Northern Ireland

– in the House of Commons am 1:48 pm ar 11 Ionawr 2005.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Paul Murphy Paul Murphy The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland 1:48, 11 Ionawr 2005

With permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to make a statement on Northern Ireland.

As the House will be aware, a major robbery took place at the Northern bank in Belfast just before Christmas. At the end of last week, the Chief Constable of Northern Ireland indicated that in his professional opinion responsibility for the robbery should be attributed to the Provisional IRA. He also made the point that quite apart from the massive scale of the robbery—more than £26 million—it was in no sense a victimless crime. Two families were kidnapped and threatened with death if they did not co-operate with the criminals. In the case of one of the families, the gang, masquerading as police officers, tricked their way into the house by claiming that a family member had been killed in a car accident. Once inside, they donned masks, produced guns and threatened the family. One of the hostages was later taken to an isolated forest where her car was burned and she was abandoned in the snow. She was forced to struggle in severe weather and in darkness across country to seek assistance in a highly distressed state and suffering from hypothermia. I want to reiterate my utter condemnation of those who planned and carried out that appalling crime.

The Chief Constable's public remarks were necessarily constrained by the ongoing investigation. He has briefed me fully on the background which led him to make the statement that he made. I have no doubt that the Chief Constable's opinion is well founded. He did not rush to judgment. The Police Service of Northern Ireland thought initially that five groups could have been responsible for the robbery. Only when a great deal of evidence had been sifted did the Chief Constable make his statement. He is a man of the highest calibre and integrity, leading a professional team of officers acting entirely independently and objectively in pursuit of the criminals concerned. The Irish Government have also made their views on that aspect of the matter entirely clear. There will of course be a further dispassionate assessment of the position when the Independent Monitoring Commission makes its next report. I shall discuss with the Irish Government the time scale in which that report should be made.

On the immediate follow-up to the robbery, I welcome the announcement by the Northern bank of its intention to withdraw from circulation its current bank notes and replace them with notes of a different design and colour. That decision will reduce materially the value of the robbery to the perpetrators and we will discuss with the bank how best to publicise the detailed arrangements.

Since the Chief Constable's statement, there has been much comment about the impact of the developments on the political process in Northern Ireland. I cannot hide my own judgment that it is deeply damaging.

On 9 December, I came to the House to report on the proposals by the British and Irish Governments for a comprehensive agreement, which had been published the previous day. They represented a series of statements that would have been made if there had been an overall agreement at that stage. They included a statement to the effect that paramilitary activity by the Provisional IRA would cease immediately and definitively. There was also a statement, to which the Democratic Unionist party was committed, that after a period during which the good faith of the Provisional IRA's commitments had been demonstrated, an inclusive power-sharing Executive would be re-established in March this year. I need hardly remind hon. Members that that would have been nearly two and a half years after the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland were suspended.

In the event, an outstanding issue, in relation to the transparency of the decommissioning process, could not be resolved. However, as I said to the House in December, we had made significant and substantial progress, not least in rebuilding the trust and confidence that is the essential requirement of a stable, inclusive, cross-community, devolved Administration in Northern Ireland.

Today, I deeply regret that that progress has been put in jeopardy. I cannot forecast with certainty when it will prove possible to re-establish an inclusive power-sharing Executive, which the Government continue to believe provides the best long-term guarantee of peace and stability. We shall not abandon our commitment to that ultimate goal.

We are in no doubt, however, that it can be achieved only if the Provisional IRA gives up not only terrorism but all the other forms of criminality in which it is implicated. Unionists in Northern Ireland have made clear that if those tests are met, they will work with Sinn Fein in a power-sharing Executive. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said repeatedly, it is entirely reasonable for Unionists to withhold their co-operation until those tests are met. We have consistently made it clear that, if a political settlement is to be achieved, any illegal activity has to come to an end. The documents published before Christmas were unambiguous on that point.

Let me reiterate to the House that the Government will not promote a political settlement in which a party inextricably linked to an organisation that has carried out major criminal acts can assume responsibilities again in a devolved Administration. Nor could it take on the further responsibilities implied by the devolution of justice and policing while criminal activity of the kind we have just seen, and the capacity to plan and undertake such activity, continues to exist. It would be ludicrous for anyone to suggest that the people of Northern Ireland, from whatever background, voted for a political settlement on that basis in the referendum in 1998.

