HC Deb 12 December 1985 vol 88 cc1047-52
1. Mr. Canavan

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland whether he will make a further statement about the implementation of the agreement between Her Majesty's Government and the Government of the Republic of Ireland.

7. Mr. Stanbrook

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on what date he expects the Anglo-Irish Agreement to come into force.

10. Mr. Dubs

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what he expects will be the date and time of the first Intergovernmental Conference to be called in accordance with the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

14. Mr. Nicholas Baker

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will report on the progress in setting up the conference referred to in the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

17. Mr. Yeo

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland when the Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Conference will hold its first meeting.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Tom King)

The Anglo-Irish Agreement entered into force on Friday 29 November when formal notifications of acceptance were exchanged between Her Majesty's Government and the Irish Government. The first meeting of the Intergovernmental Conference took place in Belfast on 11 December. The conference discussed relations between the security forces and the minority, the enhancement of security co-operation, the importance of public confidence in the administration of justice and economic development. A joint press statement was issued after the meeting. I have placed it in the Library and the Vote Office.

Mr. Canavan

Now that the Secretary of State has let the cat out of the bag by claiming that the agreement virtually guarantees that there never will be a united Ireland and has made a fool of himself by claiming to speak on behalf of the Taoiseach, is it not clear that the agreement, far from being a lasting peaceful settlement, is hardly worth the paper that it is written on and that the only good that might come from it is if the good people of South Down get themselves a new Member of Parliament—that is, provided that the present incumbent has the guts to resign?

Mr. King

The last matter is obviously not for me. I made a statement in the House on the first matter raised by the hon. Gentleman. I stand by my view that the acceptance of the principle of consent by both Governments is an important development and should give considerable reassurance in those quarters where there has been some concern that the agreement in some way presages a slippery slope to a united Ireland. I made clear my view that the acceptance of the principle of consent by the Government of the Republic is important, and I gave my judgment that I did not think that that consent would be forthcoming.

Mr. Stanbrook

My right hon. Friend referred to the principle of consent. For how long does he think an agreement can last so long as the majority of the people concerned refuse to give it their consent?

Mr. King

There have been some wild rumours about some of the implications of the agreement, but I hope it will be understood that, for instance, while it provides an opportunity for the minority views to be heard, there is no question of excluding the majority community from opportunities for their views to be fully taken into account. That is one of the fundamental misunderstandings that has been expressed. Real benefits will flow to the majority community if we can get enhanced co-operation on security as well. I hope that when that is understood there will be increasing acceptance of the merits of the agreement.

Mr. Dubs

Does the Secretary of State agree that for the success of the proceedings to be ensured it would be better if there were not to be an excessive concentration on security matters to the exclusion of all else, because that is how it has been seen by the press and the public, certainly over here? Furthermore, will the Secretary of State say how the House can be of influence in what is discussed at the meetings?

Mr. King

I accept that the purpose of the agreement is to seek to help in peace and reconciliation. I make no apology for emphasising the importance of tackling the problems of terrorism. On today of all days, and with the recent outrages in Northern Ireland, the House will understand exactly what I mean. That is an important objective. We wish to achieve more reconciliation to help isolate the men of violence.

With regard to the ways in which the House and others may be kept informed, I have, as I said, put a press statement in the Library and I shall be willing to enter into discussions on ways in which proper communication can be established.

Mr. Nicholas Baker

Will my right hon. Friend remind the Unionists in Northern Ireland that many of us who support their position from this side of Great Britain believe that the agreement is the best way forward in terms of security and politics? Will my right hon. Friend tell us that the best way to convince the Unionists in Northern Ireland of that is to pursue the joint enhancement of security first?

Mr. King

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He is right. I repeat my statement that I am anxious to see ways in which the allegations of secrecy and lack of communication with the majority community can be defeated. If I am met by refusal to talk—a refusal that has existed since before any agreement was signed—it is difficult to establish better communications.

Mr. Mason

If the agreement is to be implemented, what steps does the Secretary of State intend to take to regain the confidence of the Ulster Unionists?

