Murphy’s Law: Sanctions announced…

THE Secretary of State, as expected, has announced financial sanctions against Sinn Fein. Slugger carries a full (draft, but probably the final) copy of his speech below.With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a statement on Northern Ireland.

I came to the House on 11 January to make a statement relating to the Northern Bank robbery on 20 December. To recall the background: a highly organised and brutal gang kidnapped the families of two staff from the Bank’s headquarters in Belfast, threatening them with death unless the individuals co-operated in the execution of the largest robbery ever seen in these Islands.

Since then a major police investigation has been under way. As the House is aware the Chief Constable of Northern Ireland made his conclusion clear that the Provisional IRA were responsible for the robbery. The Prime Minister and I have indicated that we accept the Chief Constable’s judgement which is also shared by the Irish Government and their security advisers. The Chief Constable’s statement, seen in the context of other subsequent events, serves to reinforce the extent of the challenge that we all face in working towards peace and stability in Northern Ireland.

Earlier this month, on 10 February, I laid before the House a copy of a report presented to the British and Irish Governments by the Independent Monitoring Commission. That report, which the Commission had elected to produce in addition to its normal twice-yearly reports to the two Governments, concluded that the Northern Bank robbery was planned and undertaken by the Provisional IRA and that this organisation was also responsible for three other major robberies during the course of 2004.

I am very grateful to the members of the Commission for their quick response to the very grave situation created by the robbery and its attribution.

The IMC concluded, on the basis of its own careful scrutiny, that Sinn Fein must bear its share of the responsibility for these incidents. They indicated that, had the Northern Ireland Assembly been sitting, they would have recommended that the full range of measures referred to in the relevant legislation be applied to Sinn Fein, including the exclusion of its members from holding Ministerial office. In the context of suspension, they recommended that I should consider exercising the powers I have to apply financial penalties to Sinn Fein.

Mr Speaker, the House will recall that following the IMC’s first report in April last year, I issued a direction removing, for a period of twelve months, the block financial assistance paid to Assembly parties in respect of both Sinn Fein and the Progressive Unionist Party.

Having reflected on the IMC’s latest report, I have concluded that it would be appropriate for me to issue a further direction removing Sinn Fein’s entitlement to this block financial assistance for a further twelve month period, the maximum period permitted under the legislation.

I am, therefore, minded to make a further direction to come into effect on 29th April – the day after the existing direction expires. Before reaching a final decision, however, I will take into account any representations made to me by Sinn Fein by next Tuesday.

Mr Speaker, I will make a decision on whether to extend the financial penalties imposed on the PUP last April when I receive the next IMC report covering all paramilitary groups, which is expected in April.

The Commission’s report also refers to other public money which Sinn Fein receive, although recommendations on this are outside their remit. In this context, I am conscious that Hon Members on both sides of the House have raised concerns in the past about the payment of financial allowances to the four Sinn Fein members who decline to take up their seats here.

Mr Speaker, I hope that the House will welcome the opportunity to debate, in the near future, a Government motion proposing that these allowances be suspended on a timescale in parallel with the arrangements at Stormont, in recognition of recent events. The debate on that motion is for another day, but I should emphasise to the House, lest anyone accuse us of denying the extent of Sinn Féin’s electoral support, that the measures we are proposing are designed to express the disapproval of all those who are committed to purely democratic politics at the actions of the Provisional IRA. All in this House recognise the degree of support for Sinn Féin, but we also believe that the actions of the republican movement are letting down everyone in Northern Ireland, including Sinn Féin voters.

There are those who will argue that these financial sanctions are insufficient as a signal of the Government’s and Parliament’s condemnation of recent events. They may well argue that I should take steps to exclude Sinn Fein from the political process, or from the Assembly, now. I want to deal with those arguments directly, because they are sincerely made and with a strength of feeling that I well understand.

The Government’s ultimate goal remains the achievement of an inclusive power-sharing Executive in Northern Ireland. I need not remind the House that the robbery has set back the timescale for achieving that. But the reality remains that long-term stability in Northern Ireland will not come about if we focus on exclusion. That objective requires inclusion: dialogue with Sinn Fein must continue in order to see how that long-term goal can be achieved. But I am clear that this must be inclusion on the basis of a complete and demonstrable commitment to non-violence and exclusively peaceful and democratic means, that fundamental principle of the Good Friday Agreement, enshrined in the Pledge of Office.

Had the robbery occurred while the Assembly was in operation, however, the decision about exclusion would have been very different. It is inconceivable, in my view, that members of Sinn Fein could again hold Ministerial office while the issue of paramilitary activity and criminality on the part of the Provisional IRA remained unresolved.

The suggestion is made in some quarters that I should restore the Assembly and then, if the Assembly itself failed to take action to exclude Sinn Fein, that I should take action myself using the powers available to me to exclude them. Mr Speaker, this would be very difficult in the absence of a clear plan which would see the parties in the Assembly come together on a cross-community basis to form a government for Northern Ireland. But as I said to the House on 11 January, I have not ruled anything in or out as we continue to assess possible ways forward for achieving greater local political accountability.

As my Rt Hon Friend the Prime Minister has said, if we can’t achieve a comprehensive settlement in the short term will we need to consider other ways forward.

In the meantime our focus will remain strongly on dealing with the underlying issue of ongoing criminal activity in all its forms. The police investigation into the Northern Bank robbery is the largest undertaken by the PSNI, who are continuing to follow up every lead. This is inevitably an intensive and time consuming process. In parallel with this, I am taking the opportunity to ensure that our arrangements for tackling organised crime remain fit for purpose and have asked my Honourable Friend, the Member for Dudley South, to review the Organised Crime Task Force to see whether, and how, it might be strengthened.

We continue to have excellent co-operation at both a political and operational level with colleagues from the South of Ireland. I met yesterday with Michael McDowell for a regular bilateral along with the police chiefs from both jurisdictions. At that meeting, I was pleased to see this co-operation further strengthened by the signing, by the Chief Constable and Garda Commissioner, of protocols which facilitate the movement of officers between both forces in terms of personnel exchanges and secondments with policing powers. This development can only serve to strengthen the existing co-operation between the two police services in tackling terrorism and other crime.

But whatever our success in tackling criminality and paramilitary activity, the fact of the matter is that the commitment to peaceful and democratic means is not one this Government needs to make. As we said in the Joint Declaration of April 2003, “ongoing paramilitary activity, sectarian violence and criminality masquerading as a political cause are all corrosive of the trust and confidence that are necessary to sustain a durable political process.”

In the present context it is, as the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach have both indicated, for Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA to do that. They need to step forward and tell us how they will demonstrate their full commitment to all the principles of the Good Friday Agreement and how they intend to demonstrate to all the other parties in the political process and to the people of Northern Ireland, that the kind of behaviour identified in the IMC report is in the past. Financial penalties of the kind I have described today may signify our strong disapproval of what has happened, but of themselves they do not rebuild the trust which is necessary if confidence is to be restored. That is a matter for the Republican movement in general, and Sinn Féin in particular.