Questions to Secretary of State at NI Affairs Committee – Local Economy

Yesterday at the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee I queried the NI Secretary of State on measures to boost the local economy in Northern Ireland. Theresa Villiers attended the committee to give evidence on the impact of the recent spending review on Northern Ireland. I emphasised the need for the UK Government to provide increased supports to our economy, get updates on city deals and questioned her on legacy issues relating to the Stormont House agreement.

I will be voting no on Syrian air strikes

I don’t support David Camerons plans to launch air strikes in Syria, and will be voting  no it if comes before a vote in Parliament. I believe the Government has not given enough thought to the humanitarian consequences of bombing and have failed to present a convincing end goal or exit strategy for the proposed intervention. Myself and my SDLP colleagues will continue working to  make the case for a multilateral, diplomatic solution to the humanitarian crisis in the region.

House of Lords should vote against tax credit cuts

This is a critical moment in politics as the government faces a showdown in the House of Lords over its devastating plans to cut working tax credits. The SDLP voted against these plans in the House of Commons and urges those faced with the same decision today to support this stance.

For thousands of hard working people, tax credits mean the difference between getting by and not. Even with that, nearly two thirds of children who currently live in poverty are in working families. The Tories’ proposed cuts would leave a further 120,000 families in the North worse off. They would see teaching assistants, social workers and other key public sector workers lose more than £900 a year.

There is only one way to reform welfare which the SDLP will support and that is to reform work as well. Throughout the talks the SDLP has consistently called on the government to support our call for investment in the infrastructure in the north west, west and southern counties and to have universal free childcare, including a 30 hour free childcare guarantee.

We also want assurances from the government that there will be no more penalties used to try and force politicians here into pushing through their ideological policies which don’t take into account the fact we have a low wage economy. These are some of the tests when it comes to Budget and work in these current talks and in the coming months.

No more fudge, time for the whole truth

The Independent Panel Report has provided Sinn Féin with a unique opportunity to break the political deadlock by just telling the truth.

The Panel is to be commended for a straight-talking report in areas which have produced far too much fudge in the past. First of all it provides no comfort for anyone who would seek to deny Sinn Féin’s mandate by excluding the party from government. It has hard words to say about loyalism which unionism will need to address. But secondly and more importantly right now, this report issues a challenge to the whole nationalist community north and south because it pulls the rug out from under all the bluster and spin that has followed each Provo killing, beating or robbery over the last 20 years.

It shows that the Provisional IRA went away all right, but confirms that they didn’t go too far. They went around the corner and joined Sinn Féin as they had been told to do, and now they are leafleting and electioneering. That’s good, and certainly better than killing, and overall the whole Provisional movement is now solidly behind its political leadership in Sinn Féin. But that also means that people who are presently in the party and knocking on our doors have intimate knowledge of the crimes of the dirty war. Older members know who shot Jean McConville in the head, who mowed down the factory workers at Kingsmill. Younger ones know who killed Robert McCartney and Paul Quinn, who robbed Makro and the Gallahers cigarette lorries and the Northern Bank. It doesn’t really matter now whether Gerry Adams was ever in the Provisional IRA. A whole lot of his members definitely were and they don’t even bother to deny it.

It is a pity the Panel did not follow the money trail a bit further. The money from those robberies did not just evaporate, it was invested in front businesses and it funded further illegal activities such as diesel laundering which is being carried out with PIRA personnel, infrastructure and muscle.

The Sinn Féin leadership say there is no evidence for all this and of course they are right. There is no evidence because a considerable proportion of their members are still bound by the secrecy oath they swore when they joined the IRA. If in fact the party is not controlled by the Army Council, which all the old Provos seem to believe it is, then why does the party not simply tell the truth?

When we hear them saying in public that people should come forward and tell the police or Gardai what they know, what are they saying to their own people? How come none of them has come forward, never once? Is it because of the IRA oath? Gerry Adams could set them all free, if it is true that the party does not take orders from anyone else. Sinn Fein needs to turn its back on its dirty past and its dirty war and tell its own people to come forward and tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. That is what the people of Ireland want them to do.

No party can be found wanting following sobering report into paramilitary groups

Today should neither be a surprise nor a shock but it is sobering. The response should be certain. Once and for all, illegal groups whatever their structure must be gone for good.

Decisively and unambiguously, illegal activity must be faced down. The SDLP judgement is informed by the PSNI and Garda. We have not been in any denial or any doubt about the existence and activities of loyalist and republican groups. Our long held assessment has been corroborated in recent weeks.

There must be a whole hearted political approach to paramilitarism and criminality. No one, no party and no organisation should be found wanting.

We do not need to hear more Sinn Fein or other denials. Nearly 20 years since ceasefires and the Good Friday Agreement, illegal structures and activities have no place in the life of the island.
We should not hear the recycling of tired old denials which show a new contempt for Irish democracy.

There must be a wholehearted law enforcement approach to seeking out all involved in criminality and all who hold historic assets, be it for personal gain or not. Paramilitary organisations may be committed to peace but too many of their members want a piece of the action.

If there are not whole hearted political and law enforcement responses to the threats of illegal groups, then good citizens and good communities, which have been let down in the past, will be let down in the future.