Mr. King

It is important to understand the merits of the work that has been done under the auspices of the agreement at the conference and to understand the role of the conference, which is to deal with cross-border security co-operation and cross-border economic co-operation, which is a matter between two Governments. It also gives an opportunity for the minority voice to be heard, but it is in no sense a substitution for the opportunity for a majority voice to be heard. I want to make that absolutely clear. I hope that we can get a positive approach and that it will be possible for the benefits of the agreement to come forward. I accept the right hon. Gentleman's point. It is obviously an important requirement.

Mr. Gow

If, in the months ahead, it becomes increasingly clear to the Government that the terms of the Anglo-Irish Agreement are completely unacceptable to the majority in Northern Ireland and to all Unionists there, what will the Government do? How can they then renegotiate the terms of the agreement?

Mr. King

I understand my hon. Friend's feelings on the issue, but I do not think that that problem arises. The most amazing stories have been told about the agreement, involving the disbandment of the Ulster Defence Regiment and changes of uniform for the Royal Ulster Constabulary. They are all wholly untrue and without foundation. They have stirred up much alarm and concern. I believe that the agreement does offer benefits and can be helpful to the community. I hope that those benefits will be increasingly recognised.

Mr. Maclennan

Is the Secretary of State repudiating without cavil the remarks of Mr. Seamus Mallon this morning that the UDR will be disbanded following yesterday's meeting?

Mr. King

I have paid tribute to the essential role played by the UDR. They are men of considerable bravery, conducting a key role in security. One of the most recent developments announced by the commander of the UDR is an enhancement of the regiment, including improved training facilities, which I hope all who support the UDR will welcome.

Mr. Hayes

While I fully understand that my right hon. Friend has to consider the possibility of establishing joint courts, will he take into account the patent absurdity of having a Southern Irish judge dispensing Her Majesty's justice? That may not give a great deal of reassurance to the Unionists, whom we are seeking desperately to reassure.

Mr. King

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that point. He may know that while the matter can be examined under the terms of the conference, we have made it clear publicly and officially, and to the Irish Government, that we see no early or easy prospect of that being achieved, that there is no commitment to it whatsoever and that, in any case, we require scrutiny by experts, who will include the Northern Ireland judiciary. If it did apply at all, it would have to apply to both jurisdictions. Let me make it absolutely clear that there is no commitment to it whatsoever.

Mr. Flannery

Now that the Minister has changed his mind, under pressure, about the border lasting in perpetuity, does he visualise it lasting for the next 40 years, until the children of the Catholic minority, who have more children in school at the moment, have grown up? Does the right hon. Gentleman visualise the killing going on throughout those 40 years, or does he have a plan, other than what has been done for the past 17 years that will stop the killing?

Mr. King

I have not changed my mind at all. I gave my opinion frankly to the House, and I stand by it. The hon. Gentleman is committing one of the easiest errors to make, by assuming that no Catholics are Unionists. A significant number of Catholics are Unionists, and would wish to belong to the Unionists. Merely to identify Protestants and Catholics as if that determined who might be in support of or against the Unionists is incorrect. My judgment, for historical, attitudinal and economic reasons, is that the majority for staying part of the United Kingdom will remain. That is my view, and I welcome that.

Sir John Biggs-Davison

Does my right hon. Friend not do himself and the Government a great injustice by suggesting that only now, because a Minister of the Irish Republic is installed in the inner councils of Northern Ireland, the voice of the minority can be heard? Have not the House and the Government been listening to the minority for years and been trying to help them and adjust any grievances that they might have? In this dangerous situation, is not the morale of the RUC all-important? Will my right hon. Friend assure me that no code of conduct was agreed with another Government, having regard to the splendid record of the RUC in hunting down the so-called Loyalist murder gangs and acting in a non-sectarian and proper fashion?

Mr. King

What my hon. Friend said at the start of his question was correct. Of course Governments have tried. The query, and the concern, is whether we have managed to achieve the confidence that is necessary for reconciliation. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the latter point. It is entirely a matter for the Chief Constable. It is well known that the Metropolitan police have introduced a code of conduct, and other United Kingdom police forces are doing so. It is made clear in the communiqué34 that the Chief Constable advised the conference that for some time he had been preparing, and would introduce as soon as possible, a code. That is the position. I was interested to hear that from the Chief Constable. It is entirely in line with developments in United Kingdom police forces.

Mr. Archer

Will that proposed code of conduct be made public, unlike the code of conduct that followed the Bennett recommendations? Reverting to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Dubs), since the conference discussed how it should approach its future programme of work, will the Secretary of State give the House an idea of the subjects likely to be discussed over the next few months, in addition to security and legal matters?

Mr. King

Those matters are contained in the communiqué and in the statement that we produced after it. The work on cross-border co-operation will continue and develop. The work referred to in the programme includes measures to improve relations between the security forces and the minority community and the creation of a working group of officials to establish machinery for further discussions on legal matters. The publication of the code of conduct is a matter for the police authority, but I should have thought it very desirable for it to be published. It is a matter for the authority, but I assume that it will be published.

2. Mr. Hunter

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what discussions he is currently having with representatives of the Unionist community about the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

13. Mr. Maclennan

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what recent consultations he has had with representatives of the political parties in Northern Ireland on the establishment of the Intergovernmental Conference provided for under the terms of the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Nicholas Scott)

Unionist elected representatives decided on 14 November, in protest at the agreement, that they would not communicate with my right hon. Friend or other Ministers at the Northern Ireland Office. We deplore this decision, which cannot serve the interests of the majority community. However, the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend discussed the agreement with a delegation of Unionist Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly on 25 November.

Since the agreement was signed, my right hon. Friend has met both the leader of the Alliance party and the leader of the Social Democratic and Labour party twice. We stand ready to listen to the views of the elected representatives of all constitutional parties in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Hunter

Will my hon. Friend give a yet further and more specific reassurance that, in the event of discussions reopening with the leaders of the Unionist community, and in all the discussions that take place about the agreement, it will be made abundantly plain that it will be taken fully into account that there are legitimate Unionist aspirations and understandable Unionist concerns, and that this has always been and always will be the case?

Mr. Scott

We have been at pains to make it clear that our respect is accorded to both traditions in Northern Ireland. We bitterly regret that the Unionist representatives are not making use of the many channels that are open to them for communicating their views to this Government. We shall persist in our attempts to persuade them to do so.

Mr. Maclennan

Will the Minister recognise that it is not very helpful simply to deplore the action of the Ulster Unionists, and that he might do better to recognise that the setting up by the Government of the Intergovernmental Conference is being opposed by constitutional means?

Mr. Scott

I welcome that, certainly, and I would expect nothing less from elected Members of this House and from other representatives of the Unionist community. I am sure that that is something that we look forward to being continued. I understand the worries of the Unionists, but I wish that they would come and discuss their worries with us.

Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson

If, as seems probable, the Assembly comes to an end in the fairly near future, would it not be a good idea to give Northern Ireland a Select Committee in this House so that Unionist Members and others from Northern Ireland could go over the details of such policies as are required for the Province, particularly those that will spring from the Anglo-Irish Agreement?

Mr. Scott

My hon. Friend raises essentially a hypothetical question. I very much hope that it will be possible for the Assembly to continue. Since its establishment it has done a very useful job in Northern Ireland and I hope that it will be able to continue to do so.

Mr. Nellist

What is the point of the Anglo-Irish Agreement if it provokes sectarian murders and increases the risk of civil war?

Mr. Scott

Frankly, I do not believe that that is the case. I hope that there will be a sensible implementation of this agreement so that we are able to reflect the views of the minority in the decision-making process in Northern Ireland, and so that we can establish improved security cooperation. That is the only basis upon which we shall be able to move forward on the political, the security and ultimately the economic front in Northern Ireland.

Mr. McNamara

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I shall take it later.

Mr. McNamara

On that question, Mr. Speaker Did an Ulster Unionist not seek to catch your eye on that question?

Mr. Speaker


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