North's Political Boss Interviewed

Today TPQ features a transcript from RTÉ Radio 1 Today with Pat Kenny broadcast on Thursday 19th July 2012. As always thanks to our transcriber who does so much to provide this service.

Pat Kenny (PK) interviews Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Owen Paterson (OP).

(about one minute into podcast)

PK: As Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Owen Paterson has overseen the recent visit of the Queen to Northern Ireland and the historical handshake with Martin McGuinness.  He also sits at the British Cabinet table on the eve of the London Olympics which have been recently mired in controversy over the security arrangements requiring both the British Army and the police service to fill the gaps left by a private firm.  He's lots of things on his plate but he's also with me in studio.  Owen Paterson, Good Morning and welcome!

OP:  Good Morning!  Thank you very much for asking me on.

PK:  Nice to see you again.  Let's talk first of all about the McAreavey murder trial in Mauritius. 

I can play a clip for you if you haven't heard Martin McGuinness' contribution this morning on “Morning Ireland” already and this is just some of what he had to say:

     From the interview Martin McGuinness (MMG) and Morning Ireland (MI):

    (MMG): there's a very strong view on the island of Ireland and I know (it's) shared by both the McAreavey and Harte Families that they didn't get justice during the course of the trial.

     (MI): but when you say the perverse view of the jury are you saying you essentially disagreed with the verdict of the jury?

     (MMG): I did disagree with the verdict of the jury and I think that the fact that the Prime Minister of Mauritius, Mr. Rangoolam, said just recently that his government is considering all options concerning further actions in this matter with a view to bringing the perpetrators of this heinous crime to justice clearly shows that there are people within political authority in Mauritius who share my view.
PK:  So the Deputy First Minister believes that the men who were vindicated by the jury are guilty.

OP:  Well, I hadn't heard that before.  I think everyone has huge sympathy for the family.  This was an absolutely terrible murder.  There must be huge disappointment at the way the court case has gone and compounded by the dreadful publication of the photographs.  So I think everyone's sympathies this week are very much with the family. And from the beginning we have offered help through our High Commissioner in Mauritius who I think has worked closely with the family.  I saw the Tánaiste here last night and I've seen Alan Shatter, Justice Minister, again this morning and we've repeated that offer.  We have a full time High Commissioner in Mauritius and we're making him freely available to offer whatever help is appropriate.

PK:  Are you concerned though that the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland would, effectively, contradict a jury verdict?

OP:  Well, I'm absolutely not qualified to comment on judicial process. And I think politicians....

PK:  Are you concerned that politicians should be doing so?

OP:  I always make a point myself of not getting involved in judicial proceedings.  I think there is a very clear separation of powers which we've always respected -  politicians pass laws - judges and those involved with the legal process impose them.  And as I understand at the moment there've been approaches made to the PSNI and the Garda who are prepared to help in whatever way that might be appropriate.  But I do thing we've got to be careful.  This is a sovereign government and there is an independent judicial process which has to be respected.

PK: Again, I go back I go back to the question about concerns that a political figure in Northern Ireland in the august position of Deputy First Minister should be commenting on what a jury says in another jurisdiction and effectively may be even jeopardising any kind of a trial.  Because no matter who's brought before the court, if it's different parties for example, there's a statement from the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland that the original two who were tried are guilty.

OP:  Well, I think everybody would like to see those who were guilty of this appalling crime brought to justice, convicted and sentenced.  I think I would entirely agree with Martin McGuinness.  Where I'm cautious, is getting involved in the details of another country's judicial proceedings. But I've said, we've made it quite clear in that...I had very constructive meeting with the Tánaiste last night and again Alan Shatter this morning ... we've made it clear that we will help in any way that is appropriate and our Commissioner has been on the ground from the beginning.

PK:  We'll stay with Martin McGuinness and the historic handshake.  Were you involved deeply in the negotiations for that moment famous moment?

OP:  Yes, The Northern Ireland Office obviously was very deeply involved in all the details of the visit which was absolutely tremendous and it followed on from the astonishing success of the Queen's visit here last year which I think is still reverberating. I think the Queen coming here last year moved what were already very good relations between our two countries onto a whole new plane.  But I think it was absolutely marvellous: the Queen getting to Enniskillen, getting to a wonderful service in the Protestant Cathedral, going straight across the road to a Catholic Church, meeting people from right across the community in the world of the arts, charities, sports, business ... tremendous event at The Titanic, which I think she really enjoyed going around that very successful new project which is running miles ahead of its sales forecast.  And then of course this unthinkable event which no one could even have dared imagine even say a couple of years ago: that announced in advance that she went in an open car amongst a huge crowd of well over twenty thousand people in front of Parliament buildings.  And part of that, as you've commented, it's absolutely right that wherever she goes in the United Kingdom during her Jubilee Year she meets duly elected politicians of all parties.  She doesn't have to endorse the views of those parties.  But they have absolutely and totally legitimate political ambitions which they are pursuing by all peaceful democratic means and it's absolutely right she meet senior leaders from across the peace.

