Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 (Specified Organisations) Order 2001

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Lembit Ipik: The hon. Gentleman has asked the Minister some specific questions, implying that he has a clear picture of what the Conservatives would have done if they had been in government. At what date would his party have respecified the UDA, the UFF, the LVF and the IRA?

Mr. Blunt: It is really not very grown-up to ask that question, because the Minister has made it clear that her decisions are taken on the advice of the General Officer Commanding, the Chief Constable of Northern Ireland and the security agencies operating in Northern Ireland.

Mr. George Galloway (Glasgow, Kelvin) rose—

The Chairman: Order. This is not a debate on what the Conservatives would have done. It is obvious that they would have taken the same advice as the Minister did. The debate should move on from that issue.

Mr. Blunt: I am extremely grateful, Mr. Hancock, for your efforts to be even-handed. I had great difficulty in dealing with the point made by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Ipik) because, plainly, the Government are privy to an enormous amount of information about Northern Ireland to which the rest of us are not privy. It would be extraordinary to expect those who are not in possession of that information to reach the same conclusions as those who are.

Mr. Galloway rose—

The Chairman: Order. Under the Standing Orders, an hon. Gentleman cannot be called unless he is wearing a tie. To overcome that, I will remove my tie. If the Chairman is not wearing a tie, that must presumably be all right.

Mr. Galloway: If that is indeed in the Standing Orders, Mr. Hancock, it is extraordinary, because I might be a member of an ethnic minority who do not wear ties. That issue should be examined. I normally wear a tie, and I apologise for coming before you improperly dressed. It was not my intention to rise.

The remarkable speech and interventions made by the hon. Member for Reigate raise an important question. It is not clear to me, nor, I think, to the Committee, whether the hon. Gentleman is against specifying the organisations, or is suggesting that we should also specify other organisations. It is not clear whether he supports the peace process or wants to throw a spanner in the works. I am—

The Chairman: Order. That is quite long enough for an intervention. I am sure that the hon. Member for Reigate is now eager to answer.

Mr. Blunt: The purpose of my remarks is to note that, as will become apparent, the effect of specification is de minimis. During the passage of the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 and the measures on the release of prisoners, the Conservative party prepared amendments to create a direct link between the release of prisoners and their recall if organisations were specified. The Conservative party attempted to give the legislation teeth. The Government rejected those amendments and now the Secretary of State has laid this order before Parliament, but it will have almost zero effect. That is my point and I am entitled to make it, particularly given the record of the Conservative party in attempting to give the primary legislation some teeth and the Secretary of State stronger powers—attempts that were rebuffed by the Government when the legislation was passed in 1998.

Will the Minister confirm that my understanding of the overlap between the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 and the Terrorism Act is clear? As I understand it, only organisations proscribed under the Terrorism Act 2000 are specified under the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998. In the Terrorism Act 2000, a number of organisations are proscribed. Among those organisations—at the top of the list—is the Irish Republican Army. In the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA are specified. Will the Minister tell the Committee whether or not the Provisional IRA is a proscribed organisation? I presume that it is proscribed but not specified. Given the strength of specification, not to specify an organisation is hardly the strongest statement in the world. However, I should be grateful if the Minister would confirm that the Provisional IRA is not specified.

Finally, with respect to the forfeiture of assets under section 111 of the Terrorism Act, will the Minister explain to the Committee whether or not we can expect that that section of the Terrorism Act will begin to bite against the UDA, the LVF and the UFF in the days to come?

We are here today to take part in an exercise that is as much psychological as anything else. The statement that these organisations have been specified will be difficult to back up under the legislation that was passed in 1998. Of course the Conservative party supports the Secretary of State in specifying these organisations, but it is entirely legitimate for us to point out that the effect of specification is almost zero. I sincerely hope that, having specified these organisations, the Secretary of State and the Minister will prove me wrong by taking action against them. I hope that they will demonstrate that my interpretation of the legislation is incorrect. The Minister and the Secretary of State can at least try, by taking action under section 9 of the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act. I hope that the Government will try to do that and to get hold of some of the assets that can be forfeited under section 111 of the Terrorism Act 2000.

