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House of Commons

Wednesday 10 July 2002

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—


1. Mr. John Lyons (Strathkelvin and Bearsden): When he last met trade unions in Northern Ireland to discuss the implications of sectarianism for the peace process. [65799]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Dr. John Reid): The trade union movement in Northern Ireland has been at the forefront of the campaign against sectarianism, particularly in the workplace.

I met a delegation from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions on 25 March 2002, and we discussed sectarianism among other subjects.

Mr. Lyons: I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply. All across the House there is recognition of the sterling work of the trade unions in Northern Ireland, not only in fighting for certain issues in the workplace but in combating sectarianism. Will my right hon. Friend review how the trade unions in Northern Ireland can become more involved and included in the work of the broader civic Northern Ireland?

Dr. Reid: Yes, indeed, I am happy to pay tribute to the trade unions. As part of the discussions on sectarianism that I have been having with a range of bodies, I have been meeting the trade unions and discussing with them what they can contribute. It is a particularly challenging problem in Northern Ireland because, unfortunately, we have recently seen an increase in attacks on bus drivers and essential emergency services. This reached a new low yesterday when a cortege and hearse in Londonderry were pelted with stones and paint-bombed. That is the lowest of the low—beneath contempt. Where are we when we cannot even treat the dead with dignity? I am sure that I speak for the whole House when I say that those who are laying their loved ones to rest should be afforded—if anyone should be—at least a dignified funeral at the culmination of their loved one's life.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann): I am sure that the Secretary of State will be happy to convey to the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Lyons) the fact that trade unions—whose work in dealing with

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intimidation in the workplace I, too, applaud—are represented in the civic forum in Northern Ireland, which represents those elements of civic society not directly represented in the Assembly.

I agree with the Secretary of State about the new low that has been reached in a number of recent incidents. Someone appears to have made a deliberate attempt in north Belfast to use a car as a lethal weapon to drive on to the pavement and run people down, simply because they were in a different area. Is that not symptomatic of the way in which relations in a number of areas have deteriorated; is that not inseparable from the recent activity of various paramilitary organisations; and is that not the problem that the Secretary of State should get a grip of?

Dr. Reid: I agree with much of what the right hon. Gentleman says. A report yesterday from the University of Ulster about the further polarisation of opinions made depressing reading. I have no doubt that sectarianism is at least part of the problem with which we are confronted. We have seen street violence where there has been some involvement by paramilitaries. That is part of the reason why there is a need to restore confidence in the peace process.

We have a challenging and difficult weekend ahead. I appeal to anyone of any influence and authority to do all they can to make sure that we come out of this weekend without the blight of the violence that has too often scarred Northern Ireland in the past. In the longer term, we will have to take steps to ensure that everyone recognises that there is no halfway house, no tolerable level of violence in Northern Ireland. I will certainly do all I can in that respect, and so, I hope, will right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): Are not trade unions in Northern Ireland to be complimented not only on their formal campaigns against sectarianism in the workplace but on their day-to-day activities, in which Catholic and Protestant workers are drawn together in seeking decent wages and conditions? Some of us are of the opinion that membership of the Labour party should be permitted so that that such activity can be continued in those areas.

Dr. Reid: I hear what my hon. Friend says, and I know that that view is shared by many in the Labour party. Notwithstanding the fact that the Labour party is not at present organised in Northern Ireland, I hope he would accept that many of the measures that the Labour Government have introduced—the legal right to membership of trade unions, the minimum wage, the working families tax credit, the extra expenditure provided to the Northern Ireland Assembly for quality public services—have an impact on the social and economic environment of many areas in Northern Ireland.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: it behoves all of us to address the underlying social problems in many of those areas. Unfortunately, many of the areas in which there is continual violence are precisely those with the worst social deprivation. One of the elements that we cannot forget is the practical application of policies on the ground to create a better economic and social environment

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for people in Northern Ireland, who deserve just as much opportunity and just as much chance to advance their families as people in the rest of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry): Given the Secretary of State's comments about the report released yesterday by the University of Ulster, which indicated the increasing sectarianism and increasing polarisation in Northern Ireland, allied with the recent police report which indicated that community relations are at an all-time low and that violence has been at an all-time high in the past eight years, what plans has he to put in place a political process in Northern Ireland that has the possibility of attracting Unionist as well as nationalist support?