PK:  Are you suggesting it might have been as difficult for her to shake the hand of Martin McGuinness as it was for him to shake her hand?

OP:  Oh, I don't think anyone underestimates how difficult it was for the royal family who'd lost a very close relative in Lord Mountbatten who they were all very, very fond of.  But she did make that remarkable comment in her speech at Dublin Castle about things which would much better that hadn't happened than things that hadn't happened at all, and I think she shares a position, sadly, with whatever ... three and a half thousand families across Northern Ireland ... who did lose a close relative or had someone badly injured during The Troubles. She shares that terrible personal suffering but, in her position, I think it was a major gesture and it's absolutely right that she meets people from right across the community representing whatever their political views are as long as they're being pursued by peaceful, legitimate democratic means. 

PK:  You talk about reverberations from the Dublin visit.  What about the reverberations from this handshake? I mean, it is an iconic moment captured as it was on television and in pictures and so on. Is it just a moment in time or does it have a deeper significance?

OP:  No, I think it is significant.  I think the Queen's visit here, first state visit for a hundred years, was a major moment.

PK:  And I think that was acknowledged at the time.  I'm just thinking of that moment with with Martin McGuinness.

OP:  Yes.  I would put the meeting with Martin McGuinness and ... I met Martin actually a very few minutes after the meeting happened and I think it went very well ... it was very cordial ... they had a very sensible conversation.  I think it shows again how Northern Ireland has moved on. So the visit here moved, what I've said were very good relations onto a whole different level.   I would put the handshake in, as I did earlier, very much as part of a picture...I mean going to Enniskillen, going quite naturally from a Protestant service into a Catholic Church, meeting people across the board in a completely natural manner, being welcomed by everybody in an incredibly warm way as she was here and of course it sort of built up to sort of a tremendous crescendo her visit down in Cork. It's all part of normalisations it's all part of moving on and it's quite right that she meets duly elected senior figures of every political party – she doesn't have to agree with them.

PK:  It would not have been possible if there wasn't a view in the Northern Ireland Office that the security threat had diminished to the point, not there wasn't a massive security operation as there would be for any head of state visiting any of our countries, but that the security threat had diminished to the point where the visit and the style of the visit was possible.  And yet, we know there is still the remnants of a paramilitary threat in Northern Ireland...the dissident Republican threat. 

OP:  You're quite right.  I totally agree.   I do think that the PSNI handled the whole visit with great skill and real discretion. You're absolutely right.  The tour in front of Parliament buildings in an open car would literally have been unthinkable even a few years ago. But sadly, you also rightly point out, there are a small number of people who are determined to pursue whatever their political views are and their ambitions by violent means and to reject the democratic process.  And the whole point of the position we've got to today is that every legitimate ambition can now be pursued by democratic means. There is absolutely no place for violence and we all have to work together.  We've got absolutely unprecedented collaboration with government here and the Garda and the meeting with Alan Shatter and Martin Callinan the Garda Commissioner this morning. It is a remarkable level of collaboration and that collaboration has undoubtedly saved lives.  And we have to all work together. But ultimately this is community problem.  Ultimately this small number of people do have to be made to understand by their neighbours that there is no place for their activity.  Indiscriminate violence which is reckless, although it may be targeted at police or representatives of the state, is reckless, is dangerous and has absolutely no place in the future and will not work.

PK:  You obviously call on the political leaders, be it at provincial level if you'd like or at local level, to do this kind of make sure  that any legitimate ambitions that either community might have can be achieved by peaceful means. We come to the issue of the parades and The Twelfth.  That's still, that set-piece every year, is still provocative.  Now you say ... that local leaders actually ... it's their job to sort it out.  That you can do  megaphone diplomacy from on high but that's not going to work.

