HC Deb 14 December 1989 vol 163 cc1143-5
1. Mr. Winnick

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the recent meeting of the Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Conference.

3. Mr. Corbett

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what issues were discussed at the last meeting of the Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Conference.

10. Mr. Hunter

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland when he last held discussions with Ministers of the Government of the Republic of Ireland; and what matters were discussed.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Peter Brooke)

The joint statement issued following the last Intergovernmental Conference held on 30 November has been placed in the Library. Discussions included the political situation in Northern Ireland, security cooperation and economic co-operation.

Mr. Winnick

Has there been, or is there likely to be, any discussion at the conferences of the remarks made by the Secretary of State on 3 November? This is the first Northern Ireland Question Time since his controversial remarks on what might happen once terrorist violence comes to an end. We all deeply mourn the latest tragic murders of two soldiers. Does the Secretary of State agree that the setting up of the Anglo-Irish parliamentary body will be a step further towards closer co-operation and discussion between the Irish Republic and ourselves?

Mr. Brooke

In answer to the hon. Gentleman's first question, there was brief and informal discussion of that matter. On his second question, I believe that the parliamentary group could do nothing but good.

Mr. Corbett

Given that the Secretary of State has committed himself to more Ulster Defence Regiment patrols being accompanied by the Royal Ulster Constabulary, what steps has he taken to achieve that and how often has it happened?

Mr. Brooke

We have had a longstanding commitment to increasing RUC accompaniment of patrols, whether of the Regular Army or of the UDR. We have set up a working group, working inside the Northern Ireland Office and in collaboration with the security forces, and a similar working group at official level with the Irish, to discuss the modus operandi for adding to the accompaniment. It has been remarked that greater accompaniment has been seen.

Mr. Hunter

As one who is becoming increasingly disillusioned about the Anglo-Irish Agreement, may I seek reassurance, in the light of continuing opposition in Northern Ireland and no discernible decrease in terrorism, on what is being achieved? Are not the value, effectiveness and even morality of the agreement open to serious question?

Mr. Brooke

I can only speak with particular vividness of the working of the agreement and the conferences since I became Secretary of State. During that time, we have had four meetings, three of which lasted a considerable time. They have provided a great opportunity for me and for my right hon. Friend the Minister of State to establish a good working relationship with our colleagues in the Government of the Republic on which we have been able to draw informally between the workings of the conference.

Mr. Peter Robinson

Does the Secretary of State recognise that many people in Northern Ireland and outside believe that it would be appropriate to move towards an alternative to the Anglo-Irish Agreement? Has the Secretary of State a sense of justice and fair play such as to cause him to consider whether it would be wise to hold an event in which one participant, the Social Democratic and Labour party, would have a head start, while the other, the Unionists, could be locked in the pavilion? Will he cause such an event to be called so that negotiations can take place and attempt to ensure that all meet on a fair and equal basis, with the Anglo-Irish Agreement not being operated during that period?

Mr. Brooke

To use the hon. Gentleman's vivid metaphor, it goes without saying that it would be impossible to have a game or a match unless all sides were on the field. If all sides were on the field, talks would take place.

The Government have always said that they will operate the agreement sensitively in the interests of bringing about talks. The arrangements that we have reached with the Government of the Republic for meetings of the conference in the first half of 1990 will make it possible for there to be uneven intervals between the conferences.

Mr. Clifford Forsythe

During the conference, was there any discussion about the electricity interconnector, the improvement of roads in border areas or Northern Ireland's railway problems and the sabotaging of railway lines?

Mr. Brooke

I shall answer the hon. Gentleman in reverse order. On the most recent occasion, 30 November, we discussed co-operation in the context of the railway. We set an agenda for conversations at the conference during 1990, including cross-border co-operation, economic development and approaches to the Community. I do not think that we discussed the hon. Gentleman's first point on 30 November.

Mr. Gow

Will my right hon. Friend reaffirm that it is the Government's policy to maintain and strengthen the union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland? As it is the Government's policy that there should be no assembly in Scotland, on the ground that a Scottish assembly would injure the union, why does my right hon. Friend persist in advocating an assembly in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Brooke

My hon. Friend asks a teasing and tempting question. He knows that it has been the Government's policy for a significant time to move towards the transfer of power to local politicians in Northern Ireland.

Mr. McGrady

Under the auspices of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, will the Secretary of State consider setting up a cross-border panel of economists to examine the implications of the Single European Act in 1992? Such a panel could look into the problems of harmonisation of value added tax, fiscal rates and a common currency for the island of Ireland and report to him on possible ministerial action both north and south.

Mr. Brooke

It has taken us a little time in the working of the conference to set in motion the conversations that we are currently having about the Community. The hon. Gentleman's suggestion would be somewhat more ambitious than what we have already secured, but it is always sensible to have objectives that go beyond the immediate business. We will have plenty of time in 1990, and I will certainly remember the hon. Gentleman's suggestion. I make no comment about the value of the hon. Gentleman's suggestions, but I will remember them as we move to the second half of 1990.

Mr. McNamara

First, may I congratulate the Secretary of State on, over the past two days, successfully uniting all Irish parties—Catholic, Protestant and dissenter—to vote against the Government's policies? That is a significant act of unity on which the Government should be congratulated.

Secondly, as the Anglo-Irish Agreement is turning its attention from some important security matters, which were highlighted by the tragic event yesterday, to other more co-operative matters, would it not be in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland, the Republic and all parties concerned if the Government's position papers on the various economic and social matters were to be published by the respective Governments so that there could be an informed debate on those important issues throughout the island of Ireland?

Mr. Brooke

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's mock congratulations, and I return the compliment. I heard that his party would go into the Lobby last night with the SDLP. The fact that 18 people from several political parties managed to assemble suggests that Labour Members were not present in force.

On the second part of the hon. Gentleman's question, we are making early progress on cross-border matters relating to the Community. It would be too early to take the step which the hon. Gentleman suggests, but I will bear it in mind.