5.14 pm

Lembit Ipik: I begin by saying what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Hancock. Should there be a tied vote, I have no doubt that you would use your power wisely.

The Chairman: If only I thought that the hon. Gentleman meant it.

Lembit Ipik: The hon. Member for Reigate said that my question about when his party would have specified the LVF, the UFF, the UDA and the IRA, was childish. He also said that the Government had an enormous amount of information to which the rest of us were not privy, yet much of the first part of his speech was critical of the timing of the specification order. Unless I completely missed the point, that would imply that the Conservative party believes that the specification has been delayed too long. There is an evident contradiction in saying that the Opposition do not have enough information to determine the data relating to specification, and apparently criticising the Government in a series of long interventions and a speech.

The Liberal Democrats are not arrogant enough to assume that we know better than the Northern Ireland Office and its Ministers, who have a considerable amount of relevant information at their disposal. Furthermore, the Government have been fairly constructive about consulting opposition parties, in the spirit of bipartisanship, in an attempt to focus on the outcome of peace. I am therefore concerned about the fact that the official Opposition seem willing to score points, to put it gently, in a way that is not especially helpful to the peace process in Northern Ireland.

The hon. Member for Reigate and his colleagues are entitled to make their points, but I advise the hon. Gentleman to think about how John Major would have acted if he had been in the hon. Gentleman's position. We should bear it in mind that John Major made many similar decisions, and we have come so far because he was willing to debate and negotiate, admittedly privately, with the IRA at a time when it was not even formally involved in a peace process.

In defence of the order, the Minister said that a decision had to be taken in the round. We should not make pedantic criticisms of the timing. The hon. Member for Reigate admitted that such criticisms could not be made with any degree of certainty because those of us outside the Northern Ireland Office did not have the necessary information. We should judge whether it appears reasonable to us that the Government have chosen to specify the organisations now and not before.

Mr. Blunt: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that I do not recall criticising the judgment about the timing of specification. The central tenet of my remarks was that specification does not mean anything.

Lembit Ipik: I am pleased that the record has been corrected, and I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for misunderstanding his contribution to such a degree. I now assume that no one in the Room questions the timing of the specification. If so, the only outstanding question is whether the specification can mean anything.

Were the Liberal Democrats in government, we would be inclined to try to apply the specification order in a similar way to that described by the Minister. There is always a risk that specification will not be sufficiently stringent to deliver the result that we would like. However, let us remember that the terms of the specification were formulated subject to the parameters in which we have all attempted to manoeuvre the various organisations and groups, including those sympathetic to the UDA, UFF and LVF, towards a peaceful outcome. The default is towards inclusion, not exclusion.

Anyone who has, in the past four years, been involved in procedures in the House on the Good Friday agreement, and what went briefly before it, will know that the specification orders were to some extent negotiated with interested parties in Northern Ireland. For that reason, I am much more cautious about condemning the implementation of this order, because it is the strongest order that we could reasonably have expected to achieve at this stage. I honestly do not think that a Government of any other colour would have been able to do significantly better, without having perhaps fatally compromised the process at an earlier stage. It has been so difficult to get the political wings of these paramilitary organisations to stay on board in the peace process that it is hardly surprising that we are once again making a judgment call within the limits of what is offered.

There is some reassurance in the fact that, if this measure does not work, legal and security means also exist by which these organisations may be trapped and apprehended. Therefore, the order is not the only tool in the armoury with which to tackle the organisations.

In conclusion, Liberal Democrats recognise that the order is important, although we regret the fact that the UDA, UFF and LVF have failed to deliver what we hoped. However, it is difficult to understand why a more constructive bipartisan arrangement cannot be made when it is highly doubtful that a Liberal Democrat or Conservative Secretary of State could have done much better.

5.21 pm

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