Statement by Paul Murphy on the Northern Bank robbery, House of Commons, 11 January 2005
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Statement by Paul Murphy, then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, on the Northern Bank robbery to Parliament, House of Commons, (11 January 2005)
"With permission, Mr 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 that robbery should be attributed to the Provisional IRA. He also made the point that quite apart from the massive scale of this robbery; over - £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 concerned. 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 this appalling crime.
The Chief Constableís public remarks were necessarily constrained by the ongoing investigation. He has briefed me fully on the background which led him to make the statement he did. I have no doubt that the Chief Constableís opinion is well-founded. He did not rush to judgement.
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 this aspect of the matter entirely clear. And there will of course be a further dispassionate assessment of the position when the Independent Monitoring Commission makes its next report. I shall be discussing with the Irish Government the timescale in which that report should be made.
On the immediate follow up to the robbery I welcome the announcement by the Northern Bank of their intention to withdraw from circulation their current banknotes and replace them with notes of a different design and colour. This decision will reduce very materially the value of the robbery to the perpetrators. We will be discussing with the Bank how best to publicise the detailed arrangements.
Since the Chief Constableís statement, there has been much comment about the impact of these developments on the political process in Northern Ireland. I cannot hide my own judgement that the impact 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 at that stage been an overall agreement. They included a statement to the effect that paramilitary activity by the Provisional IRA would cease immediately and definitely.
There was also a statement, to which the Democratic Unionist Party was committed, that after a period during which the good faith of the Provisionalís commitments had been demonstrated, an inclusive power-sharing executive would be re-established in March this year. I need hardly remind members of the House that this would have been nearly two and a half years after the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland were suspended.
In the event, there was an outstanding issue which could not be resolved, in relation to the transparency of the process of decommissioning. But, as I said to the House in December, we had made significant and substantial progress, not least in re-building the trust and confidence which is the essential requirement of a stable, inclusive, cross-community, devolved administration in Northern Ireland.
Today, I deeply regret that this 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 continues to believe provides the best long-term guarantee of peace and stability. We shall not abandon our commitment to that ultimate goal.
But we are in no doubt that it can only be achieved if the Provisional IRA not only gives up terrorism but also 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 Rt 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 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.
But let me reiterate to the House that this Government will not promote a political settlement in which a party inextricably linked to an organisation which 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 in existence.
Mr Speaker, 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 held in 1998.
Against that background, it is clear to me that decisions and responses on this 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 shall be able to reinvigorate the political talks that must precede a comprehensive settlement. And without those responses the Governments, and indeed this 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 be meeting him when he returns from a visit to the Tsunami-stricken areas of Asia. My Rt Hon Friend the Prime Minister will be meeting the Taoiseach towards the end of the month.
In the meantime, I expect to be talking to the Northern Ireland parties over the course of the next two weeks with a view to hearing first hand their assessments of the current position and their views on a number of difficult questions that now face us, including, for example, on the appropriateness of continuing to pay the salaries and allowances of the individuals elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly in November 2003 and on our proposed way forward on the regulation of donations to political parties in Northern Ireland.
I cannot disguise, Mr Speaker, my deep disappointment at what has happened. But my disappointment is as nothing by comparison with the disappointment 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 be doing everything it can to ensure that this 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."
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