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House of Commons

Wednesday 5 December 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—

Good Friday Agreement

1. Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield): If he will make a statement on the steps he has taken to secure the full implementation of the Good Friday agreement. [18092]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Dr. John Reid): The British Government remain wholly committed to the full implementation of the Belfast agreement. We must now build on the considerable progress that we have made in recent weeks and concentrate on stabilising the institutions and moving ahead with all the remaining aspects of the agreement.

Richard Burden: I welcome the achievements of recent weeks and my right hon. Friend's contribution to those achievements. Given that a number of paramilitary groups, including loyalist paramilitary groups, are still not on ceasefire, how realistic is it to aim to achieve full decommissioning by February? What can be done to ensure that General de Chastelain can continue his work so that we can keep in place the legal framework for decommissioning?

Dr. Reid: It is true, of course, that General de Chastelain, whom I met on Monday this week, has made a considerable contribution through his calm endurance. I am sure that the entire House would wish to thank him for his contribution. We welcome the progress that has been made, including the historic and significant step by the IRA, but my hon. Friend is right to say that there is a long way to go. Some loyalists have not started the process of decommissioning and are not even on ceasefire, so it is extremely unlikely that the process can be completed by February. Of course, the remit of General de Chastelain does not expire then. It is a continual remit, at the behest of the two Governments, but we need the legal framework that allows decommissioning to take place, and in the very near future we will bring before the House legislation to enable that to happen.

Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley): The Secretary of State will be aware of the offence caused to

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many in the community in Northern Ireland by the decision to haul down the Union flag from police stations, the decision to remove the royal title and the crown insignia from the Royal Ulster Constabulary—the only constabulary in the United Kingdom that will not have the crown in its badge—and the proposal to remove the royal coat of arms from our courtrooms. The Secretary of State recently said that there was a danger that Northern Ireland would become a "cold house for Unionists". What does he propose to do about that?

Dr. Reid: As the hon. Gentleman supported the Belfast agreement, I take it that he read it before he agreed to it. It states:

which I take to include him—

I take it that the hon. Gentleman still accepts the agreement. Nevertheless, I recognise and I have made plain that the matter must be treated with a degree of sensitivity and a recognition of the rights not only of the Catholics and those who feel culturally Irish in Northern Ireland, but of the Protestants and those who feel British.

I commend to the hon. Gentleman the leader in the Belfast Newsletter this morning, which comments:

In other words, through mutual respect and sensitivity on the matter of symbols, we are trying to create the conditions that the hon. Gentleman wants to see created—a continuation in Northern Ireland on the basis of consent. I recognise the sensitivity that he highlights. I hope that he will try to recognise and reflect upon the points that I am making.

Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough): Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) on securing a good vote in his party on Saturday? Does my right hon. Friend recognise that the re-establishment of the political institutions in Northern Ireland, particularly the north- south consultation bodies, can offer tangible benefits to people in Northern Ireland on the economic, social and cultural fronts?

Dr. Reid: Yes, indeed. I think that my hon. Friend is right. Obviously, we congratulate the First Minister of Northern Ireland, the leader of the Ulster Unionist party, on the vote that he received at the weekend. It is in all our interests that we get a degree of stability in Northern Ireland. That stability has, to say the least, been somewhat lacking in the institutions in the past six to nine months. It is important not least because there is widespread support throughout the community for the good work that the Assembly and the Executive already have done and can do. Devolution of power is not only an essential part of the Belfast agreement, but the vehicle through which an all-Ireland dimension can be given with tangible benefits for the whole community. That includes both traditions

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and all citizens in Northern Ireland, and the recognition of that all-Ireland dimension, which is an essential part of the Belfast agreement.

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim): It will come as no surprise to the people of Northern Ireland that this decommissioning date is not going to be kept rigid and that it will probably be changed and changed again. That will not cause any ripples for the people of Northern Ireland, for they expected it to happen. As the Secretary of State has mentioned that he wants to see stability, can I ask him whether he has seen the campaign literature just issued by Sinn Fein against the Police Service of Northern Ireland, linking it with plastic bullets, shoot to kill, abuse of human rights, sectarian intimidation, collusion, obstruction of inquiries and torture? Will he condemn that sort of literature, which is put around the doors, but breaks the legislation on such literature, as it carries no printer's name or imprint?

Dr. Reid: Yes, I condemn that sort of literature absolutely. I have no doubt that, as in any other human organisation, there have been faults and mistakes and perhaps wrongs. I think that that happens in all police forces, but I have to say that, given the terrible conditions in which the RUC had to work—on many occasions, the Police Service of Northern Ireland still has to work in such conditions—the police have been stalwart defenders not only of law and order and peace in Northern Ireland, but, on many occasions, of the Catholic communities themselves. I hope that those who have been asking for many years for the right to participate fully in institutions and in the Police Service of Northern Ireland will, now that we have implemented Patten, face up to the responsibilities that always come with rights and participate as they should do, not least because all communities in Northern Ireland deserve a decent, good and effective police service.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): When military de-escalation takes place in Northern Ireland in response to the Provisional IRA starting to put arms beyond use—there may be more moves on the issue in future—what account will be taken of the growing threat that exists from the Real IRA and loyalist paramilitary groups?

Dr. Reid: Any moves that I make regarding the military presence in Northern Ireland are made with full consultation and on the advice of my security advisers, who include the Chief Constable and the General Officer Commanding, Northern Ireland. As my hon. Friend has pointed out, part of that consideration is, by imperative, the threat from the dissident republican groups. It is a great irony that that threat is one of the most major stumbling blocks to the removal of the presence that is manifested by the British Army, to which the nationalist and republican communities constantly object. They should look towards the real reason why we must have a more than normal military presence, which is not the will of this House, but the threat from the dissident republicans.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford): Is it true, as the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor says in a

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magazine article today, that the Government are planning a new raft of concessions in Northern Ireland? The article refers to

there is, of course, no mention of anybody else's misdeeds—

If there is any truth in that statement by the Secretary of State's predecessor, will he come clean to the House and say when he proposes to bring the measures before it and to explain their justification?

Dr. Reid: It is not true that new measures are being contemplated apart from those that have already been put before the public and the House in Weston Park. I would do my right hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) a disservice if I did not point out that he did not suggest that the measures were new. He said that they had already been undertaken.

Mr. Davies: The Secretary of State has obviously not read his colleague's article, which refers to new concessions. Will he learn lessons from the serious mistakes of his two predecessors in releasing all prisoners before the IRA had made any progress on decommissioning? Does he accept that, as I put it to him and the House on 24 October at column 305, it would be sensible to make no more concessions until it is clear what final package will be required to bring about full decommissioning?

Dr. Reid: First, I confess to the hon. Gentleman that GQ does not feature in my midnight reading. I commend him on finding the time to read such magazines; I hope that the rest of it is as interesting as the article to which he referred. My understanding is that my right hon. Friend referred to events that occurred after he was Secretary of State. I commend him on his performance as Secretary of State, but the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) asked today whether new measures would be taken. I replied no, other than those we have debated previously. [Interruption.] Well, the hon. Gentleman told me that he raised the point at the last Northern Ireland questions. He could hardly have done that if the matter had not been discussed in the Chamber. He referred to concessions. I repeat that I do not regard the extension of human rights, parity of esteem, and equality of all individuals as concessions.

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