Against that background, it is clear to me that decisions and responses on that are now needed from Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA. The comments from the Irish Government in recent days indicate that they share that view.

Without the required responses from Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA, I cannot see how we can reinvigorate the political talks that must precede a comprehensive settlement. Without those responses, the Governments and, indeed, the House, will need to consider how best in the changed circumstances to bring pressure to bear on the republican movement to complete the transition to exclusively peaceful and democratic means, including any penalties that might be applied to Sinn Fein.

I spoke to the Irish Foreign Minister on Friday and will meet him when he returns from a visit to the tsunami-stricken areas of Asia. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will meet the Taoiseach towards the end of the month. In the meantime, I expect to talk to the Northern Ireland parties over the next two weeks with a view to hearing first hand their assessments of the current position and their views on several difficult questions that now face us, including, for example, the appropriateness of continuing to pay the salaries and allowances of the individuals elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly in November 2003 and our proposed way forward on the regulation of donations to political parties in Northern Ireland.

I cannot disguise my deep disappointment at what has happened, but my disappointment is as nothing compared with that of the people of Northern Ireland. They deserve better, given the progress in so many areas of their lives in recent years. The Government, continuing to work in close partnership with the Irish Government, will do everything they can to ensure that that progress is not lost and that we can continue to move forward as soon as possible to a comprehensive political settlement. In the meantime, my colleagues and I will continue to apply ourselves to governing Northern Ireland as effectively as possible in the absence of a devolved Administration.

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

First, I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and his customary courtesy in letting me see an advance copy.

The right hon. Gentleman rightly drew attention to the viciousness of the crime. I want to start by expressing our sympathy for the families who were the victims of those brutal acts.

The robbery and the Chief Constable's words last week have grave implications for the entire political process in Northern Ireland. The Prime Minister and the Secretary of State have frequently said—the Secretary of State did so again this afternoon—that Sinn Fein and the IRA are inextricably linked. The Independent Monitoring Commission's conclusions supported that assessment. In those circumstances, surely no Unionist or, for that matter, nationalist politician should be asked to share power with a party that remains inextricably linked to a violent criminal gang.

We cannot move towards the devolution of powers over policing and criminal justice until we can be confident that every party with Ministers in a devolved Executive is committed to supporting the police and the rule of law rather than to undermining them.

Will the Secretary of State today accept something that he has avoided accepting up to now, namely, that the same principles should now apply in Belfast and in Dublin, and that Sinn Fein cannot take part in a coalition or power-sharing Administration until it has permanently ended its connections to paramilitary bodies and to organised crime? I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that it would be in everyone's interests if the republican movement now rapidly completed its transition from terrorism to exclusively peaceful and democratic politics. The sad truth, however, is that the events of recent days have shown that we seem to be a long way from achieving that objective. What, therefore, do the Government plan to do now?

As far back as 7 September last year, the Prime Minister said that if the Leeds Castle talks failed to achieve a comprehensive settlement,

"then I think we've got to look for another way forward."

What is that other way forward that the Prime Minister and the Government envisaged? Will the Government now explore the possibility of establishing a power-sharing Executive who exclude Sinn Fein? Or, if that is unattainable, will the Minister consider ways of making direct-rule Ministers more accountable to the people of Northern Ireland?

The Secretary of State mentioned sanctions against Sinn Fein, and I would like to ask him three specific questions on that issue. First, in the light of the intelligence to which he and the police now have access, will he consider recalling individual prisoners who have been released early on licence under the Government's early-release scheme? Secondly, given the widespread belief that the profits of crime are helping to fund political parties linked to paramilitary forces, will he look again at some of the exemptions that parties in Northern Ireland have from the normal rules on party funding, especially those relating to foreign donations and to publishing accounts? I note that he said that he would be discussing this matter with the Irish Foreign Minister soon. In the light of those discussions, will the Secretary of State undertake to drop, or at least postpone, proceedings on the statutory instrument to extend the current exemptions, which the Government tabled shortly before Christmas? Thirdly, will the Government now introduce a motion to suspend the privileges and parliamentary allowances that have been given to Sinn Fein Members of this House despite their refusal to take their seats and represent their constituents properly? It is intolerable for taxpayers' money to be doled out in this way to a party that remains inextricably linked to violent organised crime.

