§ 8.3 p.m.
§ Lord Glentoran rose to ask Her Majesty's Government:
§ What plans they have to ensure the maintenance of law and order in Northern Ireland.
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, this is an appropriate time to be having this debate. It was originally my intention to discuss and examine the maintenance of law and order after devolution and the full implementation of the Good Friday agreement. However, sadly, we are not in that position. Most of the problems still remain and some are more serious and difficult than they might otherwise have been.
§ I am sure that there are many noble Lords who, like me, took the view that the IRA would never disarm. Those who are familiar with Irish history—or those, like me, who have recently been catching up on it—will know that disarming would be next to impossible for the IRA hard core. However, it has been right for successive governments to attempt to find a way through republican intransigence and, furthermore, to test their resolve. My party totally supports the action taken by the Secretary of State to suspend the executive and all other associated institutions. It is now abundantly clear that disarming was never on the IRA agenda. But, in my opinion, the peace process is by no means dead.
§ The republican "hawks" have now shown their hand. But there is no reason why the nationalist and republican community should not embrace the democratic process. After all, Sinn Fein is a legitimate, democratic political party. Let it act as such, without the overt support of the gunmen. A very large percentage of the nationalist and republican electorate, both north and south, have voted for peace. In a recent Irish Times poll I believe the percentage was as high as 90 per cent.
§ Devolved democratic government, with power sharing, is what the populations both north and south want for Northern Ireland. However, the security situation today is still critical. IRA guns are silent, but for how long? We hope for a long time. There are still 1429 dissident groups at large who are not on ceasefire and have no allegiance to any particular group or party. They are, in fact, their own masters and uncontrollable. The terrorist threat is still as real as ever, if not greater. I wonder how effective our intelligence gathering has been over the past few months. Are we still on top of the military and intelligence game? I hope so, though I do not expect the noble Baroness to respond to that question.
§ In his Statement of 19th January, the Secretary of State said that he would bring forward legislation to implement the Patten report later in this Session. I suggest that full implementation of that report at this stage would be very difficult. I am not sure, but I think he is probably regretting that Statement. However, 80 per cent of Patten's recommendations, or perhaps rather more, are purely about good, modern policing and are not in any way contentious. Indeed, they have been accepted by the Chief Constable himself. But they are very expensive. Can the Minister say whether this programme of modernisation—for that is what it really is—has been costed? If so, will she confirm that the Treasury has agreed to fund it and tell us over what period?
§ Is the noble Baroness aware that there are still parts of the Province where normal policing cannot take place, where communities are terrorised by armed gangs, where extortion is still commonplace and where expulsion and punishment beatings are a regular occurrence? I should make the point here that this sort of criminal activity is not confined to any one person or group; indeed, it may not even be attributable to any of the paramilitaries currently on ceasefire. There is, of course, the odd incident of "house-keeping".
§ Is this the time to start cutting the strength and capability of the police force? The answer is clearly no. No risks must be taken with security at this time. That applies to the RUC as much as to the military. I suggest that now is the time to begin implementing the modernisation and training programme. Now is not the time to be making cuts and taking other actions such as changing the name of this fine force—an action with which we totally disagree and which might reduce the overall morale and efficiency of the RUC.
§ Is the noble Baroness also aware that there is a serious and increasing drug problem in the Province? For example, in the country town of Ballymena—just down the road from where I live—which has a population of 56,000, there is estimated to be 1,500 heroin addicts and at least 10 pushers within the town? I am sure that I do not need to explain to noble Lords the associated crime that that brings with it, to say nothing of the misery and the unhappiness.
§ Furthermore, I wonder whether the Minister is aware that the Treasury is losing £250 million a year from smuggling across the border to avoid fuel tax. Of course, it takes place in no man's land, in difficult areas for policing. It might tread on the toes of the paramilitaries. The drug racketeers are mainly linked to the Protestant communities and the paramilitaries and the smuggling is mostly in the border areas, as I said.1430
§ Another part of the Patten report deals with recruitment. Again in his Statement in another place the Secretary of State admitted that the shortfall in Catholic members in the RUC was not entirely due to the name and to the hat badge. I suggest that there is probably only one major reason for the difference—that is, intimidation. I believe that if the paramilitary parties and Sinn Fein were unequivocally to join the democratic process and recommend to their constituents to support and to join the national police force, the nationalist community would be proportionally represented in a matter of a few months.
§ However, today if a member of the nationalist community joins the police force, he immediately endangers not only himself but his whole family. He is probably forced to move his home and to leave his wife and family or whatever. He would certainly not be allowed by the gunmen to police his own patch, which surely is what community policing is about. So much for community policing in local areas.
§ I suggest that the paramilitaries on all sides have a vested interest in an emasculated police force. In the light of Patten and the present situation, will Her Majesty's Government give an undertaking that policing efforts will be stepped up to meet the current increase in drugs and drug-related crime, extortion, intimidation, smuggling and other forms of violent crime and that in no way at this time will the RUC be emasculated?