OP:  Well, I partly agree with you on that. I think you should look at the parades.  There has been huge progress.  There's something like four thousand parades (that) go off very successfully across Northern Ireland and are strongly supported by local people.  They generate wealth; there's income involved.  And (they) make people happy – in very,very crude and simple terms. There are a tiny, tiny number now which are contentious. And they, in the case of Ardoyne, which was the one last week.  Just the one incident, probably covering an area of a few hundred square yards, causes massive, disproportionate damage to the image of Northern Ireland across the world. It was number three on rated Four News - it was on the news headlines. And I think your point on local leaders is very good. We in the government are very clear.  We hoped that after the Hillsborough Agreement on devolution of policing legislation would come through Stormont establishing new arrangements for adjudicating on parades. But we were completely clear that if that didn't happen we would reappoint a Parades Commission which would be independent and my remit to them was to be robust and fair. Because we cannot have the police drawn back into the very contentious area of deciding on difficult parades. So the Parades Commission was reappointed and this time they made some quite controversial determinations. And, in fairness, there was one area where we still have a real problem.  There was talk about trouble in Crumlin but in all credit to local leaders, all credit to the Orange Order...they obeyed the determinations of the Parades Commission, some which they found very difficult and definitely stuck in their teeth, but in Ardoyne we still had a problem and that got on national news. So I think your comment on “locally” is absolutely right.  This really has to be resolved at local level.  There has to be agreement at local level by community leaders working with their own people.  This cannot be imposed from above. But until legislation comes forward replacing the Parades Commission I will stand by the independence of the Parades Commission's determinations.  But again I would pay tribute to the Orange Order and others who did obey those determinations however difficult they found them. When I went the day after, I went to Scarborough which is a huge public event, they say eighty to a hundred thousand people were there, I walked down the drive late in the morning....actually I think I must have walked passed twenty-five thousand people and I saw four policemen...frankly just having a bit of a chat with the locals. If we could get rid of the problem of this tiny, tiny number of contentious parades everyone could look at the advantages of Scarborough which is an enormous popular folk festival with massive support.

PK:  So you'd turn it into a...

OP:  Absolutely. As I said, it's generating some's generating a lot of happiness.  Very large amounts of people go there on a regular basis every year and really enjoy themselves.   And that's what the whole thing should be about. But while we're dogged by this tiny number of contentious parades that I'm afraid does cause real damage to Northern Ireland's international reputation.

PK:  It used to be about Unionist triumphalism ... Loyalist triumphalism.  Many of them would think there's little enough to be triumphalist about these days so maybe the way forward is for it to become something of a marking of a tradition more than anything else. 

OP:  Yeah, I think you're absolutely right. And don't forget, just remember the numbers:  there's nearly four thousand parades which you hardly ever hear of anything, they go off very peacefully and give pleasure to many people.  It's where we've to try to work together. But ultimately your comments are right. It really does come to local people sorting this out.  It's this tiny, tiny number of contentious parades.

PK:  Now you're asking and we have been asking people on both sectarian divide as it used to be called and still is called, I suppose, to swallow alot of recent history; the history of the last thirty-five years. Marian Price is in the news and that's something that is your call.  There was a letter in The Irish Times last week, and maybe you'll explain to us why you've made the decision you have in the case of a woman who is very ill. 

OP:  Well, I inherited a system for handling the issue of prisoners who had been convicted of very serious crimes being released on licence. This was one of the most difficult things which all the political parties in Northern Ireland had to negotiate with the then British government and Irish government through the talks.  So I think everyone should pay tribute to those who set up this system because it was an immensely difficult and controversial issue.

PK:  And it meant that people were released into communities in which they had committed crimes.

OP:  They had committed horrendous crimes!  These are very serious life sentences in many cases.  But it was part of the arrangements of the whole peace settlement which led to the agreement that those people could be allowed out on licence and would be free citizens so long as they didn't break the terms of the licence. So there is a very, very clearly worked out process. And we made it clear when we came to power that we would respect every letter of the agreements.  There's all sorts of things we might have done differently but we were not going to move a single brick. And it's incredibly important that we're seen to respect respect the rule of law and to respect the arrangements that have been set up.  And  the arrangements are very simple:  if somebody or we're led to believe that somebody may have broken the terms of their licence a decision is made by the Parole Commissioners who are a completely independent body.  They make a recommendation to the Secretary of State who may or may not take it.  But I have a real responsibility for public safety.  So if an independent responsible body like the Parole Commission makes a recommendation I'd be very foolish not to accept their recommendation. There is then a longer process in which the Parole Commissioners accept submissions from all the parties, the lawyers involved, the local politicians and then make a final adjudication. Now we're in the middle of that process with Marian Price.   Now obviously in her case it has caused some controversy because of her health.  Now, the responsibility for imprisonment is with David Ford, the local minister and he on advice from the local health board, has moved her to a more appropriate accommodation at Windsor House. But I would stress this: it is immensely important:  we are respecting the process that we've inherited. 