Finally, will the right hon. Gentleman give the House an unequivocal assurance that the police, customs and every other law enforcement agency in Northern Ireland will be unrelenting in pursing not only the people responsible for this appalling robbery but all members of the mafia gangs, republican or loyalist, that prey on the people of Northern Ireland; and that the agencies of law and order will take that action regardless of any political difficulties that it might cause in any quarter?

Photo of Paul Murphy Paul Murphy The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments on the process. I agree with him that the impact of these events is deeply worrying and serious. I shall try to answer his individual questions one by one. He asked whether the principles that apply to a Government in Dublin should apply to a power-sharing Executive; I am sure that that is the case. I have already said that the Government will not tolerate any form of criminality associated with a group that is associated with a political party in Northern Ireland. Perhaps more significantly, however, the political parties in Northern Ireland take a very strong view on this issue.

In regard to whether we could form a power-sharing Executive without Sinn Fein, the Government's view—the view expressed in the Good Friday agreement—has always been that the people of Northern Ireland and, indeed, the people of Ireland voted for an inclusive power-sharing Executive. The ultimate answer is to see the end of criminality on the island of Ireland, and in Northern Ireland in particular, whether that criminality comes from republican or loyalist sources. The Government have not ruled anything out or in, but a lot will depend on the discussions that I have over the next couple of weeks with the political parties to discover their views on the issue. At the end of the day, two things matter: one is that there be consensus among the political parties in Northern Ireland as to what they want; the other is that, whatever happens, we cannot establish an Executive in Northern Ireland without either Unionist or nationalist representation. To that end, the parties could suggest other alternatives to us for the short term, over the coming months. They could include ways in which direct rule Ministers could be made more accountable; I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman on that point.

On recalling licensed prisoners who might be connected to the bank robbery, I am monitoring all the circumstances surrounding the robbery very carefully and I can confirm that I shall not hesitate to use the powers available to me to suspend the licence of any ex-prisoner if I am satisfied that he or she has broken, or is likely to break, any of his or her licence conditions. I am happy to give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that he requested on that matter.

The Government intend to move away from the current exemptions for the Northern Ireland political parties from the normal rules on publishing their accounts and receiving foreign donations. We shall be holding discussions with the Northern Ireland parties, the Irish Government and the Electoral Commission on these issues, and we shall seek an extension of the current exemptions to allow time for that consultation. I know that the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members will be discussing this matter with me in more detail in the weeks ahead.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the question of this House suspending the privileges and parliamentary allowances of Sinn Fein Members. First, I have already said in my statement that the Government will consider a range of possibilities in the coming days, and I think the House would agree that we need to take some time to consider the most effective way of bringing pressure to bear on the republican movement. [Hon. Members: "Why?"] Not least because we need to discuss a number of the issues relating to sanctions and penalties with the Irish Government—[Interruption.] Perhaps the House will allow me to finish. Secondly, I understand that the House has its own rules regarding whether we should allow such actions to happen, and the Government will have to reflect on the significance of that. Thirdly, the Independent Monitoring Commission also has a role in determining what sanctions and penalties, if any, should be introduced with regard to Sinn Fein. We do not want to take a decision on these issues today, because we need to look at the whole picture. I have not ruled anything out on these issues.

The hon. Gentleman referred to organised crime in Northern Ireland, be it from a loyalist, republican or any other source. He can rest assured that the Organised Crime Task Force and all the other agencies in Northern Ireland will bend their attentions to ensuring that we deal with these issues with the utmost urgency, not least because if this criminality is allowed to continue—not just the criminality that we have seen over the last few weeks, although the problem was dramatically illustrated by this robbery—it will corrupt politics and society. We cannot allow that to happen in Northern Ireland, not least because the people there voted against that.

