Time to face down thugs bent on chaos
Political correctness or human rights laws must not be allowed to tie the PSNI's hands. If it's not acceptable in Britain it shouldn't be here, writes Laurence Robertson
I've long taken an interest in Northern Ireland affairs, although it was the Troubles, which were at their height when I started to study political history in 1972, which initially attracted my attention. I remember the horror I felt at the time of the atrocities.
I first visited the province in 1996 and, on tours of the Falls and Shankill, for example, I was not surprised, but disappointed by the obvious unfortunate activity which was going on there.
I also remember my step-daughter's horror, on one trip, when she saw a wicked, provocative mural on a wall next to a primary school. She had her one-year-old daughter with her and simply didn't believe what she was seeing.
I entered parliament in 1997 and quickly became immersed in the constitutional issues which Tony Blair had engaged in and, in particular, the peace process.
Although obviously in favour of peace, I actually voted against some of the legislation which was being presented at the time, such as the releasing of prisoners in advance of weapons being surrendered.
Now, Northern Ireland is, of course, a very different place. There has been a general outbreak of peace. The DUP and Sinn Fein leadership sit down and talk to each other.
Policing and justice have been devolved to the Assembly. There is a general recognition and determination by the leadership of all the main political parties that there is no going back.
As chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee, I have been pleased that our committee has concentrated on issues which, we feel, will help strengthen and improve the economy, believing that such improvements would help to cement the peace.
Yes, we still consider security issues, but helping to improve the economy is top of our agenda.
Just a few weeks ago, I led the committee on a visit to the United States to talk to politicians, diplomats, business people and others.
We heard from many people that the overall impression in the US of Northern Ireland had been that the issue had been solved – that the Troubles were a thing of the past.
However, we also heard that, recently, concerns had been reignited by, for example, coverage of the violence attached to the flag protests.
This, of course, came as bad news to us. We, as a committee, are looking to help Northern Ireland become a better, more attractive place to do business. Nothing would put off potential investors more than the thought that the Troubles were starting up again.
We are not going back to the bad old days. However, if the province loses business opportunities because of this violence, then people don't get better off. And, if they suffer economically, the excuse to turn to violence, or paramilitary activity, is again made.
The so-called 'leaders' of these communities end up betraying the very people whom they purport to represent. The only way to avoid this happening is to stop the rioting – now.
And, of course, it's not just about money and prosperity, but also about lives and decency. I attended the Eleventh night bonfires and Twelfth parades in Belfast. I witnessed thousands of people enjoying themselves and everyone I saw was behaving themselves.
However, I did also witness the tension in north Belfast and later saw scenes of violence on the TV.
Why did this violence happen? Who caused it? In my view, whatever the cause, violence – especially in a democracy – is unacceptable.
Regardless of which community, which side of the divide, it comes from, it is wrong.
To see police officers being bombarded by missiles makes decent people recoil with horror from what is going on. It is uncivilised and I condemn it outright.
Who is carrying out and provoking this violence? Many of them are, of course, people who are too young even to have witnessed the Troubles at first-hand. What is it all about, then?
Is it linked to calls for a united Ireland? Or is it an attempt to retain the link with the Union? Either way, I doubt the people causing the trouble have ever engaged in peaceful, democratic politics in their lives. I doubt they have any interest in politics at all.
The police in Northern Ireland have my utmost respect. I have met many officers and a number of chief constables over the years and I am filled with a deep respect and admiration for their professionalism and determination. They should not have to endure the attacks which they have suffered over the last few months.
What would be unacceptable in, say, Manchester, or Birmingham, or London, must not be tolerated in Northern Ireland. There can be no double standards.
There are suggestions that the police are being hampered in their unenviable task by political correctness, or human rights legislation; that they cannot arrest people there and then as the crimes are being committed, but need to pursue the perpetrators later.
If this is the case, then the practice must change. The police need to be able to act as they would in Great Britain.
What can we, in Parliament, do about the situation? As I say, policing and justice is devolved, but the UK Government must offer every assistance and financial support to the PSNI, so that they – along with the Assembly – can continue to try to build a Northern Ireland in which future generations don't suffer the despair experienced in the past.
Laurence Robertson is Conservative MP for Tewkesbury. He chairs the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee