Three brave men have lost their lives in Northern Ireland and our deepest sympathies must be with the friends and families of Patrick Azimkar, Mark Quinsey and Stephen Carroll.
Sappers Azimkar and Quinsey were only hours from travelling to Afghanistan to help bring peace to that country and give aid to the Afghan people.
Stephen Carroll was an experienced police officer, just about to complete twenty-one years of dedicated service; our thoughts are with his wife and family.
I try to visit Northern Ireland every week but today was the most moving visit since I became Shadow Secretary of State in July 2007. I had briefings from the Chief Constable, Sir Hugh Orde and Brigadier George Norton, Commander of the 38 (Irish) Brigade. I also visited Massereene Barracks and the site of the murder at Craigavon.
The ruthless murderers who committed these crimes must be brought to justice. They are violent criminals who are not representative of their communities and have no popular support. All political parties have rightly called for these killers to be caught and prosecuted to the full extent of the law; local people must work with the police and politicians to help achieve this. The key to defeating terrorism in Northern Ireland lies with the community and anyone with information on these criminal acts must come forward.
I have been struck how representatives from all parts of the community have united across the political divide to condemn these brutal acts.
The Chief Constable has been increasingly public and insistent in his warnings about the severity of the threat posed by dissident republican groups. We have known for some time that there has been a determination amongst these criminal gangs to kill a police officer or a member of the armed forces. It is down to a combination of skill, bravery and luck that a whole series of attempts in recent months had not been successful until this week.
The aim of these attacks is to try and disrupt normal policing, forcing police into barracks and armoured vehicles, away from contact with the public. There is an extremely difficult balance for the police to achieve, ensuring adequate protection for police officers while maintaining the close relations with the public which are so vital for policing in Northern Ireland to be effective.
In the meantime, it is essential that the Chief Constable should exercise his operational independence and call on any technical expertise he needs to tackle these criminals, as is the case in the rest of the United Kingdom. We pressed this issue in Parliament yesterday and I was pleased that the Government guaranteed that operational independence would be upheld even when Criminal Justice and Policing are devolved.
Despite the progress that has been made, Northern Ireland still has some way to go before normal security arrangements are appropriate. Parts of Northern Ireland remain more divided than ever. I have seen peace walls being extended in contentious inner city areas. Gangs are involved in extensive fuel smuggling, drug running and racketeering. So-called 'loyalist' paramilitaries have yet to decommission and remain involved in criminality.
Although there is still much to do, Northern Ireland has been transformed from the place it was thirty years ago, thanks to the peace process which was begun by the previous government and continued by this one. The Belfast Agreement was approved by 71 per cent of voters in the North and 94 per cent in the South. This agreement was effectively endorsed at St Andrews; all political parties have bought into it.
An unrepresentative minority of dissidents are determined to undo the good work of the past fifteen years. It is incumbent on us all to respond to these shocking murders by going about our business normally but with increased vigilance; there should be no sudden or precipitate changes in policy. The good work of recent years must continue. The actions of a small number of violent criminals must not be allowed to provoke anyone to undo the progress that has been made.