Other Questions. - Northern Ireland Issues.

Brian O'Shea

Question:

8 Mr. O'Shea asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if he has raised with the British Government or the political parties in Northern Ireland the position of those who have been forced out of Northern Ireland as a result of threats of death or violence; the estimate, if any, he has received of the number of these people forced out in this way; the steps, if any, he will take to facilitate the return of those exiled; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25510/99]

The plight of those who have been forced to leave their homes areas as a result of paramilitary threats or intimidation, and also of their families, is a cause of serious concern to the Government. We fully endorse the right of those concerned to have the threats against them lifted and to return home.

The Government, in its communications with parties with influence on paramilitary groups, has called on them to do everything possible to help resolve this unacceptable situation. In this regard, we have emphasised that the Good Friday Agreement, in its section on rights, safeguards and equality of opportunity, recognises "the right to freely choose one's place of residence".

The issue is also raised regularly with the British Government through the framework of the Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. In the most recent discussions on the issue, the British authorities again indicated that statistics specifically relating to expulsions are not available.

I regret, despite the fact that this question was raised a month ago, and has been raised consistently over a long period, that the Government has not yet produced any statistics on, or even a guesstimate of, the numbers involved. We all know that there are young people being maimed and threatened with being killed unless they leave Northern Ireland.

Was the issue specifically raised within the context of the negotiations which have recently concluded as part of arriving at the current situation, say, on decommissioning, etc., in that this is a necessary step also for the normalisation of society in Northern Ireland? Will the Minister of State indicate if she considers that it is necessary to move speedily on the issue of policing, now that the consultation process on the Patten report has concluded, and the reform of the RUC in order to deal with this issue also?

I must be clear where the Government stands on all acts of violence and intimidation, including punishment beatings, active intimidations, threats and the continuing sectarian attacks in some areas of Northern Ireland. We condemn them absolutely and unequivocally.

The politics and the political agreement which has now been copperfastened by institutions and the reform of policing, offer the best guarantee that violence will be put behind us for good. The progress of recent weeks has brought us a further step closer to that goal.

On the difficulty in getting statistics for the number of expulsions, as they are called, given the nature of the problem, neither the groups involved in making the threats nor those who receive them are likely to make information on numbers available. In recent consultations with the British authorities on the matter it was confirmed that figures are not maintained on the numbers of people forced to leave Northern Ireland and it is not feasible to try and collate such figures.

The Victims' Commissioner, Mr. John Wilson, noted in his report that a number of those affected by paramilitary exiling are residing in this jurisdiction and the Government is currently examining measures aimed at alleviating their plight. This is being carried out in the context of the Government's consideration of the report of the Victims' Commission, which addressed the issue of the exiled in detail. The Victims' Commissioner has made a number of concrete recommendations to assist those exiled, including possible arrangements to facilitate those who wish to return home to Northern Ireland. These recommendations, together with—

Minister of State, you have exceeded your one minute.

Will the Minister confirm that one of the members of the Northern Ireland Executive has responsibility for public safety, even if security measures in the broader sense remain the responsibility of Ministers at Westminster? Will she consider taking up with the relevant Minister in charge of public safety in Northern Ireland, the question of the safe return of the people to whom this question refers?

Yes, that would be a valid issue to raise with the newly appointed Ministers of the new Northern Ireland Executive. Certainly these are some of the issues which we will hope to deal with in the context of a bedding down of the peace. The new institutions which have been established this week are the bedrock on which the permanent peace, which includes an end to all of these paramilitary style activities, will be built.

I will return to the earlier question because the Minister of State did not have a chance to reply to it, that is, the question of policing. Given that the consultation period on the Patten report has now concluded, would she consider that moving speedily on the issue of reform of the RUC would be a significant element of solving this problem also because clearly the acceptability of a police force in a community will lead to the community being unwilling to accept this kind of paramilitary activity in its area?

I agree with the Deputy that we need to accelerate the implementation of the recommendations of the Patten Commission. Clearly those recommendations offer an opportunity for a fresh start to policing to build a police service in Northern Ireland which has the support and allegiance of all of the community. It is extremely important that young nationalists and young Catholics join the newly reformed police service. Every effort should be made to implement the comprehensive recommendations of Chris Patten and to insist that there should not be cherry-picking of the various recommendations. Now that the consultation process has been brought to an end, the Government will press for the fast-forwarding of the recommendations as soon as possible.