The challenge in the talks is no less now than it was before. All parties should hold steady and exhaust the current opportunity to address properly paramilitarism and criminality, comprehensively deal with the Past and secure a budget to live up to the needs of all our people.

No to talk of legalising the IRA

I reject comments to the BBC by Jonathan Powell about legalising the IRA if they exist as a veterans organisation. There never was and never will be any need for a paramilitary group. There should not now be an attempt to justify them – whether they be republican or loyalist. All groups should commit to move away from violence and display that commitment through actions, not easy words.

We cannot escape the reality of the assessment from the Chief Constable in relation to Kevin McGuigan’s murder which is that members of the PIRA were responsible. We will not pretend that the PIRA is not currently involved in drug dealing, extortion, fuel laundering and coercion in communities across the north. The pressures and strains on people living under threat of violence cannot be ignored.

Jonathan Powell’s idea displays a naivety of the impact such a move would have on those people.
The IRA should not be involved in any criminality and whatever is left behind – if it acts within the rule of law such as tending graves – should be able to do it as Sinn Fein. Sinn Fein must accept it has a responsibility to deal with this and if it does not, it must be asked why. There is no need for an old boys’ network of paramilitaries and nor should anyone attempt to elevate them.

We need realism on the ground. Confronting the truth of paramilitaries in the North is the only way we can move forward and make a lasting difference to our society.

SDLP will work with Labour against an EU exit

Earlier this week I attended the Labour Party conference in Brighton and emphasised the SDLP committment to keeping Northern Ireland within the European Union. I took part in panel discussions and met senior Labour party officials on the subject of a potential UK exit from the EU.

An exit from the European Union remains an unthinkable retrograde step for many parts of the UK but perhaps most particularly in Northern Ireland where foreign direct investment will be essential if we are to provide a future of peace and prosperity for our people.

The uncertainty caused by this referendum will itself dent the confidence of investors as they decide where to create jobs, not to mention the harm such upheaval will cause in trade between the North and the rest of Ireland.

I have talked to both Vernon Coaker and Alan Johnson about these concerns and we will endeavour to work with Irish Labour and the Labour party in Britain to ensure that we stay in the EU. An exit would prove disastrous for Ireland, North and South in terms of trade, the economy and the free movement of people.

Attending the Labour party conference in Brighton 2015
Attending the Labour party conference in Brighton 2015

Pop up assessment is insufficient

Last week I responded to a statement from the Northern Ireland Secretary of State where she announced an assessment into the structures of paramilitaries and increased resources aimed at tackling organised crime.

We noted this statement but there are serious doubts over the capacity and commitment of this security service assessment. To move forward we need more than just a briefing that comes from a pop-up body but a real sense that all paramilitary structures including financial, intelligence and military are disbanded and that illicit cash flows and assets are accounted.

The SDLP has never deluded itself or bought any denials about the continued activity of paramilitary groups. The public need assurance that such vestigial networks are not pursuing other criminal channels or being facilitated in doing so. The SDLP called for war on organised crime in November. We raised it during the first round of negotiations at Stormont House. It wasn’t dealt with comprehensively then, it must be addressed now. The scourge of paramilitarism and criminality must be confronted immediately with all available resources.

There should be independent assessment with international input to build public confidence. This review led by and relying on the information of the security services should be treated with caution. It marks a limited approach and obvious questions will be raised. It is not as rigorous as the SDLP had urged. We look to Police services North and South and other law enforcement agencies North and South to best inform our judgement on these matters.

Unionist parties now seem willing to come back to the table. It is time for the political games and preconditions to finally come to an end and for everyone to get down to the business of resolving all of the issues and making these institutions work.

SDLP statement on proposal to adjourn the NI Assembly

This afternoon the SDLP confirmed it would vote against a DUP proposal to adjourn the Assembly in favour of maintaining functioning institutions.

Unlike others who rushed to judgement, we have been steady and spoken to everyone, including the Irish Government, about the current situation. Our decision has been to oppose the adjournment of the Assembly. It offers no real solution.

In our meeting with the Taoiseach this morning we offered a number of constructive proposals including the introduction of a representative of the American Government as a new independent chair, allowing space for a comprehensive resolution involving everyone.

This crisis has been created by the failings of Sinn Féin and the DUP. Together they have damaged confidence, the institutions, good government and the fundamental values of the Good Friday Agreement.

The SDLP are not in the business of giving cover for or working to DUP or Sinn Fein agendas. We are in the business of defending and delivering upon the promise of the Good Friday Agreement and ensuring that these institutions work for the good of our people. We will continue to stand up for these institutions. It is disgraceful that others would seek to jeopardise them. But that is their decision and they must be held responsible for it.

We will not cross the wires of politics and policing as the DUP have done upon recent arrests. We feel the Assembly can and should do business while the talks take place and should not be put at risk by political brinkmanship. You cannot stabilise the institutions by bringing them down.

All too often we in Stormont are accused of living in a bubble. People are sick of the Assembly lurching from one crisis to the other. They should be. We are.

We need to be responsible and we will be. An adjournment will not resolve this problem.