§ In conclusion, although the political situation is very finely balanced, all is not lost. The initiative is still with those who want peace—that is, with the supporters of the Belfast agreement. However, a wrong or clumsy move could be very dangerous. There must be no acceptance of equivalence between legally-held and illegally-held arms. Any changes to security should only be made commensurate with the level of the terrorist threat. We wish the Secretary of State and the Government good fortune during the next weeks.
§ 8.12 p.m.
§ Lord Dubs
My Lords, I was very interested to hear the noble Lord's comments. I agree with the broad thrust of what he said, but I take issue with his suggestion that the IRA will never decommission. All of us who want the Belfast agreement to work—we see it as the only peaceful way forward for Northern Ireland—cannot conceive that all parts of that agreement will not be implemented. By saying that they never will be implemented, the noble Lord is rather encouraging those who do not want to decommission. I prefer to take the view that all parts of the agreement have to be implemented and that all paramilitary organisations have to decommission.
It is, of course, bitterly disappointing that devolution has failed so far. I hope that it is a very short failure and that devolved institutions will soon return. For the people of Northern Ireland, life is now incomparably better than it was some years ago. They are able to lead mainly normal lives, mainly peaceful lives—the kinds of lives that we have taken for granted in Britain for years and years.
1431 Part of that improvement has been as a result of the reduction in the level of the security forces consistent with the lower threat. There are, for example, now under 15,000 Army personnel on operational duties, except in the marching season when we have had to increase them; 26 Army bases and installations have been closed; 102 cross-border roads have now been reopened; the Castlereagh holding centre is to close, and so on. These changes have taken place because the Chief Constable and the other advisers to the Secretary of State on security matters have felt it appropriate that the level of the security forces could be reduced.
It is a very sensitive time. We have to be careful about what we say because the situation is so delicate. We do not want to say anything which might in any way encourage people who do not want to move forward peacefully.
The noble Lord spoke about cuts. Certainly I would be surprised if there were to be any cuts in the security forces other than those appropriate and consistent with the level of the threat at any point in time. There are, of course, still threats. The Continuity IRA is a threat and there are other small paramilitary groupings which have not adopted the peaceful course.
I think that the main thrust of the debate this evening will be about policing. I have always understood that good policing depends on the consent, the support and the co-operation of the public. That has always been the view expressed to me by the Metropolitan Police in London. The difficulty that the RUC faces is that it does not get that full consent throughout Northern Ireland. Yes the majority of people there believe that policing is carried out in their interests—but that view is held by a larger percentage of Protestants than of Catholics. There are some disturbingly low figures among certain parts of the Catholic population, mainly in the poorer parts of the inner cities where support for the police is disappointingly low. This is all quoted in detail in the Patten report.
When the RUC has to operate in a situation where it does not get that support, its task is made much more difficult. I do not believe that it will be easy to get the support of Sinn Fein politicians, but I believe that the broad majority of nationalist politicians will come round to being more positive in their support of policing in Northern Ireland. Clearly we want to achieve a position where nationalist politicians are happy to encourage young members of their communities to make their careers in the RUC. That has not been the case up until now; it is highly desirable that it should be.
It is also desirable that all communities in all parts of Northern Ireland should see the police as their police force and feel that members of their community are properly represented in its ranks. If we can achieve that and the support of all the main political parties, that would indeed make the task of policing easier, more efficient and certainly more satisfactory for the members of the police force.
I believe that the Patten report will help to achieve those aims. That is not for one second to detract from the courage of the RUC over many years and the 1432 enormous sacrifices that it has made over many years. It is consistent with our regard for the RUC and our appreciation of what it has done to say, "Yes, changes have to happen". Incidentally, I think the RUC has had the most excellent leadership under the present Chief Constable, Sir Ronnie Flanagan. He is probably the best Chief Constable Northern Ireland has ever had. He is certainly an excellent police officer.
I understand the police reservations about the Patten report. When I was a Minister I visited a number of RUC stations to discuss with police officers what they thought of it. I am bound to say that they were very critical and they were unhappy about some of the recommendations. They were broadly content with most of them, but there were some—we know what they are; the name, the badge and so on—about which they certainly were not happy. However, I still got the impression that quite a few RUC officers would reluctantly acquiesce in the changes if they were convinced that the aims spelled out by Patten could be achieved—in particular, getting more Catholics to join the police. If they were convinced that those aims could be achieved, they would acquiesce in the changes. They are police officers who obey orders and who do what is expected of them by the political leadership.
I have the strong impression that today the RUC is even handed in its approach to both communities. That may not have been true many years ago and I suspect that some of the criticisms currently made of the police in Northern Ireland reflect the reality of long ago rather than that of policing today. Some surveys indicate that people feel that the police in their immediate neighbourhood are policing far more in their interests than the police in Northern Ireland overall. In other words, the local police whom they know are treated with greater respect than those whom they do not know in some distant part of Northern Ireland. That suggests to me that the RUC is beginning to get it right. Of course, every police force includes some bad apples; we know that from London. But the whole of the RUC should not be condemned because there are perhaps a few bad apples today and because of what happened many years ago, when the RUC itself has gone to a good deal of trouble to make changes.