PK:  Do you think it would be a provocation if you had taken a different view, some would say a compassionate view, that someone should not be incarcerated when they're seriously ill like that.  Do you think it would have been a provocation to certain people?

OP:  Well I personally, and I've made this very clear:  I will not make arbitrary, political judgments on any of this.  I will follow the system that I've inherited in which man-years of negociation time went into establishing. I've made it completely clear that if local parties don't like the system, which they were all party to negotiating, absolutely fine!  Come to me having come to an agreement locally, and we'll put legislation through Westminster changing the system. But in the meantime I have a very clear obligation to safeguard the public. And if information comes to me that there is a possibility that someone's a danger and they may have broken the terms of their licence I'm obliged to go to the Parole Commissioners and then I am obliged, ultimately, to take their binding advice.  Now for me to go make a totally political judgment actually would undermine everything we're trying to do. 

PK:  You said “their binding advice”.  Is it actually binding? 

OP:  Their second ruling is binding, absolutely. But it's incredibly important that I respect that otherwise the whole settlement is a house of cards; it's looks like just a politician can swan in, as the Secretary of State, and arbitrarily over-rule the whole system.  Now that would be terrible.  So it's very, very important that I respect the system which has been set up through very, very detailed long negociation by all the local parties and stick to the letter of the law and follow through.

PK:  So you are not for turning on this? I mean this is...

OP:  No.  I think it would be very undermining of the whole structure of policing and justice if I was seen to make an arbitrary decision. And don't forget there are those campaigning for Marian's release and I respect their campaign and I hope they will contribute to the submissions she makes to the Parole Commissioners.  Because if they've got good evidence on her behalf I'd very much hope that that case is made but....

PK:  Your approach is due process, due process, due process...

OP:  Yeah, definitely.  But don't forget I'm also getting letters from other people saying on no account let out a person who may be a danger to the public. So I've got to be very, very careful in that I have a duty to the public, but I have an absolute duty to respect the rule of law and the system that I've inherited.

PK:  Another issue which crosses your desk would be that issue of Boston College and the recollections which were given in confidence to the researchers and which now are to be released, or part of them to be released, to the PSNI. There's a kind of a worrying precedent about that.  I mean, it is a court finding, but there's a worrying precedent about even seeking information which is given in confidence for historical purposes. The British government itself has it's thirty year rule and it's fifty year rule and it's one hundred year rule - things that are so sensitive that you've got to make sure that people are long dead and buried, their relatives and their grandchildren, before it's released.  So the principle is well established. 

OP:  Well, actually as a government we're going down from thirty year rule to a twenty year because we are in favour of transparency. Boston College is a genuine real problem.  It's a clash of very two very important themes. I mean, I've been there.  I've met Thomas Hachey.  I was really impressed with what they are doing.  And I'm very taken by the idea of establishing oral archives and capturing a pool of data and information and stories which historians can then work on. And actually when I went over to Saint Patrick's in March I went to North Carolina to see The Civil Rights oral archive there.  And I think that there's real merit I think in encouraging people to come forward to oral archives while they're still alive because of course many of the participants are sadly getting older and their memories are getting more faulty. And I'm quite relaxed that the information you'd get would be completely subjective, people may have an axe to grind, it may be faulty. But that's not a problem.  Let's just get all this information recorded and then let historians loose ... So the broad principle of what there were doing I was very much in favour of.  And of course the idea that there was effectively an amnesty of death – that nothing would be published until someone was dead - was a very interesting idea. But, and there's an enormous BUT that comes in here, we have always said that the rule of law must prevail and that the police have and absolute duty to follow up every possible lead seeking justice for victims and relatives of victims. And here you have a clash of two massive principles. So we have always strictly respected the operation and the independence of the police. And the first I knew about this move was when I read about it in the newspapers. We knew absolutely nothing about this.  So this was treated as a routine approach by the PSNI who went to the Home Office, who are the normal liaison ministry working with foreign jurisdictions, and the Home Office, I think quite rightly, didn't interfere either. Because if the PSNI seriously think have a lead which could lead to information which could lead possibly to a further process which could bring justice for a victim, and don't forget how the relatives of the victims have suffered terribly over the years as well, I think The Home Office was quite right to stand back.  They never told us.  And we read about it in the newspapers.

