HC Deb 23 October 1986 vol 102 cc1276-80
1. Mr. Latham

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland whether he will make a statement on the progress of the Anglo-Irish Agreement during the summer Adjournment.

2. Mr. Winnick

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

5. Mr. Nellist

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what was discussed at the latest meeting held under the auspices of the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

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

During the parliamentary recess we have had one special meeting of the Intergovernmental Conference, and one regular meeting. I have placed in the Library the statements issued after each meeting. We are making progress with the better co-ordination of security cooperation, and on a range of items falling within the ambit of the conference. At the last meeting particular items included human rights, equality of opportunity in employment, economic and transport issues and the international fund.

Mr. Latham

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there are large numbers of people on this side of the water, including in this sovereign Parliament, who wish the Anglo-Irish Agreement well and who do not regard themselves as puppets of the Americans, stooges or brainwashed collaborators in trying to proceed along the road of inter-communal reconciliation.

Mr. King

I am grateful for the comments of my hon. Friend. I believe that the continuing evidence of the operation of the conference shows that there is scope for closer co-operation and that there are benefits to be gained from the objectives of the agreement, such as the reassurance of the majority community, and the reassurance of the minority, community of their rights within the Province. I make that absolutely clear. That has always been my position. That is our objective, and I believe that it is an objective that all people of good will should share.

Mr. Winnick

Is it not time that we saw some real economic improvements in Northern Ireland? Perhaps the Secretary of State will recognise the abysmal economic situation. Is the Secretary of State aware that one of the latest victims of the sectarian murders was Mr. Raymond Mooney, a young man who left behind four children? He was an active member of my union, and he was slaughtered as he came down the hall of the church where he was an active social and welfare worker. Is that not yet another illustration of the sectarian murders being carried out by gangs on both sides? Is the Secretary of State aware that on Saturday there is a trade union conference in Belfast to deal with all forms of intimidation and sectarianism? Does he wish that conference well?

Mr. King

I answer the last part of the hon. Gentleman's question with an unequivocal yes. I certainly strongly applaud the initiative of the trade unions in seeking to give a lead against sectarian intimidation and violence, from whichever quarter it may come. I hope that the whole House will join me in deploring any incidents of sectarian violence, of which, sadly, there have been far too many in recent months, and also any speeches that may tend to incite what is obviously a serious and charged situation and which all too easily can result in sectarian outrages from both sides of the community.

On the economic front, obviously such acts are a crime against the whole community in the Province if they in any way discourage employment. However, there is encouraging news of new investments in the Province, including an anouncement last week by a Japanese company of inward investment to set up a new operation. It is the second Japanese investment in the Province. That is coupled with other substantial investments in existing plants. That is an encouraging side of the picture that is not always so widely reported.

Mr. Nellist

With only three weeks to go to the anniversary of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, is not the reality of the summer months that the backlash against that agreement still continues to claim lives and that the sectarian tensions continue and do not diminsh? Is it not far more hopeful that 4,000 Department of Health and Social Security workers went on strike a few weeks ago — a united strike of Catholic and Protestant workers against intimidation — and that on Saturday the Northern Ireland committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions is organising a conference to unite workers? Are they not far more hopeful signs than the Anglo-Irish Agreement that workers can be united in the North against all sectarian and paramilitary groups operating in the area?

Mr. King

I applaud the way in which workers, including those in the DHSS, have refused to be intimidated by paramilitary groups and have stood against intimidation from whichever extreme it might come. The Anglo-Irish Agreement is based on exactly the twin pillars I referred to: to reassure the majority of the community of the security of their position based on the principle of consent, and to reassure the minority of their absolute entitlement to equality of treatment in Northern Ireland. It is that basis which offers the best hope for the people to come together against sectarian hatreds and terrorist violence which seek to divide the communities.

Sir John Biggs-Davison

Does my right hon. Friend not understand that many of us feel that the sectarian murders and the intimidation, about which two Opposition Members have spoken, are the consequence of the Anglo-Irish Agreement? As my right hon. Friend has spoken, as Irish Ministers have spoken, of benefits to follow, how long will we have to wait for those benefits?

Mr. King

My hon. Friend knows better than anybody the history of violence in Ireland. The suggestion that sectarian killings have started since the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement ignores the fact that these have tragically defaced the face of Ireland for far too long. It does not do my hon. Friend credit, in view of the respect that I have for him and for his knowledge, for example, of the security situation, for him to suggest that there can be an overnight or instant improvement. He knows, and his knowledge makes it unavoidable for him to recognise this, that it will take time to get improvements in cooperation and trust between the security forces in the North and the South if we are to get that genuine improvement in security.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell

What does the Secretary of State regard as the prospect for the European convention against terrorism, the ratification of which was one of the promises that accompanied the making of the agreement?