To be an effective force, it is important that the RUC accepts the need for change. I believe that it does so and that it agrees that many of the Patten recommendations are uncontroversial. Indeed, some of them were being implemented by the Chief Constable even before the Patten report came out. I am confident that the overall thrust of the Patten report will be to create a force in which individual police officers can give of their professional best in the interests of achieving better policing for all the people of Northern Ireland. That is surely the best way forward.
§ 8.21 p.m.
§ Viscount Cranborne
My Lords, one of the few agreeable prospects arising out of the sad events of the past week or so is that your Lordships may be able to 1433 hope for the return one day to his rightful place at the Dispatch Box of the noble Lord who has just sat down. It is a pleasure to follow him, particularly in the remarks he made which, if my memory serves me right, follow quite closely the findings of chapter four of the Patten report on local reactions to the RUC. The conclusions he came to seem to mirror a good deal those I reached, but not entirely the conclusions reached by my right honourable friend as the originator of the report. It seems to me, as I believe it seemed to the noble Lord, that if the local nationalist and Catholic populations fiercely defend the even-handedness, from their own experience, of their own local RUC forces, but nevertheless come to the conclusion that the remainder of the RUC is biased, they have bought the party line about the whole force but rejected it in so far as it applies to them.
Like the noble Lord, I take comfort from that idea, but it emphasises also the importance of the point made by my noble friend Lord Glentoran about the important part played by intimidation in preventing the recruitment of Catholics to the force. I believe that your Lordships should be extremely grateful to my noble friend for raising the Question this evening.
We all know that the policing of Northern Ireland has always made different demands on the police force there from those made, for instance, on the Metropolitan Police and certainly those made on the police in my own home county of Dorset. All of us had, of course, hoped that it might be possible from now on for policing to be carried out in a much more conventional fashion. In spite of those hopes, all of us who know a little about the Province—I know far less than most noble Lords who are to speak in the debate—know that 30 years of terrorism have forged a close interdependence between terrorists and organised crime. I believe that I am right in saying that in many cases terrorists have become organised criminals in order to finance their own operations and, indeed, to exercise control over their own supporters in their strongholds.
Even if the Government succeed in their efforts, which we all hope they will, the police in Northern Ireland will still have to deal with that problem. For a little while at least, that will require a police force equipped to do so. As both speakers so far have observed, sadly, but almost horribly predictably, this week peace seems a more delicate flower than ever. Most of the terrorist groups on both sides of the sectarian divide have not broken their ceasefire. However, it is clear that that position may not last. It is equally clear that the Provisional IRA in particular is still knee-capping and beating in its strongholds and that it has used the past two years to recruit, retrain, target, and indeed, as certain recent captures have proven, to rearm. In the face of that, we continue to release its most experienced terrorists from gaol.
As my noble friend suggested, this is hardly the time to deprive the RUC of its full anti-terrorist capability. As the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, said, all of us, including, I believe, the RUC itself, welcome the overwhelming majority of the Patten report. However, 1434 it seems to me—and, I believe, many others—that parts of the report would, if implemented, seriously undermine the anti-terrorist effectiveness of the RUC at a time when we may still need it and need it in spades. That includes those recommendations which seem to be most hostile to its esprit de corps. Of course, we should prefer the RUC not to be a paramilitary force and, indeed, essentially it is not one. Nevertheless, although I have never been a soldier, I gather strongly from friends and relations who have that, if one is under fire, symbols become more, rather than less, important. I suggest that that would apply to the RUC as much as to any other body which professionally is likely to find itself either blown up or shot.
When I said that "we may still need it", I used the word "we" advisedly. In that "we" I include not only the population of the Province—obviously—but also the population of Great Britain, which has relied increasingly on the RUC over the past 30 years as perhaps its first line of defence against terrorists. There is one other consideration which perhaps we should not forget—and nor should others. It is perfectly possible, if—God forbid—we return to conflict that the people of the Republic may find themselves in the firing line as well. Under those circumstances, it seems at least possible to those of us—including all Members of the House who take an interest in these matters—who recognise that there are terrorists on both sides of the divide, that so-called loyalists could be tempted once again, as they have been previously, to retaliate by going south of the border. The RUC has a function in that respect as a first line of defence not only for all of us but also for our friends south of the Irish border.
For all those reasons, I hope the Government will postpone implementing those parts of the Patten report which seem likely to undermine anti-terrorist capability until we can at least be certain that terrorist groups on both sides of the divide have, like the rest of the political parties in these islands, given up the Armalite for the ballot box.
§ 8.28 p.m.