PK:  Anything that is given to the historians by people who are now deceased has no evidential value because it literally is the subjective recollections of somebody who could, in theory, be self-serving...wanting to write their own version of history. But where there are living people who have given in confidence information then of course they can be sworn in evidence and convictions or otherwise may ensue. But it's the principle that people want to give it while they're alive, want to give their version of things and then find themselves subject to some sort of policing and judicial process. It's deeply uncomfortable and it may inhibit the writing of a true an accurate history.  Before you came on we were talking to T. Ryle Dwyer about the activities of Michael Collins and Winston Churchill.  And it's good that we can know the full truth of what they were at.  But it would not have been politic for Lloyd George to admit the goings-on at the time.

OP:  No, I think you've explain it very, very clearly:  that there is a real conundrum here.  It would be very good for future generations to have completely open, unrestricted recollections.  You're quite right, people might have an axe to grind.  And I'm absolutely not a lawyer, but you'd have to wonder what the evidential value is of possibly some of these submission which are not made on oath or may not have proper witnesses and all the rest of it - and that's for lawyers to determine. But I think as a way of resolving the past I think we also have to recognise there is a massive interest in trying to get justice for victims and the benefit that brings to their relations.  So I think we probably have to accept that I think that probably does override the academic interest in having an absolute and pure unadulterated record.

PK:  We have this constructive ambiguity, the phrase so famously used Tony Blair and so famously practised by Bertie Ahern you know...Gerry Adams was never a member of the IRA, he says so therefore objectively that's supposed to be a fact...Martin McGuinness left the IRA at a particular time and we find that a “convenience” whether it is true or otherwise. And then you have this process which conspiracy theorists say are deliberately brought about to bring Gerry Adams into the frame for the disappearance of Jean McConville. So sometimes things are a convenience and we indulge in constructive ambiguity and allow our systems to proceed to a particular end but this one seems to run counter to that process.

OP:  I think you're absolutely right.  We can get back to our earlier comments...that it's absolutely central to the whole process that people should pursue their ambitions by legitimate, democratic means. And that is now happening. But I think on the conundrum we face it is very important to see that the police have a duty to victims.  They have to pursue every single lead.  And there's no way this is a conspiracy.  I mean, I knew absolutely nothing about this. 

PK:  So they have utter autonomy in this regard?

OP:  Yeah, absolutely and we've always respected that and that's absolutely fundamental - and it gets back to our comments on the earlier subject we were discussing.  You've got to have an independent police who have no political interference.  You've got to have a judicial system with no political interference. So I knew absolutely nothing about this. I'd be extraordinarily stupid to try to interfere in any way with any sort of possible political goal.  There cannot be any of this.  This has to be the police pursuing a lead and fulfilling their duty to the victims and the victims' families.

PK:  Finally I want to move to “the other island” and that at the Olympic Games which are looming...I mean this security business and having to draft-in troops and police to do the job that a private security firm was contracted to do.  I mean, is this embarrassing or what?

OP:  Well, it's certainly embarrassing for the company involved as we saw when the senior executives came for the MPs this week.

PK:  (Quips) The hapless senior executives. (both laugh)

OP:  Yes.  I think they had a very uncomfortable time. The fact is there's going to be a huge security operation; very large parts of it will be delivered by the contractors who came along.  But they did have a conundrum.  They had to recruit very large numbers of people and I think it was a question of timing: did they get them too early or did they leave it too late? And I think, as I understand it and this isn't my remit, but I understand that they had a terrible problem with their IT system breaking down. But the fact is it's perfectly obvious that it did go wrong to a certain extent.  But there was always going to be an element of military involvement and, as it happened as by complete chance, I had a meeting with the head of the Army and he was completely relaxed.  There's was always going to be a mix and the proportion of the Army has increased. And in talking to some of the soldiers and they're actually pretty chuffed.  They're going to spend some time in Central London in what was yesterday was nice, sunny weather and they'll be near The Olympics.

PK:  Well we hope that it will all go brilliantly well for the athletes for the audiences and indeed for the general public and for Britain itself because this is a huge showcase.  But Owen Paterson, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, thank you very much for joining us in our studio this morning.

OP:  Thank you very much.

(Interview ends)


  1. This, hougghlighted by Sandy Boyer, would contradict the Paterson claim that in the case of Marian Price he is just depending on the Parole Commission.

    18 July 2001

    *Life Sentences (NI) Order 2001 *

    Whereas a draft of this order has been approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament.

    Now, therefore, Her Majesty in exercise of the powers conferred by section 85 of the Northern Ireland Act 1988 and all other powers enabling Her in that behalf, is pleased, by and with the advice of Her Privy Council, to order, and it is hereby ordered as follows-

    * *

    *7.—(1) The Secretary of State may at any time release a life prisoner on licence if he is satisfied that exceptional circumstances exist which
    justify the prisoner’s release on compassionate grounds.*