HC Deb 30 January 1986 vol 90 cc1083-6
7. Sir John Biggs-Davison

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement about the working of the Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Conference.

13. Mr. Stanbrook

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the work of the Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Conference.

Mr. Tom King

The Intergovernmental Conference has met three times since the Anglo-Irish agreement came into force. The joint statements issued after each meeting give an account of our work in the conference. I have placed them in the Library. I am particularly encouraged by the commitment of both sides to making cross-border co-operation on security as close and effective as possible.

Sir John Biggs-Davison

Has the European convention on the suppression of terrorism come up? Does my right hon. Friend share my disappointment that yesterday in Strasbourg the Irish Foreign Minister could give me no hope that at an early date the intention of Dr. Garrett Fitzgerald that the Irish Republic should adhere to that agreement would be fulfilled?

Mr. King

I noted the exchange between my hon. Friend and the Irish Foreign Minister. To be fair to him, he did not so much offer no hope as give no exact date for when that could be done. I share my hon. Friend's determination that the intention, confirmed in the communiqué by the Taoiseach, should be implemented as early as possible, and I am confident that the good faith of the Irish Government will mean that their intention to accede to the convention will be implemented as early as possible.

Mr. Stanbrook

As the main purpose of the conference is to enable the Government of the Irish Republic to represent the interests of the minority in Northern Ireland, and as the United Kingdom Government can hardly represent any sectional interests, what provision is being made for the representation of the majority in Northern Ireland at the conference?

Mr. King

The purpose of the agreement is much more than my hon. Friend suggests. It is, first, to establish clearly, and to have it confirmed by the Irish Government, that there will be no change in the status of Northern Ireland without the consent of the majority. That is a most important safeguard and should never be ignored.

The second purpose is to further cross-border cooperation on security, and the whole House will understand the importance of that. My hon. Friend rightly said that another purpose of the agreement is to represent the views of the minority. If the majority of people believe that there are no adequate channels for their views to be conveyed, I am anxious to know how they think those channels could be improved. I am anxious to talk to them about that. Only by discussion will we learn what their anxieties are and the ways in which they might be met.

Mr. Home Robertson

How can the Secretary of State hope to have a dialogue with representatives of the majority when they are hanging about in the Members' Lobby instead of entering the Chamber? Does he agree that the most significant verdict on the Anglo-Irish agreement came last week from the electors of Newry and Armagh?

Mr. King

It came not only from the voters of Newry and Armagh, but from all the seats that were contested, in which there was a remarkably uniform swing from those who support terrorism to those who support constitutional nationalism. The whole House will welcome that. I cannot answer the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question. I very much hope that wiser counsels will prevail and that we can have a sensible discussion about how their worries can best be met.

Mr. Winnick

Is it not true that last week's by-elections did not change the political position in Northern Ireland, except in the instance mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson)? Would it not be wise for the Unionists, instead of staging walkouts, to recognise that the Anglo-Irish agreement will be maintained? Is it not the responsibility of the Government to demonstrate that that will be the position?

Mr. King

I wish to accord to the Unionist Members of Parliament the respect due to Members of this House, but if they are not here it is difficult to do so. I cannot understand the policy of standing for election to the Parliament of the United Kingdom and then declining to play a part in it.

Mr. Cash

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the effective working of the Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, in conjunction with the Anglo-Irish agreement, has led, in the elections, to a significant decline in the Sinn Fein vote and that, therefore, all the people of Northern Ireland have an opportunity for peace and security in the future?

Mr. King

There is a new and encouraging trend. One anxiety expressed by many unionist critics of the agreement was that it would make no difference to cross-border co-operation on security and that it would not make the slightest difference to the attitude of nationalists and how they voted. In both respects those fears have proved to be not fully justified. I hope that those members of the majority who are prepared to consider the issues fairly will take those points on board.

Ms. Clare Short

Has there been any discussion about the involvement of the Official Unionist party and the Democratic Unionist party with paramilitaries during their long march through Northern Ireland? Does the right hon. Gentleman have any comment to make on whether we should continue to consider them as constitutional parties?

Mr. King

I have no comment to make on those matters, questions on which should be directed elsewhere. However, the House will wish us to pursue matters in Northern Ireland through constitutional means. The only parties, from whichever community they come, to which we shall listen with any respect are those that pursue constitutional approaches and eschew completely any paramilitary associations.

Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson

Apart from placing communiqués in the Library after meetings of the conference, how else will my right hon. Friend inform and consult the House democratically, without regard to party, about the effectiveness of the Anglo-Irish treaty?

Mr. King

I shall be anxious to respond to the House in any way in which the House thinks is helpful. Considering the number of parliamentary answers that I have already given to my right hon. and hon. Friends, some of them are already effectively using one of the most obvious and immediate channels of parliamentary accountability.

Mr. Alton

Does the Secretary of State agree that the work of the intergovernmental conference would be assisted by the establishment of the Anglo-Irish parliamentary tier? Is he aware that more than 40 hon. Members have signed an early-day motion asking that it be established? What are the Government doing to expedite that?

Mr. King

As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made clear at the time, that is a matter for the Parliaments concerned. Therefore, it is not directly a matter for me, although the agreement makes it clear that if such a body were established the Government would support it.

Mr. Gow

Has my right hon. Friend read The Irish Times of 16 December, in which the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) is reported as having said that the Government of the Irish Republic would not accede to the European convention on the suppression of terrorism unless there were changes in the administration of justice in Northern Ireland? Does my right hon. Friend understand that it is of the utmost importance that the Irish Government should accede, in accordance with the terms of the communiqué, at the earliest possible moment?

Mr. King

I did not see that comment from the hon. Gentleman, but I endorse my hon. Friend's comments absolutely. It is of the greatest importance and of considerable urgency that the Irish Government should accede to the convention. I certainly look to them to honour their undertaking given in the communiqué.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

Do not the day-to-day workings of the Intergovernmental Conference provide for the exchange of information on criminal activity? In the light of the reply that I received from the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on the contribution of £1.5 million, either directly or indirectly, from Associated British Foods to the IRA, will the Secretary of State raise this question within the confines of the conference with a view to making a report to Parliament in future?

Mr. King

It would be improper use of the conference to pass such evidence backwards and forwards. There are proper channels for that, and normal policing methods, and that is how that should be done.