It’s a great honour for me to be addressing the Police Federation of Northern Ireland’s annual conference this afternoon. I’m very grateful to your Chairman, Terry Spence, and his officer team for providing me with the opportunity to do so. And I realise that I have a tough act to follow.
When a Secretary of State called Theresa addresses a Police Federation conference, there is certainly scope for controversy! However, thankfully the different circumstances prevailing here in Northern Ireland mean the messages I have for you today don’t have to be quite as tough as those which the other Theresa delivered to your counterparts in England and Wales.
Today I’ll cover matters relating to the national security situation and this government’s determination to ensure that terrorism will never succeed. Secondly I’ll look at concerns about criminality linked to loyalist communities and lastly I’ll highlight the need for an agreed way forward on dealing with the past.
Debt of gratitude
Before that, though, I want to say a few words about the nature of policing in Northern Ireland. My starting point is to express my huge admiration for the courage, skill and professionalism displayed day in day out by members of the PSNI. Your devotion to duty and service to the community is outstanding and you should be proud of the job that you do.
Being a police officer in Northern Ireland involves dealing with sensitivities, dangers and public order situations that are almost unique in the UK, with the ever present terrorist threat making these demanding duties even more difficult. And you do that at a time of unprecedented pressure on the public finances - a situation, and I have to be candid with you, that will have to continue for some years to come as we strive to get the deficit down.
So on behalf of the UK government let me reiterate the huge debt of gratitude we owe you.
Thank you for all that you do to keep the community safe from harm.
I also wish to acknowledge the service and sacrifice made by the Royal Ulster Constabulary and their families. There are some who overlook or deny the contribution the RUC made to securing the relative peace and stability we have today. Well I can tell you that that is not a position that I or this government will ever take - we will remember them.
Today, we have a police service that’s more representative of the community than at any time in the history of Northern Ireland. It is subject to rigorous accountability and oversight structures to ensure it upholds the very highest standards. Its respect for human rights is second to none, as is its commitment to community policing. And it is entirely independent of political control or direction.
Crime is falling and the most recent Northern Ireland crime survey puts confidence in local policing at its highest ever levels with that confidence spread evenly among different parts of society. So I have no doubt that the PSNI is a service for the whole community that’s delivering for the whole community.
This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the first ceasefires and there can be no doubt that the security situation here has been transformed over these last two decades. As well as their tragic toll in lives lost and families bereaved, the long years of the troubles also meant that widespread property damage and almost constant public disruption were a daily fact of life here. And of course large parts of Northern Ireland could only be policed with the support of the Army.
Thankfully, we can be increasingly confident that those bad days are behind us and a great many people can take credit for that, on all sides. But for all that’s been achieved, we all here know that Northern Ireland continues to face a severe terrorist threat from so-called dissident republicans. These groupings hold democracy in contempt, defying the will of people throughout this island who in 1998 overwhelmingly voted that the future of Northern Ireland should be determined only by democracy and consent.
But while those intent on terrorism might be small in number, and have almost no popular support, they retain both lethal intent and capability. And police officers and members of the prison service remain their principal targets. Tragically, this was confirmed once again by the brutal murders of Police Constable Ronan Kerr in 2011 and Prison Officer David Black in 2012. And I’d like to take this opportunity to express my condolence and sympathy to the families of these brave men and to all victims of terrorism.
The Government’s response
This government came to power against a backdrop of a deteriorating security situation in Northern Ireland. A spike upwards in terrorism had begun in 2008, including the murders of Sappers Patrick Azimkar and Mark Quinsey, and then Constable Steven Carroll in 2009.
One of the Prime Minister’s first acts in office was to establish a National Security Council.
The aim was to ensure that all threats to our security are considered in the round and in a strategic way under the Prime Minister’s chairmanship. The National Security Strategy published in October 2010 made tackling Northern Ireland Related Terrorism a tier one, that is the highest priority for the government.
As Secretary of State I provide regular updates to the Prime Minister and colleagues on the progress we’re making in dealing with the terrorist threat here.
In addition, we’ve provided the Chief Constable with an additional £200 million over the four year Spending Review period, with a further £31 million for 2015/16. This is significant extra funding at a time of falling budgets elsewhere and when we also face a very significant threat from international terrorism, not least because of the effects of the conflict in Syria.
I should add that the government is also legislating to increase the maximum sentences available in England and Wales for a range of terrorist related offences. Northern Ireland’s Justice Minister has indicated that he considers it important to ensure consistency of available sentences across the United Kingdom - and I agree with him.
I also believe that he and I need to reflect carefully on the concerns expressed that decisions on sentencing in Northern Ireland can sometimes look far more lenient for terrorist offences than those taken in the courts elsewhere in the UK.
There have been some significant successes in disrupting the terrorist groups over recent months and the PSNI can be rightly proud of the role they have played in that. And I would also like to acknowledge the work of the intelligence services in providing invaluable support to the PSNI in their efforts to prevent the persistent planning and targeting by DR groupings from delivering the deadly outcomes which these terrorists seek to achieve.
By its very nature, the people involved in the intelligence services do not receive public acknowledgement but they play a significant part in broader efforts to keep people in Northern Ireland safe from harm. I would also emphasise the rigorous approach they take to complying with the legal rules which govern their activity.
The UK has one of the strongest systems anywhere in the world for oversight of the intelligence services. A legally binding set of rules is provided by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 and other legislation. Independent Commissioners have complete and unfettered access to scrutinise all documents and areas of activity to ensure rigorous adherence to these rules.
Members of the public can seek redress through the Investigatory Powers Tribunal.
And parliamentary accountability is provided by the cross-party Intelligence and Security Committee which had its powers, remit and resources strengthened by this Government in the Justice and Security Act of 2013.
But there is another security partner which is playing a crucial role in addressing the threats faced in Northern Ireland from terrorism and serious crime. That of course is An Garda Siochana. The close working relationship between police services on either side of the border is crucial. It has never been stronger than it is today and it is undoubtedly saving lives.
Not only is it pivotal in addressing national security concerns, it is also essential in combating cross-border criminality such a fuel laundering. And it has helped us deliver successful major international events such as the G8 in County Fermanagh and the hugely successful Giro d’Italia. So I thank the Garda for the work that they do and welcome the efforts being made at all levels to increase this cooperation yet further.
So, in summary, after concerted effort by the Government, the PSNI and their security partners, we have successfully stemmed the increase in terrorist activity which emerged in 2008.
But make no mistake, we must remain absolutely vigilant - there can be no let up in our efforts and we are totally committed to supporting the vital work that continues on a daily basis to combat terrorism. And on that you have complete commitment from the Prime Minister, from me and from the whole government.
The second issue I want to address today is one that I know is of great concern to the Federation, as it is to the government, and that is loyalist related violence and crime including brutal punishment attacks. I understand the anger felt by people about this - violence and intimidation from whatever quarter should not be tolerated. And I can assure you that this government will never tolerate it.
We fully back the action being taken by the Chief Constable to investigate criminality and illegal activity and tackle it with the full rigour of the law. I know that the Justice Minister is equally supportive. And in recent months there have been significant arrests and convictions.
So my message to these criminal thugs who prey on the communities in which they live is simple - break the law and expect to be investigated, charged and prosecuted, and if you’re convicted, expect go to prison where you belong.
Racist hate crime
And that’s also a message that should go out loud and clear to whoever is responsible for the racist attacks which have taken place over recent months. Such hate crimes have no place in a civilised society.
Northern Ireland rightly prides itself on the warmth of the welcome it offers. It is shameful that so many members of minority communities have been subjected to violence and intimidation.
These attacks are an ugly disfigurement on our society in Northern Ireland. I condemn them absolutely and I would like to convey my sympathy to all the victims and anyone else who has suffered at the hands of criminals.
National Crime Agency
And I would like to take this opportunity to make a simple point to all those who don’t yet feel able to support assembly legislation on the National Crime Agency. They are making life easier for the very organised crime gangs whose activities they condemn so strongly.
The NCA’s inability to operate to the full extent in Northern Ireland means that there will be criminal assets which do not get seized and wrongdoers who do not get investigated.
The choice on whether to allow the NCA to operate in relation to devolved matters rightly rests with the Executive. But that choice has consequences.
So I say again - all possible effort has been made to ensure that arrangements for the operation of the NCA are fully consistent with the devolution settlement and it is now time to let people in Northern Ireland enjoy the same protection from serious and organised crime that everyone else in the UK now has.
Dealing with the past
Turning to my last subject, I believe that the recent controversy over OTRs has reinforced the need to find an agreed way forward on dealing with the past. We need a mechanism that is balanced, transparent and accountable. One that puts the needs of victims first and enables us to put the era of side deals behind us once and for all.
One of the reasons why a fresh approach is becoming ever more vital because of the increasing pressure that legacy issues are placing on the policing and justice system - with a recent CJI report estimating that the Northern Ireland Executive now spends over £30 million a year on legacy issues.
And a significant burden falls on the PSNI who are having to trawl through hundreds of thousands of documents to decide what can be disclosed publicly and what must be kept secret to protect national security and individuals’ lives.
For those who fear that a new process on the past would only generate yet another means to try to re-write the history of the Troubles, I say that a fresh approach doesn’t have to be like that. It should be possible to provide for structured oversight by bodies representing different points of view to keep any new process fair, objective and historically accurate and prevent it being hijacked by any one group or viewpoint. That is something which the Haass-O’Sullivan draft documents were striving to achieve.
I have made clear that the UK government is prepared to be part of a compromise and to play our part in working with new institutions that might be agreed along the lines set out in the Haass 7 draft. But today I want to go further than that.
The UK government believes there is now a pressing need to reach an agreement on the past, parading and flags. All these three issues have the capacity to poison the political atmosphere and make progress on other key issues for Northern Ireland far harder to deliver.
They can also be the pretext for disgraceful acts of public disorder which leave police officers injured and communities devastated.
An agreement on flags, parading and the past - even in outline - would send a powerful global message about the ability of Northern Ireland’s politicians to find solutions to the most divisive of issues. It would free up politicians to focus on other matters crucial to our future - such as rebalancing the economy, reforming the public sector and building a shared future.
And it could ease the intolerable burden that is placed on the PSNI who year after year have to deal with the disgraceful public order consequences which so often arise from disputes over flags and parades.
So in conclusion, with the elections over, we now have a little over six weeks until the 12th of July. It is essential that every possible effort is made to use this crucial period to reach an agreed way forward before the height of the parading season is upon us once again.
The party leaders’ meetings need to resume as soon as possible, with an intensive and structured process to deliver an agreement. The First and deputy First Minister initiated the Haass discussions last year, and both have stated in the strongest terms their determination to see it through. That is what they and the other party leaders now need to do.
I continue to believe that trying to impose a solution from outside won’t work. The best way forward is an accommodation agreed locally by Northern Ireland’s political leadership. But the UK government will continue to be fully engaged in supporting and encouraging the efforts of the local parties to find a way forward.
Be in no doubt - we want this agreement delivered. That sentiment is strongly shared by the Irish and US Governments both of whom continue to provide active and enthusiastic support to efforts to find a way forward.
As the Prime Minister wrote in his article yesterday, now is the time to finish the job.