Photo of Mr John Hume Mr John Hume Social Democratic and Labour Party, Foyle

Given that the allegations about this appalling crime represent a serious threat not only to our peace process but to the full implementation of the Good Friday agreement, and given that the leadership of Sinn Fein has utterly denied its involvement in it—I contacted members of the leadership directly on the telephone and they told me that they had played no role of any description in it—does the Secretary of State agree that, because of the terrible consequences of this terrible crime, it is necessary to publish the evidence behind the allegations?

Photo of Paul Murphy Paul Murphy The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I agree with my hon. Friend that this is a threat to the process, as I am sure all hon. Members do. The Chief Constable made it clear in his statement last week that he came to his conclusion professionally and that his professional judgment rested on examining the evidence, whether that was from intelligence or the criminal investigation. He said that all lines of his and his senior officers' inquiry led him to his conclusion.

My hon. Friend will understand that between 45 and 47 police officers are working on the inquiry. A hundred interviews have been held with 100 more to be held in the near future. It would be wrong of the Chief Constable or the police to reveal all that evidence during the course of an investigation because, as my hon. Friend and others will know, that would seriously jeopardise the chances of catching and convicting the culprits—that is the danger. However, I have read a great deal of the evidence that the Chief Constable has seen and I have no doubt that what he said was right.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

I am sure that we all agree that the raid was a terrifying ordeal for the civilians caught up in it. No doubt they feared for their lives, and it is a relief to us all that they escaped unharmed.

We all continue to have high respect for Hugh Orde, but I am also surprised by his and the Government's willingness to blame the IRA for the robbery without revealing the evidence. Will the Secretary of State confirm that he believes that anyone who is prosecuted for the crime will turn out to be associated directly or indirectly with the IRA? If he cannot give us that assurance today, he cannot claim that the IRA was necessarily behind it.

The Secretary of State asks us to take it on trust—without sharing evidence—that the IRA was behind the crime, but if he wants to use the defence that he should not share that evidence while the investigation is continuing, perhaps it was not wise to share a conclusion before the investigation had ended. Is there not a danger that that might prejudice the outcome of a court case, because we would be prosecuting not an organisation but individuals?

We are meant to be normalising Northern Ireland, so is the Secretary of State aware that his fellow Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mr. Pearson, refused this morning to say that the Government would necessarily specify an organisation on the basis of criminal activity? Why are the Government unwilling to specify sanctions against paramilitary organisations involved in crime, even if they are not willing to specify the organisations themselves? If it turns out that a paramilitary organisation is behind this substantial criminal offence, it is rather surprising that the Government shy away from giving an assurance that they would consider specifying it on the basis of that.

It will be difficult to normalise Northern Ireland if paramilitary organisations do not fear the sanction of being specified on the basis of serious criminal activity. That stems from the fact that we have never had a clear definition of "ceasefire". Is it not time to use paragraph 13 of the joint declaration as a clear definition of ceasefire, and to add to it the idea that sanctions will extend to criminality as well as terrorism? Is it not the case that until we have a clear and explicit statement of the sanctions that paramilitary organisations can expect when perpetrating organised crime, we are unlikely to resolve the problems of crime or, indeed, terror?

Photo of Paul Murphy Paul Murphy The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I am surprised by the hon. Gentleman's question about the Chief Constable and the evidence, because I thought that I had made it clear that it is difficult for him to produce detailed evidence while an investigation is ongoing. However, the hon. Gentleman knows as well as I do, because he has been involved in Northern Ireland politics for a long time, that it is by no means unusual for the Chief Constable to attribute blame across the political spectrum in Northern Ireland for paramilitary crime. Indeed, the problem that Hugh Orde faced over the past couple of weeks was that he was not attributing quickly enough. However, he wanted to ensure that he was satisfied, in his highly professional opinion, of what was the case. If the detail were to emerge, it could have a detrimental effect on future court proceedings, which is why the situation has arisen.

I understand the hon. Gentleman's reference to specification, but as he knows, specification refers specifically to whether groups are on ceasefire. We should remember that the IRA is illegal and proscribed by law and the House, as are other organisations. Although we are not ruling out whether we specify or despecify, we must look at the whole picture before doing that.

