first thank the Secretary of State for all the work that he has done in Northern Ireland in the past year or so, and tell him that many people appreciate the efforts that he has made? I say that although, as he knows, there are various issues on which we have disagreed, particularly policing. The proposals particularly to change the name of the RUC and the failure to recognise the service and the sacrifice of RUC members have caused very deep hurt within the community as a whole. Furthermore, the effectiveness of the police force is being undermined by the continuing uncertainty about particular aspects of policing.

Does the Secretary of State therefore agree that the sooner we have a closure on the issue the better; and that that requires nationalists themselves now to take up their responsibility for society, as has been implicit in the agreement and in everything that it contained? Has not the time long since passed for nationalists to take their responsibilities and to support the police service, so that it can continue the honourable traditions of the RUC?

Mr. Mandelson: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his initial generous remarks.

The Government are conscious, and I have been only too conscious, that some of the changes are painful for some people in Northern Ireland. I can say firmly and sincerely that the sacrifices that have been made by the RUC will never be forgotten. The award of the George Cross to the RUC by Her Majesty the Queen is a fitting tribute, as will be the creation of the RUC GC Foundation in the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000.

I echo the right hon. Gentleman's remarks. It is incumbent on all sections of society to move forward in support of the police service and to encourage young men

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and women right across the community, in both traditions, to become part of this unique opportunity for policing in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead): Does my right hon. Friend accept that the Royal Ulster Constabulary has never sought to block the tremendous efforts that he and others have made to achieve a more inclusive police service in Northern Ireland? Will he also accept my congratulations on the tremendous work that he has done with and for the police, to ensure that the goal of a more inclusive force will one day be realised?

Mr. Mandelson: Certainly, one of the Government's proudest achievements--one of my own personal proudest achievements has been the contribution that I made in introducing it--has been the passage of the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000, which is leading to the creation of the new police service. The process of establishing the new service has begun and must continue. One cannot stop such a transformation in midstream. To do so would leave the police in Northern Ireland in limbo, with all the implications that that entails.

We must press on, but to do so wholly successfully requires the support and active participation of the political and community representatives of both traditions. If we can secure that, it will be the most signal step forward in the transformation of Northern Ireland from the era of war and terrorism to the era of peace that it wishes now to embrace.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell): Does the Secretary of State accept that his was the right decision--indeed, the only tenable decision--in the circumstances? As he leaves office, will he acknowledge that the police reforms are in real danger of being all pain and no gain, especially if the Irish Government, the SDLP and Sinn Fein continue to refuse to recommend to young Catholic men and women that they join the new police force?

Mr. Mandelson: The greatest, most important gain to be secured from this process of change and this new beginning in policing that we are seeking to create is the development of a police service that wins the trust and respect of both sides, allowing the police to operate effectively right across the community and to tackle crime at its root, with the active support of both sides of the community rather than with the hostility or the sullen acquiescence that we have seen in the past, allowing the RUC to transform itself from the counter-terrorist organisation that it has been into the community-based, partnership-based police service that we want for the future.


2. Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): When he expects decommissioning of illegally held arms and explosives in Northern Ireland to begin. [145475]

7. Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): What undertakings by the Government remain to be fulfilled to enable verifiable total disarmament of terrorist weaponry. [145480]

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The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Adam Ingram): Efforts are still continuing to seek a way forward to enable decommissioning to occur as soon as possible. For our part, the Government have met all our commitments, and continue to meet our commitments to take the steps necessary for full implementation of the agreement by June 2001.

Mr. Forth: For how much longer are Ministers going to fool themselves and, what is worse, the British people, over decommissioning? For how much longer are they going to allow illegal weapons and substances to exist and be held in the United Kingdom?

Mr. Ingram: We have not given up--it seems to me that the right hon. Gentleman has perhaps given up--on the process. That is not what the people of Northern Ireland want. They want all the efforts made over recent days, months and years, by this and previous Administrations, to succeed. This is a difficult process. We hope that, with the encouragement of everyone with good will, we can take it to a satisfactory conclusion.

Rev. Martin Smyth: The Minister's optimism is understandable, but does not he agree that the hope may be false, especially when senior people in the paramilitary organisations are reported in the media as saying that there will be no decommissioning? The people of Northern Ireland are aware of that, after the recent attacks on Ebrington barracks and Claudy police station. Is it possible that we have been listening to our own spin, and that the republicans have rumbled us?

Mr. Ingram: The recent attacks to which the hon. Gentleman refers have been attributed to the dissident republican movement, the Real IRA, as was yesterday's attack on Ebrington barracks. It is a matter not of believing spin but of looking at the hard reality and trying to find answers. No one said the task would be easy or without risks attached. That is the reality that we are dealing with. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will know the mood in his constituency, which is for peace and for the removal of the past from Northern Ireland.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe): Does my right hon. Friend accept that those of us with a particular interest in Northern Ireland, and especially those who belong to the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, will greet with regret this morning's announcement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State? However, will he make it clear to the parties in Northern Ireland that they should redouble their efforts to achieve faster progress on all sides, and not use the Secretary of State's resignation as an excuse for further delay?

Mr. Ingram: I thank my hon. Friend for his kind comments about the sterling efforts and work of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. The Select Committee has played an important role in exposing and examining a range of issues, and in helping the process in which we are involved. We need to move forward on the basis that the Government have set out but, more importantly, on the

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basis set out in the Good Friday agreement. That is what the people of Northern Ireland hold to and what they want to have delivered. We are determined to achieve that.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough): In view of the statement of the independent decommissioning commission that it is possible to achieve decommissioning by June 2001, does my right hon. Friend share my anxiety that the constant harping of the Conservative party makes the process more difficult?

Mr. Ingram: I am not sure that I share my hon. Friend's anxiety about that: I am tempted to use a different word to describe my response, but perhaps I should not use it today. I have said before, from this Dispatch Box, that the weakness in the Opposition's position is that they claim to be part of a bipartisan approach but constantly seek to question every dot and comma of what the Government seek to do. The Labour party in opposition gave the previous Conservative Government support when the going was tough, and Conservative Members should do the same now.

Mr. Robert McCartney (North Down): Will the Minister confirm that, during the negotiations that led to the Belfast agreement, the Government's position was that it was a twin-track process, and that decommissioning would be delivered when a political agreement was delivered? Two and half years on, will he confirm that not a single ounce of Semtex or a single bullet has been delivered by Sinn Fein-IRA?

Mr. Ingram: Of course I can confirm that. That is why my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State have redoubled their efforts over recent days to move the process forward. I recognise that the hon. and learned Gentleman wants what I want for Northern Ireland, and that is a peaceful settlement. He comes at the problem from a direction that is different from mine, but I know that he shares that objective. I think that he should give encouragement to the process and put some hope into it, because--and I repeat the point--that is what most people in his constituency and in Northern Ireland want. They want peace, and no more violence.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell): The Minister will be aware that it is widely believed that political pressure is being put on the armed forces to move towards demilitarisation in Northern Ireland in return for perhaps at last some movement on decommissioning. Does he accept that this would be highly dangerous and that Ministers will be responsible if such changes in security lead to loss of life?

Mr. Ingram: I suspect that the right hon. Gentleman has not learned any lessons from his past experience serving as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. No political pressure is put on our security advisers. We take their advice. It is a process of consultation; it is considering all of the options that are open to us. We have said time and again that we take the best security advice available before we move. The advice that we receive is first class and we have always responded to it.

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