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Statement by Peter Hain about Northern Ireland, (11 January 2006)

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Text: British Government ... Page compiled: Brendan Lynn

Statement by Peter Hain, then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, about Northern Ireland, House of Commons, (11 January 2006)


"With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement about Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland is governed best when governed locally. Since 2002, Mr. Speaker, for reasons the whole House is aware of, that has not been possible. But our commitment remains absolutely clear: this Government believes that 2006 can be the year for restoration of the Assembly and will work to that end as a matter of the utmost priority.

My predecessors have all referred to critical times for Northern Ireland. And there have been many. But this year is indeed a critical one, and especially for the Northern Ireland's political parties, and specifically Assembly Members. 2006 is a make or break year for them.

If there is no restoration of the Assembly in prospect, then two stark realities have to be faced. First, public resentment within Northern Ireland continues to build at the continued payment of Assembly Members of salaries and allowances totalling on average 85,000 per member while Stormont stands idle. Since it was suspended in October 2002, the Assembly has cost 78 million to maintain.

Countless times voters in Northern Ireland have asked me: how long this can go on? I want to tell the House today: not many months more. Second, no Northern Ireland political leader has disagreed with me that it would be traducing democracy to have elections - for a second time - to an Assembly that does not exist.

Elections are due in May 2007. For those to be meaningful we must have an Assembly exercising its full responsibilities. We therefore need to make progress urgently. We cannot let things drift.

Mr Speaker, MLAs were elected to be active members of a Legislative Assembly, working for their constituents in that Assembly. They have a duty to do so.

I want to see them discharging their responsibilities to their electors to govern on the shared basis the voters of Northern Ireland gave a mandate for in the 1998 referendum.

Of course this means building greater trust to deliver on commitments already made on all sides.

Unionists and nationalists need to know that republicans are committed to exclusively lawful means.

They need to know that all paramilitary activity, including criminality, has ended. The Independent Monitoring Commission is the body that will make that assessment. They also need to know that there is unequivocal support for the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the rule of law.

And Republicans and nationalists have to know that unionists are fully committed to fair and equitable power sharing.

But if people are serious about seeing a shared future based on fairness and equality, they must persuade each other of that.

I am therefore asking each of the political parties to agree dates for substantial discussions in early February with the British and Irish Governments to give their views on the way forward to restore the political institutions.

The Prime Minister, together with the Taoiseach, will be closely involved with developments during the year.

Mr Speaker, I also wish to inform the House about the Government's intentions as regards the Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill.

When I moved the Second Reading on 23 November, I said that it was necessary to help bring closure to Northern Ireland's dark past of violence by resolving outstanding issues that had not been dealt with in the Belfast Agreement, primarily that of terrorist suspects 'on the run'. Following the Agreement, over 400 paramilitary prisoners were released on licence.

Although victims of atrocities were, understandably, in uproar at the sight of murderers and former terrorists walking free, it was the right thing to do to seal the Agreement and lock in the peace.

But it left unresolved an equally difficult matter: the issue of what to do about those who had committed terrorist offences before 10 April 1998 and who, had they been in prison at the material time, would have been part of the Early Release Scheme. And it also left the question of what to do about others who might be prosecuted in future for crimes committed during the Troubles before the Good Friday Agreement.

The Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill is a challenge to everyone to look to the future, not to be trapped in the past.

That challenge remains.

But, as I told the House then, I did not bring forward this legislation with a spring in my step because I knew how hard it was for those thousands of victims who had lost so much.

I knew that introducing this legislation would be difficult and uncomfortable: I neither sought nor expected the sympathy of the House for that.

Members of the House, particularly those from Northern Ireland, expressed their opposition to this Bill with great power and passion. In detailed discussion in committee over many hours, those concerns were amplified with real commitment by Members across the Committee.

That passion was expressed no less powerfully outside the House in meetings that I and the Honourable Member for Delyn had with victims groups.

In response to the arguments put to us in Committee, we have been drafting wide-ranging amendments to the Bill - including to ensure that defendants would have to appear before the Special Tribunal. And we were giving serious consideration to a time limit for the scheme.

The Government still feels that it was right to introduce this legislation, not least to honour the commitment made publicly by both the British and Irish Governments in 2003, a commitment that was a key building block in the process which saw the IRA end their armed campaign.

The Government could have proceeded with this Bill when the issue was first raised seven years ago. We could have done so when the Joint Declaration was made in 2003. But we did not because the IRA had not delivered on its promise to end its war. We waited until that happened.

Every Northern Ireland Party vigorously opposed the Bill - bar Sinn Fein. Now Sinn Fein is opposed because they refused to accept that this legislation should apply to members of the security forces charged with terrorism-related offences.

Mr Speaker, to exclude any members of the security forces who might have been involved in such offences from the provisions of the Bill would not only have been illogical, it would have been indefensible and we would not do it. Closure on the past cannot be one-sided.

That was, and is, non-negotiable.

The process would have made people accountable for their past actions through the Special Tribunal before being released on licence.

Sinn Fein have now said that any Republican potentially covered by the legislation should have nothing to do with it.

But if nobody goes through the process, victims, who would have suffered the pain of having to come to terms with this legislation, would have had done so for nothing.

That is unacceptable, and I am therefore withdrawing the Bill.

Mr. Speaker, when I introduced this Bill I said that I would not presume to tell any victim that they must draw a line under the past. But the Government remains of the view that this anomaly will need at some stage to be faced as part of the process of moving forward. It is regrettable that Northern Ireland is not yet ready to do so.

We will reflect carefully over the coming months on how to move forward on this issue, in the context of dealing with the legacy of the past. We will not rush to conclusions. I will take stock in the Autumn.

In reflecting we will be mindful of the views of all the political parties, the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, victims' groups and others.

Mr Speaker, we are coming to the end game of a long period of transition that began with the ceasefires of the early 1990s.

As I have said before, the endgame in conflict transformation is often the hardest part, as it has proved in this case.

But 2006 can and must be a year of historic progress in Northern Ireland. It must be a year in which we will see a devolved, power-sharing Executive of local politicians taking the decisions that affect the everyday lives of the people of Northern Ireland.

That goal should unite all members of this House."


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