The hon. Gentleman referred to sanctions—I have no doubt that this issue will raise its head later—but under normal circumstances, if the Assembly was up and running, they would be a matter for consideration by the Independent Monitoring Commission. As he knows, such sanctions would refer to various penalties affecting Assembly Members and parties when the Assembly is in session. When we considered the position some months ago, the IMC itself came up with sanctions, and it is quite possible that it may recommend them when it examines the matter. The Government, too, when talking to the Irish Government about issues that affect them, will consider such matters. On normalisation, however, the people of Northern Ireland want an end to such illegality and criminality across the board so that they can live in a decent society.

Photo of Kate Hoey Kate Hoey Llafur, Vauxhall

Does the Secretary of State agree that what he has said today will give a lot of heart to IRA-Sinn Fein because democratic politicians and parties from both sides of the community in Northern Ireland are being punished? Surely he should be saying that we will not be held to ransom by IRA-Sinn Fein and that we will go ahead and set up instantly a devolved Northern Ireland Assembly with nationalist and Unionist parties that have no links to terrorism.

Photo of Paul Murphy Paul Murphy The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I could not agree less with my hon. Friend. I find it extremely unusual for her to suggest that the words in my statement could give comfort to the IRA—perhaps she will reflect on that.

I indicated in response to a previous question that I have neither ruled in nor out the possibility of persuading democratic parties in Northern Ireland to set up a voluntary coalition excluding Sinn Fein. However, the reality is that such an arrangement could be made only if the political parties in Northern Ireland that would form part of that coalition agreed to it. The coalition would have to be made up of Unionists and nationalists. It is thus incumbent on the Government, as Mr. Lidington said, to consider other means of increasing accountability for direct rule Ministers.

I do not think that anyone would disagree that the most important matter before us today is how to stop criminality in Northern Ireland. If that stopped, and we were persuaded that it had stopped, we could of course enter into an inclusive Executive. If that does not happen, it does not happen, but anyone who suggests that we should not work towards that and stop criminality would not be thanked by people in Northern Ireland. If that does not work, we will have to find other arrangements—I have not ruled those out—but the House should reflect on the fact that it is incumbent on me to talk to political parties in Northern Ireland to get their views on where we might go, which I intend to do. People in Northern Ireland would not want us to take precipitate decisions today without doing that.

Photo of Ian Paisley Ian Paisley Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party

This is a serious day for Northern Ireland. It is a day when the Government must cease to deal with politics, and deal with crime and paramilitaries. Until crime and paramilitaries are dealt with, we cannot have a proper democracy in Northern Ireland. As the Secretary of State well knows, the Democratic Unionist party took part in the talks process in good faith, but all the time we were in those talks, we were chided by his Government that we should have more faith and trust. We were sniped at by official Unionists, whose deputy leader says today that we were taken for a ride. The Democratic Unionist party was not taken for a ride. We took our stand boldly and strongly for what we believed. We did not change anything to which we said that we were dedicated, and we kept fully to our mandate from the people.

Then the Democratic Unionist party found out that the word of the IRA was not to be trusted. While we were sitting there, and while the Government were telling us about the goodness and character of the IRA, it was planning to rob the Northern Bank, to give it an unprecedented advantage in an election. With millions in its possession, it could outdo every other political party.

I am rather surprised at Mr. Hume and Lembit Öpik, who leads for the Lib Dems, talking about bringing evidence before us, as even the Taoiseach has said that the evidence that his police have is the same as what the police of Northern Ireland have. Will the hon. Member for Foyle repudiate the Taoiseach of the south of Ireland and say that he is talking nonsense, too?

Photo of Mr John Hume Mr John Hume Social Democratic and Labour Party, Foyle

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I did not say that anyone was talking nonsense. I said that, in the public interest, the evidence should be fully published. Who objects to evidence?

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. That is not a matter of order for the Chair. The hon. Gentleman wishes to continue the debate, and there will be other opportunities for that. May I say to Rev. Ian Paisley that this is not the occasion for a statement on his part? He should be putting questions on behalf of himself and his party to the Secretary of State. I have allowed some latitude to him because of his position in this matter, but he really must ask questions and not continue with an extended statement.

Photo of Ian Paisley Ian Paisley Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party

It seems strange, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as I am the leader of the largest party in Northern Ireland, that we cannot do what we are sent to do. I will make no further comment on that, because I know that your powers are greater than mine at present.