§ Lord Hylton
My Lords, I begin from the premise that law and order in Northern Ireland—and, to some extent, in the Republic—depend on agreement and harmony between the British and Irish Governments and between their police, security and legal agencies on the ground. That holds good whether one is considering terrorism, drugs, cattle, fuel—which has been mentioned—money or the many other sources of temptation.
I move from that statement of the perhaps blindingly obvious to two particular small projects of much importance to Northern Ireland. Here I declare my non-financial interest as President of NIACRO. The first project is known as Base 2. This organisation is necessary because, as has already been indicated, punishment beatings, shootings and expulsions continue, from both loyalist and nationalist sources. Base 2 has techniques for evaluating threats to individuals, to discover whether they are real or imaginary. It has means to forestall violence. It 1435 provides effective assistance in conjunction with other agencies to actual victims, and it can sometimes reconcile families and provide continuing channels of communication. If Base 2 ceased to function tomorrow, it would be necessary to reinvent it, given the facts of the current situation.
The second item is the theory and the practice of local community restorative justice. I am glad to say that several such projects are now functioning and I have visited two of them in Belfast, on either side of the peace line. The do not operate in competition with police work—that is most important—but are fully complementary to it. They provide real alternatives to paramilitary rough justice and can prevent crime; for example, in cases of disputes between neighbours. Their greatest importance is perhaps in dealing with all sorts of anti-social behaviour and minor crime. They do, for instance, bring perpetrators and victims together in a face to face way. They can achieve reparation or restoration of the harm or damage done in ways not always possible to the police, probation or social services. They can reduce very substantially the time taken between the commission of an offence and the resolution of its consequences. This may, and often does, give a huge boost to local community morale.
I do urge Her Majesty's Government to study the actual workings of the two types of scheme I have mentioned. I believe they will learn a lot from them. They may save some money and will probably end up in the long run with a better criminal justice system. The information gained may well have implications for other situations outside Northern Ireland.
§ 8.32 p.m.
§ Lord Mayhew of Twysden
My Lords, it is no reflection on the importance which I attach to the initiatives mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, that I do not follow him down that line. I thank my noble friend Lord Glentoran for initiating this debate on the maintenance of law and order in Northern Ireland. The debate is timely because it comes in a week in which the Belfast Telegraph has drawn attention to some alarming developments. In the first place it speaks of,a spate of hijackings and bomb hoaxes in Lurgan and Waringstown".It comes in a week in which the M.1 motorway westbound was closed for five hours by a deliberate hoax suggesting that barrel bombs had been left in a culvert and a week in which three bomb warnings were received in Omagh. That is before one looks at the continuing pattern of so-called punishment beatings, which in the past have included crucifixions as well as other hideous physical assaults and, as my noble friend Lord Cranborne mentioned, banishment orders and all the other paraphernalia of terrorism of this kind.
I want to ask some questions of the Minister who is to reply. I have not been able to give her notice of them and I shall quite understand if, as she is not a Northern Ireland Minister, she is not able to answer them today. I shall of course be happy if she writes to me about them.
1436 May we know now, or later if need be, how many of these so-called punishment beatings have been inflicted in the latest period? Can we know whether or not there is substance in the fears expressed in the Belfast Telegraph that the North Armagh Brigade of the IRA, which has long held a hideous reputation for ruthlessness, has defected to the Continuity IRA? Is it not the case that in the past week the Chief Constable, Sir Ronnie Flanagan—I interpose here my warm endorsement of what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, about his qualities—has publicly stated that the threat from terrorist groups remains very real and that the terrorists have not reduced their capability, in his words, "by one iota"?
Does the noble Baroness agree that it is dismayingly significant that the pattern which I have illustrated should occur even though military patrols and helicopter flights in south Armagh have been reduced by 50 per cent and, as I understand it, security force patrols throughout the whole of Northern Ireland have been reduced by 75 per cent, so that only a quarter of the intensity that obtained before the Good Friday agreement was made is now being operated? I should be grateful if there could be confirmation—not necessarily now—of those factual assertions.
I used the words "even though" because we had all been given to understand that the commitment by republicans to peaceful methods was contingent on reductions in security force activities and presence. Yet here there has been this very significant reduction in an area of particular danger and sensitivity, and "not one iota" of a reduction in the terrorist threat and capability has been made in reciprocation. It seems very hard to avoid the conclusion that this is another example of the first jump not being reciprocated. It is absolutely essential—I should be greatly obliged if the noble Baroness would indicate that she concurs with this—that the Chief Constable, who is, after all, the Secretary of State's principal security adviser, should feel under no political pressure whatever to reduce the RUC's capability in protecting the public from terrorism. May we have an assurance on that tonight, because it really does not require research, and may we have with it a parallel assurance that, if the Chief Constable were to report that he now needs to have a wider operational deployment of his resources, no impediment from Ministers would be put in his way, however delicate the political or so-called peace process situation might at that time be?