Mr. King

A debate is taking place in the Dail, the outcome of which will be significant in terms of the further progress of that ratification. I very much hope that it will go forward shortly and that we get it established. The Taoiseach and the Irish Government have made clear their commitment to do just that.

Mr. Stanbrook

Do the Government accept that the Anglo-Irish Agreement will automatically lapse on the election of a new Government in Ireland unless that Government positively accept the agreement?

Mr. King

My hon. Friend is absolutely plumb wrong. I do not know from where he gets that idea, but the agreement stands, and it is binding on successive Irish Governments, as it is binding on successive British Governments, until and unless such time as, after review, any changes might be made. My hon. Friend may have better lawyers than I have, but my advice is the opposite to the view that he appears to hold.

Mr. Mallon

I am reluctant to draw conclusions from the unfortunate deaths of people in Northern Ireland, but I feel it necessary, in the light of the previous question, to ask the Secretary of State to confirm that there have been 56 fatalities as a result of paramilitary activities in the year subsequent to the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, compared to 216 in the year subsequent to the signing of the Sunningdale agreement. Will he further confirm that of the 37 people who were not members of the security forces or the Provisional IRA who were killed in that period, the majority were killed by Loyalist paramilitary groupings and that their deaths had no border connection whatsoever?

Mr. King

I can confirm those figures. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that they are tragically high and that the House will share that view. The reality is, sadly, that the number of deaths in Northern Ireland can often be almost an accident on the margin. In other words, some incidents that could be serious and lead to a serious loss of life can sometimes be prevented. By itself, that is not necessarily the sole indicator of the level of violence.

I take a serious view of, and do not underrate, the problem. I accept that the level of violence is higher than it was last year, but I recognise that this is part of the determined efforts by the two parts of the community deliberately to seek to exploit the situation. I am under no illusion but that the IRA is deliberately enhancing its campaign of violence because it fears the agreement and is seeking to excite Loyalist opposition, and the Loyalist extremists are themselves guilty of a number of serious crimes.

Mr. Hayes

Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a growing sense of despair and frustration among many ordinary and decent Unionists at the intransigence of their elected representatives? Will he clearly warn those people who are toying with the prospect of putting the bully boys on to the streets of Belfast on the anniversary of the Hillsborough agreement that they will be worthy only of the contempt of the people whom they claim to represent?

Mr. King

I share the real concern felt about some of the methods of opposition exercised by some people in their hostility to the Anglo-Irish Agreement. I have made clear my support and belief in the Union. I believe that the Union is made more secure by the recognition of the principle of consent, that the Union cannot be affected against the wishes of a majority in Northern Ireland, and that that is accepted in the Republic as well as in the United Kingdom. My worry about the tactics being employed by some is that the threat to the Union will come more from the misguided antics of some who call themselves Loyalists than from any possible implied threat from the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

Mr. Meadowcroft

What evidence does the Secretary of State have that the Anglo-Irish Agreement is gaining greater acceptance among the people of Northern Ireland?

Mr. King

I recognise that the agreement has not obviously commanded acceptance or enthusiasm among the majority community. However, the minority community recognises the determined effort which is being made, which was part of the purpose of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, to ensure that their rights and entitlements are recognised and appreciated and that there is a proper opportunity for their views to be heard. That is understood and appreciated. I accept that there is a need for a much better understanding with the Unionist community about the merits and advantages which can flow for it out of the agreement. The present difficulty is that we cannot seek to examine the fears and concerns of people who are not prepared to talk and who are not—with one exception —even prepared to debate the issues in this sovereign Chamber of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Archer

With reference to the right hon. Gentleman's answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), does he agree that the best way to fulfil the expectations of those who welcomed the agreement because they thought it would provide redress for some of their problems, and to allay the fears of those who see the agreement as sinister, would be to demonstrate that the agreement is intended to make practical contributions to bread and butter issues? People have to eat, whatever their sectarian affiliations. Should not sensible ideas for economic co-operation now be appearing?

Mr. King

I am certainly anxious to see how, in a number of areas, we can develop such matters. For example, the hon. Gentleman will note that I referred to economic and transport issues. Transport costs is an issue which is common to the whole of the island of Ireland in terms of being competitive in world markets. There must be an efficient transport system across the Irish sea. Developments in this and other areas are being closely examined at present. We are considering both sea and air links.