Speaking in a debate on emergency legislation to enable civil servants to continue to run public services in the absence of a functioning Northern Ireland Assembly, Sir Mike Penning tells Ministers that he will not support the Bill unless in includes provisions to protect veterans who served in Northern Ireland.
As one of two former Northern Ireland Ministers on the Government Benches, let me say that I know how difficult the ministerial team has found it to get to this position with the Bill. The Bill is far from perfect, and it is very easy for us on the Government Back Benches—and for those on other Benches, and for the shadow Secretary of State and the shadow Minister—to tell everybody what should have happened. It would be very easy to criticise—and there was a bit of criticism from the shadow Secretary of State—but the Secretary of State is dancing on the head of a pin, because without a devolved Administration in Northern Ireland, the whole area around the Northern Ireland agreement is in a difficult position.
Nobody in this House—nobody who really understands the Northern Ireland political position—would dream of having a situation in which civil servants were empowered by the Bill to progress things in a way that people in any other part of the United Kingdom would find completely undemocratic, and that would never be passed by this House. To perhaps not dance on the head of a pin, this is as close as we will get to direct rule without direct rule.
Some of the political persuasions in Northern Ireland want that to happen. They want crisis. For their own political beliefs, mostly around a united Ireland, they want to make the whole thing collapse. We are very close to that. We cannot have a situation in which the Province is brought to its knees because one group of people want one thing and another group cannot accept that.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is time that we had a degree of honesty from Sinn Féin—if that is possible—about whether they really want an Assembly back, and if they do, is it only on their terms?
That intervention is spot on, in many ways. It cannot be on one group’s terms. The Good Friday agreement is specific that it must involve the groups coming together.
In the time I was a Northern Ireland Minister, I met people from all parts of the Province, from all political persuasions and faiths, many of them together in the boxing rings and around rugby. Not once was the Irish language raised with me during my time in the Province. It may have been raised with the Secretary of State, but it certainly was not raised with me. Myriad things were raised, including the difficult situation of the historical investigations, the health service, bridges, roads and lack of infrastructure—all being blocked because one group in the Assembly had a veto. I like to use the word “veto” because I think the public understand it better. To me, that is fundamentally wrong.
We have to ask today whether Sinn Féin want to be part of the process. If not, they should come out and say so. If they do not want the Assembly, Administration and Ministers in place, they should say so. If they do want the Assembly to sit—although it is difficult to see how it could, considering the previous comments by Sinn Féin’s political leaders—they should get into the room, sit down at the table and thrash it out like their predecessors did.
I dealt with the late Martin McGuinness. I never thought that I would get on with him. We were miles apart politically, but he was actually quite pragmatic. He wanted better things for his community—like some of the parties in the House who do not want to be part of the United Kingdom, but come here, thrash things out and are part of it. That is why I have always found the fact that Sinn Féin does not come here, take part and argue its case fundamentally wrong and undemocratic to its constituents.
I will not give way to the great Lady, simply because I know so many other colleagues wish to speak in the debate.
The Bill worries me. I worry how amendable it is, which could impose things on Northern Ireland that are devolved matters. I accept that the Assembly is the right place. In a perfect world, I would like to see no abortion, but we do not live in a perfect world. We have abortion legislation here, and I was on the Opposition Front Bench during the passage of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008—a really difficult Bill—and we had a long debate about abortion. I personally think that a woman’s choice is important and we should allow abortion, but I would like to reduce the length of time in which the foetus can be aborted. However, it would be fundamentally dangerous to impose a decision made here on Northern Ireland when it is a devolved matter. I personally think that it should happen in Northern Ireland, but that is for the politicians who were duly elected there to deal with. If the amendment is passed today, it will cause chaos and division in Northern Ireland, and I shall vote against it if it is selected.
I have to say to those on the Front Bench that I have told my Whips that if that amendment were to be in the Bill, that is one reason why I would not be voting for the Bill later. But there is another reason, which is just as important. A whole group of veterans made Northern Ireland safer than it was when we went in. Many Members of this place have served in Her Majesty’s armed forces and been decorated for it. I find inconceivable the way that a British Conservative Government are dealing with British ex-servicemen. Years and years after we served and after the investigations have taken place, we are being treated like we were terrorists. That is the way we feel.
I first went to Northern Ireland in 1975, and Captain Robert Nairac, who sadly passed away there—we think, although we still do not know the exact facts of what happened to Robert—was my captain. I am surrounded by people saying to me, “Why are you”—this Government, this House—“not protecting me, rather than letting me be dragged back to a court in Northern Ireland for something that was finished years ago and of which I was found not guilty?” That form of double jeopardy is fundamentally wrong and it should be covered in this Bill. The Bill is concise and capable of containing that protection. I raised this matter at business questions last week, and the Leader of the House, in good faith, told me to go and speak to the Ministry of Defence. It has nothing to do with the Ministry of Defence; it is to do with the Northern Ireland Office and the Prime Minister, and that is the most important thing.
As has been mentioned a number of times in this House, this week marks the 25th anniversary of the Shankill bomb. The person responsible for that was convicted in a court of law, but was released under the terms of the Good Friday agreement after serving just seven years for the murder of nine innocent civilians, including two children. That is absolutely appalling. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is grotesque that Sinn Féin, who defended that and fought for early release of those murderers from prison, is now going after those soldiers who were in Northern Ireland to defend, to protect and to do their job?
I completely agree with the hon. Lady. Sinn Féin sees their people who were doing those atrocities as combatants. They were part of their army; that is why they called them what they did. But they do not look at our veterans in the same way; actually, I think they look at them with derision. I served with Catholics from Belfast in the Army, and they could not go home—certainly, if they did, they could not tell anyone what they were doing. When I was in basic training, many of them stayed with me, with us, because they felt that they could not go back, even though they were Unionists and they wanted to serve in the British Army. Many people from the south served in the British Army. We have police officers from the Republic now who are serving in the police force in Northern Ireland. That is the sort of thing we had, but we still do not have peace.
What peace do we have in Northern Ireland? We have touched on this, and on the murders of prison officers. When I was the Minister there, David Black was shot with a weapon that most people in Northern Ireland know was an AK47, from the Gaddafi era, that was supposed to have been placed out of use and out of everything. He was shot on the M1 going to work. What sort of peace is that?
My right hon. Friend makes a powerful point about the pursuit of people who should clearly not be pursued as they have been through a process that has long been done with. Does he agree that that matter should actually be being determined by the Attorney General for Northern Ireland? It is a clear and blatant abuse of process that old criminal lawyers will understand. Does he also agree that it is not good enough that the covenant has not been fully extended through the entirety of Northern Ireland?
Perhaps unusually, I agree with my right hon. Friend on nearly everything she says apart from her point about the Attorney General. British soldiers who were there to keep the peace—that is what I was sent to do—were sent by the British Government and so, in my opinion, the only Attorney General who should look at it is the Attorney General here. We were sent there not by Northern Ireland Ministers or Attorney Generals, but by those who were here. My Prime Minister at the time sent the troops. I went in ’74; there were lots before me and lots after us. It cannot be right—it cannot—that this Bill ignores what was given by so many to protect the Province.
I will not give way, because the Deputy Speaker has already told me off once, but I will conclude.
I fundamentally think I was sent to this place to do a job—to protect my constituents and look after them, after they have looked after us. If this House is not willing to protect veterans who served in Northern Ireland, I am afraid I cannot support the Bill.