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is not trying to tempt me to exemplify the powers of the Chair. I have recognised his position as the leader of the largest party, but it is still not in order for him to make an extended statement at this time. There will be other occasions for that. He should be putting questions to the Secretary of State.

Photo of Ian Paisley Ian Paisley Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party

I will do that now, but I had to answer some things that were said previously.

First, the Secretary of State said in his statement that "decisions and responses" are now needed from Sinn Fein-IRA. Will he please tell us what he means by that? There was not one word about anger. The people of Northern Ireland are more than disappointed—they are very angry about what has happened. Furthermore, what are the penalties to which he referred? The only penalties about which I have heard today are against the democrats of Northern Ireland, whether nationalist or Unionist. Kate Hoey was right to make that point. We are being punished—because of a bank robbery, all democracy in Northern Ireland is to be brought to an end. I want to press the Secretary of State to tell us what those penalties are.

On the future of the Assembly, surely, as we have suggested to the Secretary of State, elected representatives could be organised to keep their eye on direct rule Ministers and to call them to account, as they did in the Assembly. That is a job of work that could be done.

Photo of Paul Murphy Paul Murphy The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

On those last points, we could certainly consider the sort of arrangement about which the hon. Gentleman talked. His party put forward various proposals with regard to a committee structure or corporate body of the Assembly. The Social Democratic and Labour party put forward suggestions with regard to a similar body, but with commissioners. There are ways in which to examine how best to deal with the accountability of me and other Ministers in the House who have responsibility for Northern Ireland.

On penalties and sanctions, the hon. Gentleman also knows that, when an incident occurred last year, we considered a host of different penalties and sanctions, ranging from allowances to other matters. Those will be considered by the Government and the Irish Government together, but the House will also have an opportunity to consider such matters, if it so wishes.

With regard to decisions and responses, those relate entirely to the first point that the hon. Gentleman rightly made—we cannot, to use his words, mix crime and a proper democracy. I hope that I made it clear throughout my statement that the Government will not tolerate that linkage, and that it is not right for that to happen. If he wants a voluntary coalition, however, I repeat that we can only have that if people volunteer to go into it, and it must be across the board. Therefore, there must be other ways. The point is also to end criminality so that we have a wholesome and uncorrupted politics in Northern Ireland.

The hon. Gentleman rightly talks about anger in Northern Ireland about the issue, but the anger is also because of the impact on the process, given all the work done by his party over the months leading up to Christmas, and the work done by all the parties involved in the peace process in Northern Ireland over the last several years. I assure him that no one in the House was more disappointed than me. Off and on, for 10 years, I have also been involved in the process, and the last thing that I wanted was to come to this House and deliver the statement that I have had to give today. I wanted to ensure that we saw progress from Christmas onwards, with an Executive and an Assembly up and running in the next six months, which the people of Northern Ireland wanted. Now we must put our heads together and work out where we go in the months ahead.

Photo of Mr Seamus Mallon Mr Seamus Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party, Newry and Armagh

First, I want to pay tribute to members of both Governments who have worked so assiduously on this mater. That will not prevent me from pointing out that there is a fault line in the negotiation process, which is exemplified by the way in which, for more than seven years, every attempt was made to buy the IRA army council into the political process at the expense of other factors—not just buying in republicans but others. There is a fault line in any political process when people must be bought into such a process in a place like Northern Ireland. It is an even worse fault line when, added to that, we have secret deals that amount to political patronage, and secret arrangements with paramilitary groups, and when the law itself can be bartered for political reasons, as was attempted in the Republic of Ireland.

May I ask the Secretary of State one thing? This bartering of the Good Friday agreement has sucked dry the idealism and hope that exists within the community. That idealism, vision and hope is disappearing. As the Secretary of State is a man for whom I have enormous respect, may I ask him to get rid of the fault line in the negotiating process and reinvent integrity, decency and honesty in it, so that once again I, as one who has been involved for many years, can say with pride that I am part of the political process rather than seeing it becoming more and more of a moral quagmire?

Photo of Paul Murphy Paul Murphy The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

Of course, my hon. Friend has been part of that process for many years. Its success, in the years in which we have had success, is largely due to him and others like him. He makes a point about the negotiation process, and perhaps it is time to take on a different type of negotiation. That will result largely from my discussions in the weeks ahead with political parties.