Do the Government still stand by the assurance—I am sure they do, but it needs to be reiterated—given by the noble Baroness in the House on 19th January of this year that:There will be no question of rushing forward with changes [in police strength] in the absence of a stable security environment"?—[Official Report, 19/1/2000; col. 1176.]Is it not clear, in the opinion of the Government, that at present we do not have such a stable security environment?
Lastly, I echo what my noble friend Lord Cranborne said at the beginning of his remarks. I assure the noble Baroness that what I am about to say is absolutely no reflection on her, merely a reflection 1437 on the needs of the lamentable position that now obtains in Northern Ireland. Is it not now clear that we need once again a Northern Ireland Minister to deal with Northern Ireland affairs in this House—valiantly though the noble Baroness attempts, in a very difficult position, to fill that role? It is to be hoped that that Minister will be the noble Lord, Lord Dubs.
§ 8.40 p.m.
§ Lord Rogan
My Lords, I hope I have prepared no more than a six-minute speech. I shall certainly try to deliver a speech no longer than that.
I suggest to your Lordships that the unsettled circumstances of Northern Ireland as a result of the suspension of the Executive make it absolutely imperative that the Government proceed with the utmost caution on how they move on law and order issues in Northern Ireland. Events in Northern Ireland over the past few days should indeed cause those responsible for law and order to proceed with caution.
The Sinn Fein/IRA decision to disengage from further talks with General de Chastelain and their refusal to interface with the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning by withdrawing their representative and taking off the table their propositions put to the IICD since November show how dangerous it is to take progress for granted in Northern Ireland.
The police service in particular faces great uncertainty as a result of the Patten report—a report which not only failed to acknowledge the singular sacrifice that that heroic force has made over 30 years but brutally recommended the disbandment of over 2,700 full-time reserve officers.
There is much in the Patten report to commend it. As the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, has said, 80 per cent plus is not contentious. But, as ever, it is the process of transition, the management of change, which brings the greatest danger to society. We must not allow our desire for a solid peace to become desperation which clouds our judgment on how peace can best be preserved and protected.
Over the past 30 years it has been the RUC which has prevented our degeneration into the civic chaos that the terrorists sought to bring down on our heads. Most fair-minded people in Ulster, from both traditions, recognise that fact. If we move too fast, we shall also introduce instability into our communities at the very time when people are looking to see that the stanchions of law and order are firmly anchored. Whether you are a supporter of the Belfast agreement, as I undoubtedly am, or against it, we all need to understand that only evil interests are served if the effectiveness and capability of the RUC or its successor in name—the Police Service of Northern Ireland—is undermined.
The Secretary of State has promised that he will handle change "with sensitivity". But his recent announcement showed that little was being dropped from the original Patten recommendations. He may, therefore, want to show his sensitivity in relation to the 1438 RUC and the overwhelming majority of the people of Northern Ireland by reducing the haste with which the Government are moving. We have asked an awful lot of the men and women of the RUC. We owe them a predictable and secure future, just as we are trying to make one for ourselves.
I therefore urge the Government to take note of my advice and that of my colleagues: let the pace of change in the RUC not run ahead of the quality and transparency of the peace.
§ 8.44 p.m.
§ Baroness Park of Monmouth
My Lords, the IRA has refused to join in the current review and has withdrawn its representative and the so-called,propositions put to the de Chastelain Commission since November".It said categorically in November, after appointing him, that it had never contemplated and would never discuss decommissioning. Its proposition appears to have been (since we still do not know what was said),a comprehensive process to put arms beyond use in the context of the removal of the causes of conflict".That is IRA-speak for the withdrawal of all British forces from Northern Ireland, the dismantling of border posts, the disarming and emasculation, or better still abolition, of the RUC and the ending of emergency measures and Diplock courts. All that is to be done before a small band of unelected men, in Mr Bruton's phrase, who hold no mandate from the people, north or south, may graciously agree to hand over, on terms of absolute amnesty, perhaps a tiny portion of their large stores of Semtex to the independent commission for destruction. (The legislation, both north and south, requires destruction.)
Senator Mitchell understood negotiation as it is practised in the west. For give, there must be take. Sinn Fein/IRA does not. It negotiates Leninist-style: there is no give. All it has done so far is hold the hope of decommissioning over the heads of successive governments, British, Irish and American, on condition that it first secures all its objectives. It acknowledges no commitment, and the sorry story of the return of the bodies of its victims, which reached the grand total of three bodies, is an example of its idea of bargaining.
The Government have had the courage to call a halt to this endless blackmail. I hope that they will now stand firm. The very last thing that they must do is to say, "Perhaps if we move on reducing security, that might trigger a return to the commission or the conference table". All it will do is produce more demands and more of the formulae which everyone hopefully interprets as meaning decommissioning when they mean only the fixed intent of the IRA to produce a steady erosion of the power of the state to protect its citizens. The agreement called it normalisation.
