HC Deb 27 November 1986 vol 106 cc414-6
2. Mr. Peter Archer

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the first year of operation of the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

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

We have made steady progress. In particular, we have laid the foundation for closer co-operation on cross-border security and extradition arrangements, and we have discussed a number of matters concerned with increasing the confidence of the minority community in the institutions of government in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Archer

Does the right hon. Gentleman appreciate that many on both sides of the water welcome the agreement as a recognition that two Governments in one island necessarily have many interests in common and hope to see real benefits for people in both traditions? Does the right hon. Gentleman appreciate that they want to applaud the agreement? I note what the right hon. Gentleman said, but when will he be able to point to some demonstrable dividends in the areas of job creation, equal opportunities, accountable local government and civil liberties?

Mr. King

We are seeking to make progress on a range of fronts. I understand the right hon. Gentleman's impatience in a number of areas, but he will know that some of the issues with which we are grappling are extremely complex and controversial, as they have been over the years, and, although many would like to go faster, the foundations have been laid for progress. For example, we have published an important consultation paper on equality of employment opportunities. We now see the setting up of the international fund, and only last night the House approved the amendment to the extradition treaty with the United States, which I am confident would not have gone forward as it has done without the existence of the Anglo-Irish agreement. Only this week we have seen the tabling in the Dail of the proposed Bill to ratify the European convention on the suppression of terrorism. Progress is now being made across a wide range.

Sir John Biggs-Davison

Has the penalty of transportation to Australia been revived for Sir Robert Armstrong for his part in the Anglo-Irish Agreement? Is it the case that no Northern Ireland civil servants, as distinct from United Kingdom civil servants, had any part in the drawing up of that agreement?

Mr. King

I had better not tiptoe into the first part of that question, but I am sure that we shall welcome back Sir Robert Armstrong, whenever that may be. The answer to the second part of my hon. Friend's question is no.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell

Five weeks ago the Secretary of State told the House, in the context of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, that he expected the Irish Republic's ratification of the European convention on the suppression of terrorism to go forward shortly. Has something gone wrong?

Mr. King

No, Sir. The Irish Minister of Justice signed the ratification document some time ago. However, the right hon. Gentleman may not be aware that the Bill was tabled in the Dail, thus commencing its parliamentary procedures, only this week.

Mr. Colvin

The House no doubt welcomes my right hon. Friend's recollection that one of the prime objectives of the Anglo-Irish Agreement is greater cross-border co-operation on security matters. Will my right hon. Friend therefore get the message through to the Garda that Sundays are work days for the IRA? What was the Garda doing about patrolling the south side of the border last Sunday, at Middletown, when members of my old regiment were mortar bombed by the IRA?

Mr. King

I fully share my hon. Friend's concern about that incident and, indeed, I telephoned the Irish Minister of Justice about it on Sunday, but one must be fair and recognise that we are talking about, as far as I am aware, the first mortar attack to have taken place from the Irish Republic. I know that my hon. Friend would pay tribute to the security forces and to their efforts in Northern Ireland, but despite all our intensive efforts we have not been wholly successful in preventing mortar attacks that have been launched from within Northern Ireland. Obviously the attack mentioned by my hon. Friend was a very serious attack, and I take a very grave view of it. However, everyone in Northern Ireland will be most appreciative of the fact that the Garda only recently discovered two complete and fully-primed mortar sets which might otherwise have caused serious disruption.

Mr. Mason

The right hon. Gentleman must be aware that a continuing improvement in security is a crucial factor if the Anglo-Irish Agreement is to be seen to succeed. Consequently, what improvement has there been in security co-operation between the RUC and the Garda in the past 12 months, particularly in connection with cross-border operations?

Mr. King

There is now a completely agreed detailed threat assessment. There has been agreement between the Garda and the RUC on co-operation on intelligence matters and the methods to be used. A considerable amount of work is going on in connection with organisation, structure and communications. However, I know that the right hon. Gentleman, with his knowledge, will understand when I say that I am not prepared to go into that in detail in public. I am satisfied with the advice that I have received, which is that because of closer co-operation we now have the best prospect of dealing more effectively with cross-border terrorism.

Mr. Gow

Does not the experience of the first 12 months show that instead of peace there has been strife, instead of stability, turmoil, and instead of reconciliation, added sectarian suspicion and division? What progress has my right hon. Friend made in securing from the majority community acceptance of the Anglo-Irish Agreement?

Mr. King

Obviously, I fully share the concern felt about the tensions and difficulties that exist within the Province, but my hon. Friend knows the history of Northern Ireland too well to suggest that somehow divisions and strife have suddenly broken out during the past year. We seek to move away from a tragic background that has existed for so many years, for whatever period my hon. Friend may select—say, for the past 17 years. The agreement genuinely offers a way forward, albeit in the face of tensions and deliberate opposition from interests which have never been prepared to accept any compromise or any move forward, whatever the direction. We can at last see a way forward that could work.

I say to those of my hon. Friends who share concerns about this matter that we must seek a positive way forward. My hon. Friend knows that the agreement is not the threat to the Union that some would seek to present it as being. There is no risk of a united Ireland being imposed by force. The reality is that the agreement offers us a way of seeing, with good will and co-operation, a happier future for the people in Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland.

Mr. Hume

Will the Secretary of State tell the hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin), who was complaining about imperfect security on the border, that the border is the same length on both sides? Has the right hon. Gentleman taken into account the recommendation made yesterday by the Standing Advisory Committee on Human Rights, a Government-appointed body, that to improve public perceptions of the administration of justice in Northern Ireland there should be three judges in the Diplock courts instead of one? Will the right hon. Gentleman take that recommendation into account in considering how the administration of justice, which he admits he is trying to improve, can be improved?

Mr. King

I shall certainly take note of the report. The hon. Gentleman will know that it was not a unanimous one, there being a note of dissident by two members of the standing advisory committee. The report does not question in any sense the quality of justice in Northern Ireland. Indeed, it points out the real problems that could exist. There is the idea that this is merely a matter of political attitudes, but there are real and practical problems. I can confirm that the matter is likely to be on the agenda for further discussion, and we have made no secret of our concern about the difficulties that exist.

Mr. Stanbrook

Is it not the position that 12 months after the conclusion of the Anglo-Irish Agreement the majority community remains unalterably opposed to it? Does my right hon. Friend not consider that the best way forward is to find an agreement that is acceptable to the majority and in accordance with democratic principles, as well as being fair to the minority?

Mr. King

The objective of successive British Governments has been precisely that, but there has been an unwillingness by one party after another to entertain the proposals of successive Governments. Each party is equally guilty within the Northern Ireland scene of abstaining at one stage or another from the various initiatives that we have taken to try to find some way forward that would offer more positive opportunities. I regret the present attitude of the majority community, but my hon. Friend will recognise that while people may be critical one year about of a lack of achievement, they cannot be ignorant of the fact that many of the allegations, fears and misrepresentations that existed at the start of the agreement have been proved to be manifestly false. I hope that he will give us credit for that.