My hon. Friend rightly mentioned the Good Friday agreement, which of course lies at the heart of any negotiations that we have. What struck me as particularly awful about the events of the last few weeks was that they were so much against the principles of that agreement. People constantly talk of acceding to, agreeing to, accepting and implementing the agreement, but nothing could be worse than an act of major criminality—which is how we have described it today—that went against what people voted for when they voted for the agreement in 1998.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. If there is not brevity in both questions and answers, I shall not be able to call every Member who is seeking to catch my eye.

Photo of David Burnside David Burnside UUP, South Antrim

I wish the Secretary of State and his ministerial team a happy and prosperous new year. We should be optimistic about the future, and not be depressed about recent events. The statement, however, was depressing. We all like the Secretary of State and get on reasonably well with his ministerial team, but the statement was vacuous and empty, with no reference to sanctions or threat. Sinn Fein-IRA are laughing at the British Government again. The Secretary of State knows the facts from his security information. He knows about Bobby Storey, head of intelligence, reporting to the army council. He knows about Adams, McGuinness, Keenan, "Slab" Murphy—top of the criminal rich list, with £32 million—Gillen and the rest. He knows who carried out the Northern bank robbery. It was the Provisional IRA. It was Bobby Storey—Bobby Storey of Stormontgate, Bobby Storey of crime, Bobby Storey of Castlereagh—

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. I am not going to listen to a long speech. I appeal to the House for short questions. If the hon. Gentleman does not have a short question, he may as well remain seated.

Photo of David Burnside David Burnside UUP, South Antrim

I think I have made my point clear, Mr. Deputy Speaker: everyone knows who was responsible.

What is the Secretary of State going to do? What sanctions are there? What strengthened will is going to emanate from the House with regard to facilities in the House, sanctions and fines? Will there be a fine of a couple of thousand pounds, when they have £26.5 million in the bank?

Photo of Paul Murphy Paul Murphy The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I understand the hon. Gentleman's frustration. We are all frustrated by what has happened—but I always try to think about what the people of Northern Ireland would like to happen. Important as withdrawing facilities from the House of Commons might be, and important as withdrawing allowances from parties that can afford it might be from the hon. Gentleman's point of view—whatever the penalties might be—the most important thing for us to do in Northern Ireland is to stop the criminality and bring about a political process that can proceed without it. That matters more than anything else in Northern Ireland. I am not dismissing the penalties and all the rest of it. We will consider that with our Irish Government partners during the next week or two. But the most important thing for the people of Northern Ireland is to stop the brutality, savagery and criminality that I described in my statement.

Photo of Mr Harry Barnes Mr Harry Barnes Llafur, North East Derbyshire

The Government have been looking at the whole picture in Northern Ireland for seven years, since the Belfast agreement. To an extent I have been one of those who have gone along with that approach, suggesting that we should nudge a bit further each time—but is there not a point at which the picture needs to be completed? We have now seen what has been involved, as confirmed by the Secretary of State. Surely we are now reaching that point. Must we wait for a "next time" before decisions are made and action taken against Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA?

Photo of Paul Murphy Paul Murphy The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I repeat what I said to my hon. Friend Mr. Mallon. The whole picture is important, because no one, but no one, wants to return to 30 or 40 years of troubles in Northern Ireland. I do not think that that will happen: I think we have come too far for it to happen.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh that we may have reached a stage at which we must deal with different negotiating arrangements, but if that happens it must be based on discussion with all the political parties in Northern Ireland, particularly those represented here who have spoken today. Although we may have to act in that way, we must not give up the hope that we can have a Northern Ireland that is free of criminality and has wholesome politics. We will continue in that hope. I do agree with my hon. Friend Mr. Barnes that the impact of this event has been so enormous that we need to rethink many things.

