Northern Ireland powersharing deal welcomed by Labour

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A “fresh crisis” in Northern Ireland can be avoided by grasping the opportunity for stable government, to banish paramilitary groups and to resolve the past, Labour has said.

Shadow Northern Ireland secretary Vernon Coaker welcomed the latest deal to save the country’s faltering powersharing administration as “another breathing space”.

He added the UK Government must make it a priority to counter the “attraction” of paramilitary groups to young people while a “comprehensive approach” is critical to continuing progress on resolving issues from the Troubles.

Making a statement on the deal in the Commons, Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers said it represents a “step toward a brighter, more secure future for everyone” in the country.

A deal was announced on Tuesday, which contained agreements on several issues including welfare reform, ridding the region of paramilitaries and corporation tax.

But a resolution on how to address the painful legacy of the Troubles was not included, with progress prevented due to an impasse between Sinn Fein and the UK Government over the disclosure of official documents to proposed truth-recovery bodies.

Mr Coaker told MPs: “Whatever people see as its imperfections, whatever people see as its disappointments, there is another breathing space, another opportunity for Northern Ireland to move forward, to combat criminality, banish paramilitarism, tackle sectarianism and have a stable government financially and politically.

“That opportunity must be grasped, outstanding issues resolved and a fresh crisis in a year or two avoided.”

Ms Villiers opened her statement by praising Northern Ireland First Minister and Democratic Unionist leader Peter Robinson, who has announced his plans to step down.

The Cabinet minister outlined the deal reached, adding: “The agreement takes Northern Ireland’s leaders further than ever before on this issue.

“It strongly reaffirms the commitment to upholding the rule of law and makes it absolutely clear that in no circumstances will paramilitary activity ever be tolerated.”

On the difficulties of establishing new bodies to deal with legacy issues, Ms Villiers said: “We did establish common ground between the parties on a range of significant questions on how to establish those new structures.

“But sadly not enough to enable legislation to go forward as yet. The Government continues to support these provisions because of the pressing need to provide better outcomes for victims and survivors - the people who we must never forget have suffered more than anyone else as a result of the Troubles.

“So it’s crucial we all now reflect on what needs to be done to achieve the wider consensus needed to get those new legacy bodies set up.”

For Labour, Mr Coaker insisted the implementation of the new deal is “crucial”, adding people in Northern Ireland do not want to be “faced in a year or two with another crisis”.

He said: “This really has to be a fresh start.”

Mr Coaker noted he is confident the measures offer a “way forward” in a number of areas.

On paramilitary groups, he added to Ms Villiers: “Are you, like me and many people I meet in Northern Ireland, worried about these groups and their attraction in particular for young people?

“Apparent easy money, lack of career opportunities and educational underachievement - and indeed a false belief membership of such groups can give you a status - has to be tackled, with many of them growing up in relative peace.”

He said he understands dealing with this past is “incredibly difficult”, telling the minister: “A comprehensive approach is critical to continuing progress in Northern Ireland.

“So do you agree with me that the search for truth and justice often seem to be unattainable possibilities and yet isn’t it the case that the people of Northern Ireland and their politicians have made the apparent impossible compromises and built consensus where none seemed likely?”

Mr Coaker also questioned Ms Villiers about her plans to meet victims and victims’ groups to discuss progress.

In reply, the Northern Ireland Secretary agreed programmes are key to preventing young people from being drawn into paramilitary groups.

She stressed the need to protect national security when attempting to resolve issues from the past, adding she intends to meet victims’ groups.

Nigel Dodds, Democratic Unionist MP for Belfast North, said there “will of course be snipers” who criticise the agreement.

But he said it is a “fresh start” that will allow the country to move forward.

On the issue of paramilitaries, he said: “We are determined that never a blind eye will be turned to violence or to the actions of paramilitaries.

“On the legacy of the past I share her (Ms Villiers’s) concern and disappointment that an agreement couldn’t be reached.

“But I think it is right that we never allow a hierarchy of victims to be created, that we don’t allow those who were victims of the state - so-called - to be elevated above other victims of paramilitaries.”

Ms Villiers said she had tried to reach a consensus on the legacy issue.

She said: “To the end I was arguing to keep legacy in. I wish we had been able to, even if we couldn’t agree on all the issues in relation to legacy, I hoped that we would be able to actually list it on an agreement a fair selection of areas where consensus had been achieved.

“I couldn’t get everyone to sign up to that but I will continue to strive to find a way to get these legacy bodies set up.

“It is crucially important for victims and survivors that we do.”

Former first minister of Northern Ireland Lord Trimble warned against the continued existence of private armies.

The ex-UUP leader, who now sits as a Conservative peer, told the Lords: “The existence of private armies anywhere within the United Kingdom presents a challenge to the authority of the United Kingdom Government. Pretty words said in the Executive are all very good, all very well, but it requires something more effective.

“And the reason why the original independent monitoring commission was effective dealing with paramilitaries is that it had the power to sanction those bodies, and furthermore, its independence had the effect of keeping the Northern Ireland Office honest, and inhibiting its tendency to brush things under the carpet. We are missing on both those counts.”

Another former UUP leader, Lord Empey, told the upper house that this was not a five party agreement, but a two party one between Sinn Fein and the DUP, with little time to absorb the details being given to the other participants in the talks.