Mr Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): I congratulate the Secretary of State and all the party leaders on reaching an agreement, not least in view of the Prime Minister’s astonishingly premature exit from the previous summit, and his lack of engagement, which has been greater than that of any Prime Minister for more than 20 years. How can the Secretary of State be sure that this process will not long-grass the key flashpoint issues of parade and flags? On corporation tax, is she aware of Sir David Varney’s 2007 report to the Treasury, which showed that 95% of businesses in Northern Ireland do not pay corporation tax? That is not a silver bullet; it will leave a £300 million hole, or 3%, in the block grant, if there is equalisation with the Republic of Ireland.
Mrs Villiers: I assure the right hon. Gentleman that the Prime Minister has been closely engaged with this process, and the visit he made along with the Taoiseach was significant in moving things forward. The financial package that he was able to agree with the Treasury was a crucial part of our progress. This Government have delivered significant achievements on some of the most difficult issues that Northern Ireland faces, and that is in large part due to work done by the Prime Minister.
I have acknowledged that there is more work to be done on the difficult issues of parades and flags, and no one would say for a moment that this agreement is the last word. I will be working, as will my officials and colleagues in government, to find a way forward on those matters, and ensure that they are not long-grassed and that we make real progress. As the right hon. Gentleman pointed out, those issues can cause huge disruption in Northern Ireland and poison the political relationships that are crucial to making the Executive work effectively. He says that corporation tax devolution is not a silver bullet. I agree that on its own it will not transform the Northern Ireland economy, but combined with other economic reform, a focus on skills and competitiveness, and economic reform across the board, it can have a significant and transformative effect. That is why I am disappointed that Labour is not supporting it.
Mr Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): May I offer a critical observation, not for some partisan motive, but out of experience of negotiating at such summits alongside Tony Blair, when he was Prime Minister? I was both troubled and astonished that the current Prime Minister left the summit prematurely in the way that he did. My experience is that any Prime Minister has to coax and progress the discussions and negotiations, and there is a chemistry about those and a momentum that it is possible to develop. Walking away as he did leaves a kind of political paralysis which I suspect and fear may continue. That is extremely damaging and I am extremely worried about the situation.
Mrs Villiers: I can provide the right hon. Gentleman with reassurance that the Prime Minister has not walked away; he continues to follow these matters with the greatest of attention, because he cares about Northern Ireland and wishes to see a successful conclusion to this process. The reality is that both he and the Taoiseach made a realistic assessment on Friday morning that the parties were still far apart on a number of issues, and there was an indication that on some key issues some parties were simply not prepared to move. In particular, it was very difficult to see that Sinn Fein was prepared to move on matters relating to welfare reform.
Mr Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): On parading, does the Secretary of State agree that the current political paralysis in Northern Ireland is undermining already shaky local faith in its elected politicians? Although I wish the Secretary of State well, I do not believe that the Prime Minister has been engaging closely or energetically enough with the parties to ensure that the 2007 settlement remains in good faith. I make no party point on this: from experience, I know that Northern Ireland needs constant care and attention from No. 10 and I hope it will now get that.
Mrs Villiers: I assure the right hon. Gentleman that Northern Ireland does get constant care and attention from the Prime Minister, not just with his decision to bring the G8 to Northern Ireland, but everyday in focusing on the security situation and repairing the Northern Ireland economy and, of course, by closely following these talks. I agree that it is vital that we do not let disputes about parades, painful though they are, get in the way of the need to reach resolution on important issues such as the budget, flags and reform of parading decisions.
Controversial letters sent to Irish republicans who were “on the run” were an essential part of the peace process, former Secretary of State for Wales and Northern Ireland Peter Hain has told MPs.
The Neath MP said the scheme – intended to let individuals know whether they were wanted for questioning by the police – helped “drag Northern Ireland away from the horror and the evil and terror of the past”.
Mr Hain cautioned against an outright rescinding of the letters and insisted these were not “get out of jail free cards”.
He said: “I realise this gives deep offence to victims and to my unionist friends but they were essential building blocks to get the peace settlement, to drag Northern Ireland away from the horror and the evil and terror of the past.
“And it would be very, very dangerous and toxic to somehow retrospectively rescind those letters and I know the Secretary of State is not doing that – she is confirming their legal status, or lack of – but I just caution people on that because that was part of getting us from the horror of the past to the peace and stability which we now enjoy.”
Read the full article here and Peter’s question in the house here
Mr Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): Does the Secretary of State agree that in a way her statement confirms what was the case all along: that the letters were not get out of jail free cards, but confirmed what the police and law officers assessed at the time, which was that these people were not wanted—wrongly in the case of Downey, and absolutely and rightly an apology is due for that—but that that did not preclude prosecutions in future should evidence come to light? I realise that that gives deep offence to victims and to my Unionist friends, but the letters were essential building blocks to get the peace settlement to drag Northern Ireland away from the horror, evil and terror of the past. It would be very dangerous and toxic somehow retrospectively to rescind those letters. I know the Secretary of State is not doing that; she is simply confirming their legal status, or lack of it, but I caution people because the scheme was part of getting us from the horror of the past to the peace and stability that we now enjoy.
Mrs Villiers: I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that my statement is consistent with how the scheme was always intended to operate. It was intended to be a scheme to establish whether an individual was wanted, not to provide an amnesty or assurance to those who were wanted that they were not wanted. It was also clear from the Hallett report that John Downey should never have received a letter. If the scheme had been properly administered, no such letter would have been issued. It was that serious error that led to the result in the Downey case.
On the legal effect of today’s announcement, as I have said, I do not believe that the words “rescind” or “revoke” are appropriate. It is much better to stick to the fact that these letters should no longer be relied on, and owing to the systemic flaws in the scheme, it might well be that further errors were made. Decisions on the prosecution of recipients of letters will be taken in exactly the same way as they are in relation to every other member of the public: if there is evidence or intelligence to justify arrest, that is what will happen.