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15 Oct 2002 : Column 197—continued

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): Is my right hon. Friend aware that, while 3,000 people were killed in Northern Ireland during the troubles, as many people have been forced into exile over that period and still remain in exile? Is it not therefore welcome that last week Gerry Adams met in the House Joseph McCloskey, the nephew of Danny McBrearty, to discuss the problem of Mr. McCloskey's exile and to

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talk about the possibilities of his returning to Derry? Such developments are welcome and Sinn Fein must realise that, if it acts in that way and puts pressure on the Provisional IRA to see that those whom it had placed into exile could return, it will help tremendously towards creating the confidence in Northern Ireland that will allow the process, the Assembly and the Executive to be re-established.

Dr. Reid: I agree with every word of that. I know how active my hon. Friend has been on this issue, and it is nothing less than terrible and a tragedy that, because of the threat of violence against them, people should feel that they cannot return to the place where they want to stay and where, in many cases, they were born and brought up. I also think that, although much of the recent commentary in the press has concentrated on the so-called spy ring that centres around the charges that have been brought, the most distasteful aspect of the issue is the fact that prison officers and their families, who have every right to think that the threats that they used to think were held over them had long disappeared, once again found themselves in a position of trauma and fear.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): And what does the Secretary of State deduce from that?

Dr. Reid: Will the hon. Gentleman let me continue? For the first time in many years, some people came out in the morning and had to remember to check under their car. It is that type of trauma. I am trying to face up to the problems that the process is facing at present while maintaining the process, which, in my view, gives me and Members of the House the best chance that we have had for decades—indeed, for centuries—to solve this problem. To those who find those obstacles too difficult to overcome and who want to get back to the old ways, I merely say that we tried it the old way for more than eight centuries. If that did not work then, it is not likely to work now.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): I thank the Minister for early sight of his statement and welcome the two new Ministers to a portfolio that, among other things, is never dull.

The Minister hopes for a short suspension. What does short mean to him? How might the arrangements change if the suspension is still in place in, let us say, January 2003? He talks of both communities, but will he consider altering the Government's terminology? There are many communities in Northern Ireland. He knows that I often have cause to think that using the concept of two communities simply serves to divide. In that context, can he assure us that all parties will be involved in any talks given the central contribution of the Alliance party of Northern Ireland and the Women's Coalition in particular to breaking past deadlocks?

Will the Minister confirm that the date of the elections will not change even if Ministers are concerned that the consequence of holding them on 1 May will be a less desirable, perhaps a more hardline, outcome, because no one should attempt to gerrymander a particular outcome by changing the date? What specific arrangements will be in place between Westminster and

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Dublin to ensure that business continues? What are the Minister's plans for Assembly salaries if the suspension is long term?

Finally, does the Minister agree that the best thing that United Kingdom parties can do is to support political solutions rather than to win party political points at a time when Northern Ireland needs our support rather than our rhetoric? In that context, does he hope, as the Liberal Democrats do, that the suspension works and, once the process is back on track, that those who have sounded rather opportunistic this afternoon will not only accept their error of judgment but, more to the point, be willing to alter their strategies to be more supportive of what is clearly a sincere effort by the Government to do the right thing?

Dr. Reid: I thank the hon. Gentleman and his party for their continuing support throughout this process. He raises a number of points. On consultation, I will consult all parties, including the Alliance and all parties represented in the House, because that is the basis on which a review has to be carried out. I apologise for referring to two communities. I should, of course, refer to the two traditions in the one community in Northern Ireland. Language is sometimes difficult in the context of Northern Ireland politics.

There is no change to the elections. No one is, or should be, frightened of the elections. I do not believe that anyone is frightened. To paraphrase Bertolt Brecht, it is not up to us to dismiss the electorate and choose another; it is the electorate who have the right to choose their representatives. However, elections do not happen in a vacuum. We had elections, we had an Executive and we had an Assembly. The reality is that despite the fact that we had elections and a democratically elected Assembly and Executive, they could not work because of the lack of confidence and trust between the partners in power sharing. If that continues indefinitely up to 1 May, it is not easy to see what can be resolved by having another set of elections.