Dr. Reid: As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have a political process and, indeed, a wider peace process under way in Northern Ireland that has received far more backing than any alternative that I have ever heard of. If he knows of an alternative that he thinks can command the support that the present process commanded in referendums north and south of the border, I would be glad to hear of it, but I have not so far heard of it from him or his colleagues. Surely part of combating sectarianism and polarised attitudes is the capacity of all politicians from all parties and all walks of life to reach out beyond their own community to try to understand the position adopted by the other community in Northern Ireland. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman attempts to do that just as much as I do.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford): I strongly agree with the Secretary of State's comments about the incident in Londonderry. It is particularly disappointing that it should happen in Derry, where I hope to be on Monday, because that city has had a very good record during the past few months. I also thoroughly endorse his appeal for forbearance and for everyone to use their influence to try to avoid violence next weekend, during coming weekends and, of course, beyond then.

As for reviving the peace process and restoring momentum, the Taoiseach, speaking in the Dail on 17 April, spoke of his determination—I use his word—that decommissioning should be completed in advance of the May Assembly elections next year. If Bertie Ahern can say that, and if he can set out a maximal time scale in which that must happen, why cannot, or why will not, the British Government say the same thing?

Dr. Reid: Because the Taoiseach did not say that; he said that he expected that we could make rapid progress towards the culmination of decommissioning before May of next year. I would certainly hope that that is the position, and the Taoiseach has made his views known. There is no difference on this issue between the Irish and the British Governments. We have continually made it plain that the process has to proceed to the eventual disbandment of all paramilitaries. We want that to happen as soon as possible. We also make it absolutely plain that, if anyone is under any illusion that there is a halfway house that can comfortably accommodate successful political intervention as well as the maintenance of a high level of paramilitary activity, we have to get rid of that illusion.

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Mr. Davies: I am afraid that we have another example of self-delusion by the British Government. The Taoiseach did say that; I used the quotation correctly. I shall now hand the right hon. Gentleman the document which quotes from the Dail record of 17 April. The Taoiseach did use the word "determination". He spoke of his

In another words, he suggests that it will be over by May next year. Those are the facts, and I am sorry that the Secretary of State is so poorly advised that he did not know what the Taoiseach said.

Let me ask the right hon. Gentleman another question on which he has had no less than four months to try to make up his mind. On 9 March, the First Minister called for a border poll or referendum on the future status of Northern Ireland at the same time as the Assembly elections next year. What is the Secretary of State's response to that proposal?

Dr. Reid: You won't mind, Mr. Speaker, if I tidy up the Desk.

My response to the second point, which I have made public on several occasions—I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has not had a chance to read my response—is that I will consider that.

Mr. Davies: After four months!

Dr. Reid: I am afraid that we are about 10 months away from the next election. The hon. Gentleman is keen on deadlines, and he is now ascribing the deadlines to the Taoiseach, whom—with great respect to him—I meet occasionally, and I am familiar with what he says publicly and privately. We are, of course, determined that, as far as is humanly possible, we get advances on decommissioning and on demilitarisation of paramilitary organisations. The whole House wishes to see that achieved. It is something that we have been trying to achieve in Northern Ireland since the origins of the state. It is easy to make trite points to the effect that it should be finished by next week or the following week.

All I would say to the hon. Gentleman is that there are no illusions in the Government or in the House that, for any sustainable period, we can tolerate indefinitely the level of paramilitary activity, including targeting and attempts to acquire weaponry, which appears to have been going on. I cannot make that plainer. I am determined, as are the whole Government, to try to get full decommissioning of paramilitary apparatus in the shortest possible time. There is no difference on that between us and the Irish Government, and, no doubt, no difference between my wishes and those of the hon. Gentleman on the matter.

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