HC Deb 27 March 1986 vol 94 cc1056-9
4. Mr. Dubs

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a further statement on the Anglo-Irish agreement.

5. Mr. Alton

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement about the issues discussed at the Anglo-Irish Conference meeting on Tuesday 11 March.

Mr. Tom King

A further meeting of the Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Conference took place in Belfast on 11 March. It was useful and constructive. The issues discussed are set out in the joint statement, issued after the meeting, which I have placed in the Library. In addition to the joint statement, I gave a press conference afterwards to answer questions on the matters discussed.

Mr. Dubs

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the Anglo-Irish agreement could be significantly enhanced if there were closer relationships between this House and the Dail in Dublin? Will he therefore use his influence, nothwithstanding the fact that it is more a matter for the House than for the Government, to ensure that an Anglo-Irish parliamentary tier is established as quickly as possible? Misunderstandings between London and Dublin would thereby be reduced and the basis for the Anglo-Irish agreement would have much more support.

Mr. King

As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, it is a matter for the House and, obviously, not one that falls to me. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has explained the Government's view to the House.

Mr. Alton

Given the concern registered by Dr. Garret FitzGerald during his recent visit to the United Kingdom about the continued discharges of radioactive waste from Sellafield, was that issue discussed at the last meeting of the intergovernmental body? If not, will it be on the agenda of the next meeting? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the report of the Select Committee on the Environment on the discharge of radioactive waste should be considered, and that the continuation of discharges, which is making the Irish sea the most radioactive body of water in the world, is undermining good Anglo-Irish relations?

Mr. King

I do not think that that sort of emotive comment is particularly helpful or objective in any scientific terms. On the issue of Sellafield, there is a Republic interest, as it were, in the island of Ireland in relation to the mainland. Radioactive waste was not discussed at the meeting. It is principally a matter for consideration between the Government of the United Kingdom and the Government of the Republic. It is not specifically a Northern Ireland matter.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels

While it may be encouraging to my right hon. Friend that there have been useful discussions with the Irish Government, is it not a tragedy, and perhaps somewhat understandable, that we still have no active participation in this House by the Official Unionist and the Democratic Unionist parties? Can something be done to encourage those parties back to the House, as their absence from the Chamber—the reasons for which I understand—is difficult to defend to the rest of the country as we are, after all, one united country?

Mr. King

I certainly share to the full the concern expressed by my hon. Friend about the absence of the Unionist Members from the Parliament of the United Kingdom, for which they recently stood for re-election, but in which, in the majority, they have declined to take part. I should like to repeat a sentiment which echoes the strong feelings of a substantial number of Unionists in the Province about the letter from my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux) and to the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley), in which she invited them to enter into talks without preconditions to discuss their concerns to seek ways to make progress. All sensible people of goodwill will recognise that either there will be talks or there will be more serious consequences if the situation is allowed to drift and if the present impasse is allowed to continue.

I hope that I can say from the Dispatch Box, on behalf of the Government and, I hope, with the support of all hon. Members, that there must be talks. I hope that the Unionist Members will accept the invitation from my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and enter into talks as soon as possible.

Mr. Favell

Will there be any discussions in those talks on the integration of schoolchildren of different religious persuasions? After all, the problems in the southern States of America—the Klu Klux Klan and the extreme Right—were only resolved finally by the bussing of schoolchildren.

Mr. King

As my hon. Friend knows, there has been some progress in that connection. However, the principle of parental choice is one which the Government have respected. This is a very difficult issue which has not arisen so far in the Conference, although I completely understand why my hon. Friend sees the matter as one of the most important developments that could take place.

Mr. Frank Cook

Does the Secretary of State mean by his last reply that he seeks the demolition of the dual system of education?

Mr. King

I do not know how on earth the hon. Gentleman could have drawn that conclusion from my remarks.

Mr. Gow

Is my right hon. Friend aware that in her letter of 21 March to the Leader of the Ulster Unionist party my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said that she was prepared to consider operating the Anglo-Irish agreement in what she described as "a sensitive way"? Will my right hon. Friend confirm that there is nothing in the agreement which states that the secretariat—the agreement's word, not mine—has to be in the Province, nothing which states that the meetings of the Intergovernmental Conference at ministerial level must be held in the Province, and nothing which requires Ministers to meet every month?

Mr. King

The agreement, as my hon. Friend recognises, refers to regular and frequent meetings. The communiqué states that meetings will normally be held in Belfast, but what my hon. Friend has said is otherwise technically correct. What we need to do, and this is all part of the discussions that need to be held, is to explore the ways in which the Unionists can become involved and meet some of their concerns and anxieties about the present situation.

Mr. Bell

May I say from the Opposition Benches that we deeply regret the fact that elected representatives of Northern Ireland are not here in their rightful place to discuss the affairs of Northern Ireland today? May we also associate ourselves with the remarks of the Secretary of State in connection with the invitation given by the Prime Minister to the Unionist parties? It is right and proper that they should take up that invitation for further talks. There is nothing in the Anglo-Irish agreement or in the Conference that prevents Unionist leaders from talking to the elected Government of the United Kingdom.

Mr. King

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's comments. The Government made it clear through the Prime Minister's letter that we recognise the Unionists' opposition to the Anglo-Irish agreement and that any subsequent talks would be without prejudice to that position. We are prepared to talk on any or all of the matters that were mentioned when my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I previously met the two leaders of the Unionist party, including matters on which the agreement has no bearing. We have made what we hope is as helpful a response as possible to the Unionist leaders, recognising the realities of their position and the realities of the agreement.

It would be absolutely tragic if, in the face of that offer, the Unionist leaders were not even prepared to come and talk without pre-conditions or prejudice to their position. That is a step which must be taken, and I hope that they will respond in that way.