It is not possible to call the situation normal in a country where, since the agreement and up only to August last year—incidentally, I am glad that further 1439 figures have been asked for—the IRA had carried out 36 murders, 57 shootings and 55 beatings (matched by the loyalists, but at a lower level). Northern Ireland is a country where by August 1999, since the Belfast agreement, 440 men, women and children had been sent into exile by the paramilitaries—told overnight to leave their home, their job and their lives and never come back. As for the murders and mutilations of earlier years, I have seen for myself the tetraplegics and paraplegics of the Disabled Police Officers Association who, with their whole families, have been crippled emotionally ever since.
Northern Ireland is a country where, according to the Rowe report of June 1998, intimidation of communities continues, paramilitary activity is at a high level and ordinary people feel threatened and are fearful of giving evidence or serving on a jury. The report said that there was a continuing need for the emergency provisions and that the time for normalisation of security arrangements and practices was not yet. The distinguished judge said that he had been urged by some to,send a signal which would assist the peace process",by recommending repeal. He could not. Nor could he recommend either a reversion from the Diplock courts to trial by jury or the abolition of powers of arrest, search and seizure.
The situation has not become better. Indeed, although greater powers were created after the Omagh bomb, it has not yet been possible to arrest and try those whom the Garda and the RUC know to be responsible because no witnesses can be persuaded to testify—a situation which the Irish Government also encountered in their efforts to bring the known IRA murderer of Garda Jerry McCabe to .justice.
There are practical reforms of the RUC proposed in the Patten report, many of which, such as a new IT structure, had already been proposed by the police authority in earlier times. I hope that those will be pursued. I was partly reassured by the Secretary of State's statement that the Special Branch would be retained, but it will be a fatal mistake to shorten service there. Good sources take a long time to develop and they are not just parcels to be handed on to inexperienced handlers. Long-standing relationships are vital, especially in situations of danger where trust is all. I am deeply uneasy, too, at the proposal for a new police board to include 10 political appointments out of 19 members. Politicising the police is not only extremely dangerous but also folly. Nothing will work, because the judgments made will be partisan, not professional, and everything will leak.
The Government have already withdrawn three battalions, closed 26 border posts and set out a programme of reform for the RUC which the Secretary of State has described as a process of change that will extend over several years. I hope that it does. It is the nature of both the Army and the RUC loyally to say in public that all is well. That is part of the difficult problem of morale and loyalty. But they have also said that the IRA has continued to train, recruit and re-arm. According to the Garda, those arms 1440 arrived by post at addresses of the Provisional IRA, not the Real IRA or Continuity IRA. We must rid ourselves of the splendid idea that these are splinter groups outside the control of the IRA: they are extremely useful surrogates which are brought into play whenever it seems useful to do so.
Let us by all means get on with the practical reforms proposed in the Patten report, such as the new IT structure, but I hope that we shall go slow on what I call the "political proposals" such as the reform of Special Branch or changes in the police authority. Many such changes are proposed. I shall not go into the issue of the oath and the rest of it. However, I find it extremely difficult to comprehend why, when we are so ready to understand the IRA's feelings about symbols, surrender and all the rest of it, we are wholly unprepared to understand the feelings of ordinary people in Northern Ireland who treasure the name RUC and believe in the symbol. Incidentally, I believe that it is a fair symbol since it incorporates a shamrock as well as everything else.
At the moment, I do not believe that it should be possible for the IRA to divide and rule by securing fresh support for action in the field of security, which is primarily a British interest, from the Irish Government. It has not yet become a serious problem for that Government. However, as my noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew said, that could happen. It is disturbing that Mr Ahern can quote paragraphs 7 and 8 of a commission report, according to the Irish Times, and yet we still do not know officially what was said. Surely, the withdrawal of the IRA changes that. It demonstrates clearly that probably the Secretary of State was right to say that nothing of any consequence had been offered, only the old formula about looking at the causes of conflict. The IRA probably said it at great length but it does not constitute any move towards decommissioning.
It is of the highest importance to stand firm and make no further concessions other than to proceed as far as possible with a great many practical steps that are non-political. I hope that a great deal more will be done for victims than has been done so far. There will be threats from the IRA; it will attempt to use the so-called splinter groups to send its messages. The Government are right and must keep their nerve and not blink first. The IRA does not represent the people; the Government do. The Government, therefore, have an absolute duty to retain security forces commensurate with the threat. We know that every member of the SDLP in the former Assembly and the Unionists believe that there is a threat to be faced. I do not understand the actions of the IRA in this context. Hitherto it has been extremely clever to move from the political to the violent phase of the struggle and back again. It does not understand that the more it threatens the stronger becomes the case for good security. I hope that one day it will come to understand that it is only weakening the case for normalisation and the prospect of all the political change that it so wishes for, which could legitimately come about if it kept its side of the bargain and events took their course over a number of years.
1441 We should strongly support the Government's courage and principle in this matter. I hope that, in their turn, they will not weaken and yield to the Irish Government who, for their own perfectly respectable reasons, want to be loved by Sinn Fein. That is not, however, a good enough reason for us to put the population of Northern Ireland at risk.
