Human Rights and Equality in Northern Ireland

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The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Adam Ingram): I share the sentiments of the hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) about the role of the security forces in Northern Ireland, which do a tremendous job in difficult circumstances in the front line. The general threat from dissident republicanism is targeted on the security forces, and we should always remember the brave and difficult job that they do. I also share the hon. Gentleman's sympathy towards the victims of terrorist actions in Dungannon this morning.

I shall deal with the generality of the hon. Gentleman's comments, but he also raised a specific point about the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning. The IICD is an independent body: it does not function at the whim or direction of the two Governments. The commission judges when it is right to report to the Governments and whether any movement has taken place. It is conscious of its role, having existed for a considerable time. In common with everyone else, it hoped to make much more progress on the back of the Good Friday agreement—and even before it took place. It was not to be, but it is wrong to speculate about the future.

The hon. Gentleman asked various pertinent questions and referred to the discussions aimed at resolution of these difficult matters as ``secret negotiations''. I tried to explain that such discussions were necessarily held in close confine, not paraded in front of the press and every individual. That is the only way to make progress in peace negotiations. I had hoped that the hon. Gentleman would appreciate the importance of the discussions. The aim is not to take us backwards, but to move forward. If the big prizes can be achieved, the clarification of the IICD's role might be a useful factor to emerge in the process.

Let me provide a more detailed account of the actions of the Government and the security forces against the generality of terrorist activity in Northern Ireland. I shall make some observations about the specific threats outlined by the hon. Gentleman. The spate of pipe bomb attacks by sectarian extremists, which have put some areas of Northern Ireland in the grip of fear, and the equally vicious attempts of dissident republicans to maim and murder—further exemplified by last night's incident near Newry—have a common aim. They are both intended to wreck the Good Friday agreement, which was endorsed by the overwhelming majority of the people of Northern Ireland. The extremists show nothing but contempt for the will of the people; they have no mandate themselves; and they cannot respect the mandate of others. The two groups emanate from different sides of the sectarian divide, but have those characteristics in common.

I want to make it clear that the Government are determined, as are all people of good will in Northern Ireland, that those groups and those individuals will not prevail. Those malevolent people will not be allowed to thwart the desire for peace and a longing for a normal society that is shared, I believe, by every decent family in Northern Ireland.

I was asked for some specifics. The Government and the security forces are tackling the pipe bombers and the dissidents head on. The threat from sectarian attacks has been matched by a Province-wide police strategy, supported where necessary by the Army. Saturation patrolling, backed up by covert operations, has been introduced in key estates. Focused patrols, maximising the use of intelligence in particular areas, are liaising with the community to target areas of tension at times of high risk. In Larne alone, the number of patrol doubled last year.

Sub-divisional commanders have also introduced additional patrols, and a regional mobile support unit, made up of officers with local knowledge, has conducted a series of searches. Hon. Members from Northern Ireland will be only too well aware of the considerable successes in recovering bomb-making equipment that have flowed from those searches. Local police commanders have also tailored this strategy to their local situation. The publication and launch of an eight-point plan in Coleraine is a good example of that.

There have been real successes at local level: 63 people have been charged or reported for prosecution for sectarian offences in Larne over the last two years. The Government are intensely aware of the suffering caused to the victims of those attacks. I have first-hand experience of some of the areas concerned. On my visits there, I have met many of the victims and their families and many representatives of the wider community who represent their views.

The word ``terrorism'' is used so often that its meaning has been blunted, but it is the right word to describe the fear in which families and single people, young and old, are living in some areas. They are afraid to go to sleep at night in case they lower their guard. Closed-circuit television has been installed in some places to deter attacks on individuals and police are liaising closely with those victims.

I should like to pay tribute to the professionalism and commitment of the police and the Army in facing this new spate of attacks. It is not an easy task, but they are determined. I should also point out that the presence of the Army—back on the streets in Larne, Coleraine, north Belfast and now Derry—underlines the Government's absolute determination on that point. We have always said that normalisation will proceed in line with the level of the security threat. The Army's support of the police in these areas shows that we will not hesitate to deploy the resources necessary to protect the public.

We are also looking with our security advisers at evidence of any orchestration of attacks. Many attacks have been popularly attributed to the Ulster Defence Association. That is a notoriously fragmented organisation and the RUC believe that, while individual members of the UDA may be involved in some of the attacks, there is not evidence of direction or organisation by the UDA. However, I stress that we keep the status of the ceasefires of all paramilitary organisations under daily review. The Secretary of State and I have that issue at the very top of our daily agenda. No one should be in any doubt that we will act swiftly and decisively if we believe that any organisation is not observing its ceasefire.