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan Shadow Minister (Defence)

It has indeed been nearly seven years since the Belfast agreement. At our last Northern Ireland Question Time, I asked the Secretary of State when he would stop believing Sinn Fein lies. That they are lies is now proven beyond any doubt, so will he now cease speaking to the people who are lying, and stop believing them until—if ever—they prove their good faith beyond peradventure? I respect the Secretary of State, but I beg him to give us no more sorrowful words and no hand-wringing, and please to take action against those terrorist crooks. Will he start by suspending them from the House of Commons, and taking away the public money that is subsidising terrorism and criminality in part of the United Kingdom? The rule of law should apply throughout the United Kingdom. The Secretary of State has it in his power to take action. Will he do so now?

Photo of Paul Murphy Paul Murphy The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I think that the idea of proof beyond peradventure is right, but I also think that the passion should be directed towards stopping the criminality and the things that I described in the earlier part of my statement. The Organised Crime Task Force, other agencies in Northern Ireland—the police, Customs or others—and indeed all of us must concentrate on stopping that criminality and ensuring that it does not profit people either politically or financially. We may well have to consider different sanctions and penalties, but I emphasise that ultimately the most important thing for those who live in Northern Ireland is stopping the kind of action that has necessitated my coming here today.

Photo of Eddie McGrady Eddie McGrady Social Democratic and Labour Party, South Down

Will the Secretary of State, and indeed all Members, send a message of hope for the well-being of the families who were involved, or coerced, in this terrible, savage and brutal crime? My constituents the McMullen family, who are both neighbours and friends, were savagely treated.

The Secretary of State often says, as he did last Friday, that there can be no place for terrorist or criminal activity. Let me say bluntly that we have heard that mantra in different forms for a number of years. What about the intelligence to which the Secretary of State has been privy over those years, and what has been reiterated by me in the House month after month? Political Sinn Fein is mainly the Provisional IRA in lounge suits, and every day in my community it is imposing its will and diktat. When will the Government get real, and stop Sinn Fein's criminal and paramilitary activities being made to seem credible and proper?

Photo of Paul Murphy Paul Murphy The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

My hon. Friend has a long history of opposing criminality and similar activity in the part of Northern Ireland that he represents, and exposing it in the House of Commons. I do not disagree with a word that he has said, but the document that I have here, agreed before Christmas—"Proposals by the British and Irish Governments for a Comprehensive Agreement"—addresses the issue of criminality.

No one has suggested—certainly I have not, during my time as Secretary of State—that there has not been criminality on the part of paramilitary organisations linked to political parties, including the IRA. That has been said time and again. What we are dealing with today is this: the enormity of the robbery, and the savagery that accompanied it, were such that people can take no more. That is why the House has taken the view it has taken. But my hon. Friend and I know, because we were involved in negotiations for many years, that our aim must be to achieve a peaceful democratic Northern Ireland. His party worked very hard for that, and for a non-violent future for the people whom he and his colleagues represent.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

The Secretary of State has already indicated his respect for the views of the people of Northern Ireland. How does he respond to the prevailing view in Northern Ireland that on this issue, there are two certainties? The first is that the Provisional IRA will continue with its terrorism and criminality; the second is that after a very short time passes, the Secretary of State's tough talk will dissolve and the Government will be back to holding their hands again.How is it that in paragraphs 7, 8 and 9 of the Secretary of State's statement, the clearest of indications is given to Provisional Sinn Fein that he will not allow the process to move on without it? Why is democracy in Northern Ireland to be held back because of gunmen and gangsters? Surely the time has come to make it very clear that politics moves on, and moves on without it.

Photo of Paul Murphy Paul Murphy The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

It may have to be that. Over past months, the hon. Gentleman and his party colleagues have worked hard to establish an agreement between the two Governments and the other parties on the way forward, and I know that, like everybody else, he is deeply disappointed that that has not occurred. I also know that he and other members of his party rightly want restoration of the institutions in Northern Ireland as quickly as possible. I share that view completely, and I made it clear in my statement that there can be no place in the government of Northern Ireland for a party linked to people who carry out the sort of robberies that I described today. The hon. Gentleman knows, however, that in order to get any substitute for what was agreed before Christmas, it is important for us to talk to the political parties that have raised issues here today about the way ahead. I simply say to him that we are not ruling anything in or anything out until we have had those discussions, which it is important to have. He speaks robustly and with great strength, but he knows that in order to deal with these issues, we have to sit down and discuss them—as I will do with him in an hour's time.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. I have other important business to protect, so we must move on.