§ 8.54 p.m.
§ Lord Smith of Clifton
My Lords, events can move fast in Northern Ireland, as the Unstarred Question tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, well illustrates. It was originally intended for a week ago and concerned government policy following devolution but was postponed because direct rule was about to be reimposed. It has now been amended to reflect that. Events can move fast in Northern Ireland, but the situation remains stubbornly the same.
It is timely to discuss the Government's future policy for the maintenance of law and order, and I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, for initiating this debate. The debate has appropriately reflected the anxieties of the Unionist community. The views of nationalists have not been so clearly articulated, although both the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, and the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, have emphasised the need for policing by consent which is a major theme of the Patten report.
I fear that I shall strike a more pessimistic note than other noble Lords who have spoken so far tonight. The question in the minds of most people is: are events unfolding or unravelling? As I said when the House debated the Northern Ireland Bill last week, history shows that in Northern Ireland progressive initiatives, once they falter, have never recovered. I fear that unless devolution is restored within a matter of weeks, the Executive and Assembly will not be revived. As the days go by, the prospect of that unfortunate eventuality being realised increases almost at a compound rate.
There are, however, those who harbour the desire for the status quo ante to be restored under direct rule. I do not believe that that is a tenable option. It is not just that the events of the past week unfortunately have occurred, but matters have been moving on long since. The nub of it is that it would be very undesirable if the Secretary of State wavered in his intention, stated recently, to implement most of the Patten report or altered his proposed timetable. If direct rule applies for an extended period and there are law and order disturbances—as almost certainly there will be— peppered with sporadic bombing outrages, a return to the former arrangements is neither a practical nor a political option, and may well be counter-productive.
The Chief Constable, Sir Ronnie Flanagan, is fully capable of providing the required leadership to implement Patten, as I said in the debate which followed the Secretary of State's Statement on the Patten report. It is the best way to secure effective policing and to maintain security. If, as it turns out, there is to be an extensive period of direct rule, it will 1442 mean that once again the communal conflict in Northern Ireland is not, at this stage, soluble. In the words of Professor John Darby, an acknowledged expert on ethnic conflict and one of my former colleagues at the University of Ulster,conflicts that cannot be solved have to be managed".To that end, it would help to serve the interests of peace in the long run if as many of the other proposals contained in the Good Friday agreement were pursued. I have already mentioned the need to implement most of the Patten report, but the cross-border bodies should be established together with the proposed human rights Bill, which has been signalled. That will help to nurture the climate necessary for policing by consent.
Unless the political parties can come to an agreement so that devolution is restored very quickly, which is what the overwhelming majority of the people want, I predict that sooner rather than later direct rule will blend into either de facto or de jure condominium rule where Northern Ireland will be jointly administered, albeit reluctantly, by London and Dublin. If my pessimism turns out to be correct—I passionately hope that it does not—that is how the situation is likely to be best managed until a future generation feels able to accept the challenge of trying to achieve a lasting solution.
§ 9 P.m.
§ Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton
My Lords, sadly, the Question originally put by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, was asked in happier times and, as he acknowledged, is now out of date.
On Friday last the Secretary of State announced that he was suspending devolution in Northern Ireland in order to save the institutions from an uncontrolled, possibly fatal, collapse. All of us must join the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, in hoping that this suspension will be short-lived.
Until devolution is restored, all of the functions of the devolved administration will return to the Secretary of State. In the mean time—and indeed, even with devolution—responsibility for law and order rests almost entirely in the hands of the Secretary of State. With regard to policing, he must exercise his powers to promote the efficiency and effectiveness of the police service in consultation with the Chief Constable and the Police Authority for Northern Ireland. He sets the legislative framework for policing and, under the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 1998, he must set policing objectives, appoint the Police Authority, and approve the appointment of the Chief Constable.
His objectives for policing in 1999–2000 cover countering the terrorist threat, maintaining public order, reducing the number of people killed and injured in road traffic accidents, and tackling the problem to which many noble Lords referred of drug abuse and drugs. These objectives are currently under review, not least to take account of the Patten report.
1443 On 19th January the Secretary of State announced in another place his decisions as regards implementation of the Patten report. Once in effect these reforms will change fundamentally the way Northern Ireland is policed.
As the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, and other noble Lords acknowledged, and as the Chief Constable, described it, the vast bulk of the recommendations are simply about good and effective policing. Much of the report is designed to improve effectiveness and builds on changes the RUC itself had been pursuing. But some elements have caused great pain, in particular the decision to change the name and symbols. However, as my noble friend Lord Dubs said, if the RUC is convinced that the aims can be achieved, it will reluctantly accept the pain that is genuine and for which we must show respect. The courage of the RUC in the face of terrible losses was immense and we must salute it.
The noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, indicated that some changes are straightforward and can be implemented at once. Others may require legislation. A Bill will be introduced before Easter.