I am considering the merits of tailoring the hate crime provisions that apply in England and Wales, and that are aimed primarily at racially motivated offences, to Northern Ireland. Again, if we are satisfied that those provisions would help to combat crimes of sectarian hatred, we will act by bringing forward appropriate legislation to tackle such evils. However, the reality is that they will not be defeated by legislation alone. It needs the full engagement of all sections of the community. We are beginning to see yet again the importance of this.

In view of the recent spate of pipe bomb attacks, I welcome the joint statement by Protestant Churches in Coleraine. The eight-point plan launched in that town by the police makes it absolutely clear that they attach the highest importance to support from community leaders. Only when the whole community makes it clear that the naked parading of sectarianism and the violence that flows from it are unacceptable and that it supports the police in tackling those problems will we have a normal society in Northern Ireland.

The Government and the security forces are playing their part. Others, including Members of Parliament, also have a role. Their role is not to chase political headlines but to help to create the inclusive society that I genuinely believe is achievable. If everyone of good will stands on the one side and argues for the changes that are essential in Northern Ireland, all the concepts envisaged in the Good Friday agreement can be realised. It is not simply a matter of attack and criticism but of seeing how we can move forward progressively on this.

Alongside the rise in sectarian attacks is the continuing threat from dissident republicans. I have spoken many times in the House about the seriousness with which the Government and the security forces regard this stream of attempted bombings. Again, I pay tribute to the vigilance of our security forces. As the Chief Constable recently pointed out, were it not for their vigilance, we would certainly have seen significant injury and loss of life as a result of dissident activities. It is worth while remembering some of the recent successes.

In November, a four-man Real IRA unit was intercepted in County Fermanagh. Bomb-making equipment and a mortar destined for use on an RUC station was recovered. Later that month, a planned search uncovered a sniper's rifle and other weapons leading to three arrests in Londonderry. Two more arrests followed in Belfast in December and last month a large device was discovered in two camouflaged bins at Middletown in County Armagh. Despite those successes, neither we nor the security forces are complacent. The terrible injuries sustained by Reserve Constable Fegan from a bomb outside Castlewellan RUC station in November remind us of the price paid by the security forces in protecting the public. Those brave men and women put their lives at risk.

I should also like to pay tribute to the RUC's colleagues in the Garda Siochana. They deserve our gratitude for their impressive successes against the dissidents. Since the Good Friday agreement, 39 people have been arrested in the Republic in connection with dissident groups; 21 have been convicted and the remainder are awaiting trial. Co-operation between the security forces has never been better, and it is paying real dividends.

It is important that we constantly keep all those issues under review. The Government are determined to help Northern Ireland make the transition to a normal society. We will continue to pursue the terrorists, from whatever fringe or extreme they may come. At the same time, we are shining a light into the dark side of Northern Ireland's society—the mafia-style subculture that brings misery to the whole community. The hon. Gentleman referred to that.

We are determined to cure this poisonous legacy of the troubles and we have shown our commitment through the establishment of the organised crime taskforce under my chairmanship and other far-reaching measures to combat financial crime. We will continue to pursue the gangsters and the terrorists with equal determination until the death throes of sectarianism are over and the violent fringe of bigotry and hatred is extinguished. I believe that that day is closer now than ever and much of that is due to the Good Friday agreement. I ask Northern Ireland Members to look at that agreement afresh and to look at the framework that it provides for moving Northern Ireland society forward.

We are not there yet. We still have difficulties before us, all of which we are seeking to resolve. Everyone has a role to play in taking this forward to achieve political agreement and a society based on partnership. I urge all Northern Ireland Members to look at those partnerships, at the positive developments and at the successes of the security forces. The Government are determined to move forward on two separate tracks. First, we want to maintain a level of security, and I have given good examples of how that has been achieved, and secondly, we want to bring forward a new political settlement. If we can win those two prizes of clamping down on the extremes and achieving the political framework needed to move Northern Ireland into a new civic society, it will be a huge feat. It will be historic. That is why I urge Northern Ireland Members to play a role in that. It is easy to criticise. They should get out there and start to sell the positive message rather than the negative.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising these issues. I have not dealt with all the specifics. I will obviously deal with them in writing. He knows that I will not deal with specific cases through exchanges in Committee and I certainly will not respond to speculation in the press about who is or is not responsible for particular murders. I take my advice from the Chief Constable. I hope that the hon. Gentleman has the same confidence in our security forces as I do.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fifteen minutes to Six o'clock.

Question not Answered OrallySectarian Murders

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Prepared 8 February 2001