Although that is all I have to say on that subject, it brings us to the crux of the matter: we cannot go on expecting people to share power with partners who appear to be riding two horses, of violence and democracy. A choice has to be made. Eight years after the beginning of the ceasefire and four years after the agreement, there needs to be a definitive step change in that position so that that ambiguity is removed. Even if that were the case, there would of course be a continual residue of problems with which to deal. No one thinks that we can wave a magic wand and by decree stop all lawbreaking or violence overnight, but we are at a crossroads and I do not believe that it is possible to sustain the power-sharing element of the agreement unless there is some substantial and definitive move in that direction.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann): Of course the Secretary of State is right not to pass judgment on individuals, but we know certain facts. The Secretary of State may like to confirm the estimates in the press that, as a result of the security breach at Castlereagh, #30 million has been spent on relocating police officers at threat and it is likely to cost twice as much to relocate

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prison officers who are at threat. Will he confirm also whether the press is accurate in saying that more than 1,000 documents were stolen, most of them from his office? That fact indicates a massive breach of security in the Northern Ireland Office and points to the possibility of gross incompetence in that office. Surely in that situation there must be an arrangement for an effective inquiry to see whether, and in what ways, security has been breached.

The Secretary of State refers to a lack of confidence and trust. Will he bear it mind that in each of the last three years my party went into an Administration on an inclusive basis and on the basis of promises and undertakings given to us, and each time those promises were broken and Sinn Fein and the republican movement failed to deliver? Will he also reflect on his curious use of the term Xpower sharing", in which he thinks only of Sinn Fein? There are others, and in this matter it is wrong of him to overlook the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour party.

The Secretary of State had options, and the demand for, or suggestion of exclusion, which would have been fair, did not come from Unionists alone. As he knows, it was supported by the Alliance party, which has links with the Liberal Democrats, and we are glad that the Alliance party displayed that courage. The Secretary of State is aware that support for exclusion would have extended beyond that point.

There is a point at which confidence is needed elsewhere too. In July, the Secretary of State said that he was showing republicans the yellow card. People noticed that the red card did not appear in circumstances in which the man in the street thought that it would have been appropriate. The Secretary of State has to explain why he funked it, because in the view of the man in the street that is precisely what happened: the Secretary of State decided that he would sacrifice the political process for fear of what might happen to the cessation of military operations declared by the IRA.

Dr. Reid: On the first point, I cannot confirm the press speculation about the costs, but I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that they are considerable—they are huge. Measures have to be taken to protect the police and, perhaps, prison officers who may be vulnerable after the events at Castlereagh. Apart from the anguish that it causes those families, that is a huge diversion of resources from the priorities of the people of Northern Ireland. It is tens of millions of pounds that could be devoted to the regeneration of inner-city or outer-city areas, to the health service and so on.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me about the number of documents that were stolen. From what the police have told me, I understand that his estimate is not far off. He said that we have to examine what is being done at Castlereagh, among other things. I can tell him that the security service has already agreed to send a team to conduct an independent and authoritative review of security in the Department. The team will make recommendations for the future when all is known about the events that led to the criminal charges. It will also audit security practice generally.

I do not want to go into further detail because I do not want in any way to impinge on judicial proceedings, but I can tell the House that, before these events, certain

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steps had been taken on the advice of security authorities. They were obviously ineffective in this case, whoever is guilty, and I do not prejudge that question.

This is a serious blow, and as I said earlier, although the matter that has made the headlines is the retrieval of documents for use by others and whether that may have put them at an advantage in the political process—I do not prejudge that question either—I find the fact that prison officers may be under threat more disturbing than anything else.

The right hon. Gentleman mentions the exclusion motion. I hear what he says, and it is not a matter that leaves me unmoved, precisely because I know the courage and, above all, endurance that he has shown by staying in the Assembly for the benefit of the people of Northern Ireland. I understand that fully. I say only that that these are not easy judgments to make.

The right hon. Gentleman is right about the Alliance party. I understand that it would have been prepared to support an exclusion motion had I put one before the Assembly—although I do not think that such a motion would have passed; the SDLP made it clear that it would not support it. Nevertheless, the fact that the Alliance party was prepared to support it shows that a significant change is taking place. The Women's Coalition would not support exclusion, but was apparently prepared to support suspension of the Executive rather than of the Assembly as a whole. No one should think that no change of opinion is occurring within the Assembly on these matters.

There is lack of confidence on both sides. People ask me, XAre the Unionists really committed to this?", but the evidence of the endurance shown over the years by the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues in the Assembly gives the lie to any claim that there are no Unionists who are prepared to put the whole of Northern Ireland first, rather than their party. Their commitment should be a sign of confidence to the whole community.

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