The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, raised issues about security dependent factors and the Patten proposals. Where changes are security dependent, the Secretary of State will be guided by the advice of the Chief Constable. I can assure the noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, that the anti-terrorism capacity will not suffer from changes to the Special Branch. We are not reducing security measures as a bargaining counter. We are doing so as a response to a reduction in threat. No one wants enormous numbers of soldiers and police officers on the streets when the threat is low. This is a judgment of the Chief Constable and the GOC, not the Secretary of State.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, raised the issue of the number of punishment beatings in the latest period for which information is. available. There has been a total of 384 paramilitary assaults since the signing of the agreement on 10th April 1998.
As regards the North Armagh IRA defection to the Continuity IRA. the Government have no firm evidence to support this claim. However, the Chief Constable Sir Ronnie Flanagan—I should like to join noble Lords who have paid tribute to his dedication— has acknowledged that the threat is still very real. We agree that the threat from terrorism is still very real as demonstrated in recent days. The Government remain totally committed to maintaining vigilance against this threat.
We understand the concern expressed about levels of patrolling, but I can assure noble Lords that the level of security activity throughout Northern Ireland is determined by the Chief Constable in direct response to the threat. I can give an assurance that no political pressure is exerted on the Chief Constable, nor will such pressure be exerted. Perhaps I may also give the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, an assurance that if the Chief Constable seeks to make changes in 1444 deployment, or wishes to take on operational measures in response to the terrorist threat, the Government will support him fully in this. There is no question that security force strengths will be reduced except in response to a reduction in terrorist threat; and then only on the advice of the Chief Constable.
The noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, raised the issue of undermining the anti-terrorist capability. Changes will reflect reduction in threat and will be made in accordance with the advice of the Chief Constable.
The noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, raised the issue of the likelihood of decommissioning ever happening. Decommissioning, like participation in devolved government, is a voluntary act. We cannot force anyone to hand in his weapons, or sit in government with anyone else. However, the Belfast agreement is clear: that as part of a political settlement all paramilitary arms must be decommissioned by May 2000. Prompt action is now needed to ensure that decommissioning can be completed on schedule in the context of the full implementation of the agreement. That, and only that, will restore cross-community confidence in the agreement.
We are all agreed that the Good Friday agreement has to be implemented in full. The obligations on all sides have not changed. What we must all seek is a way forward to enable decommissioning to occur as soon as possible.
The objectives of the Good Friday agreement included the setting up of the review of the criminal justice system. The noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, referred to the wider environment in which we hope to achieve success. The review group has carried out a broad consultation exercise, taking evidence from statutory, voluntary and other bodies in order to ensure that any proposals have the support of community groups, the political parties, human rights groups and all members of the public. The report of that review is due to be published shortly.
The current security situation—as noble Lords, in particular the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, have said—is one in which we must all insist that the paramount concern is the safety of the community and the protection of the public against threats of violence. We all want to see a return to normal security arrangements in Northern Ireland as soon as possible. The Secretary of State announced on 3rd December a review of specific security arrangements, including various installations throughout Northern Ireland. This process will continue as the security situation allows.
The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, raised the issue of the fight against drugs. Under devolution, responsibility for co-ordinating drugs misuse policy fell to the Assembly. During the suspension, the interdepartmental group is chaired by the Minister with responsibility for security. A five-year strategy, linked to a similar strategy in England and Wales, was launched in August 1999. We shall continue to combat drug misuse and the threat of drug smuggling.
1445 The five year strategy covers the same four key areas as the UK strategy, and a total of £5.5 million in additional resources was made available. The Northern Ireland Office continues to have a significant contribution to make to the co-ordination of drug misuse policy, especially in relation to policing and criminal justice issues.
The RUC has a clear role to play in helping to achieve the objectives of the current drugs strategy, and that strategy will be pursued with vigour. Only last week the RUC seized the largest-ever amount of Ecstasy found in Northern Ireland. We deprecate smuggling, not only because of the loss of tax revenue, but also because of the power and influence it gives to the paramilitaries. We will continue to support the RUC and other agencies in combating it.
The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, raised an issue to do with the Base 2 project, of which the noble Lord has great knowledge and with which he has worked very closely. We applaud the work undertaken by such groups, and are committed to restorative justice, 1446 believing that it offers an imaginative and reflective approach to dealing with some types of criminal and anti-social behaviour.
In the context of devolution there has been very little change in the role and responsibility of the Secretary of State with regard to law and order. However, law and order is very much a part of the enormous programme of positive reform that flows from the Good Friday agreement and has built the principles of fairness and equality into the framework for every area of public life in Northern Ireland.
In thanking the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, for introducing this short debate, I join other noble Lords who paid tribute to the knowledge, experience and contribution of my noble friend Lord Dubs in Northern Ireland.
The only assurance that I can give personally tonight is that I share my Government's total dedication to returning to Northern Ireland and its people, who we know want peace, a peaceful resolution to this problem.
§ House adjourned at thirteen minutes past nine o'clock.