HC Deb 19 July 1990 vol 176 cc1157-60
6. Mr. Andrew MacKay

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on his recent discussions with political parties in the Province.

Mr. Brooke

During the past six months I have had a series of discussions with the political parties in Northern Ireland and with representatives of the Irish Government, each of which accepts that talks would need to address, as part of the process, internal arrangements, north-south and east-west relations. The constructive approach taken by everyone has produced a large measure of agreement about the various preliminary points of principle and also about the structure, format, and timing any talks might have.

It is, of course, for the other potential participants in the talks to assess the best interests of those whom they represent. However, given the potential benefits of political dialogue, my judgment is that, with continuing goodwill, the outstanding matters that divide them could be resolved so that talks could be announced. I am ready to continue my efforts to facilitate the process, but such an announcement clearly cannot yet be made.

Mr. MacKay

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the whole House wishes him godspeed in those delicate negotiations? Does he agree that the political leaders of the various constitutional parties in the Province have shown exemplary restraint during the past few weeks while negotiations have been taking place? It must have been difficult for them in their constituencies and elsewhere. It is an encouraging development, and we should wish them well.

Mr. Brooke

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for the sentiments that he expressed at the beginning of his question. I concur with him in praising the restraint that everyone has shown during the past fortnight in ensuring that the possibility of talks remains and can be advanced.

Mr. Ashdown

Notwithstanding the question and the answer, with whose sentiments I agree, did the Secretary of State note the comments of Bishop Cahal Daly at the funeral of yet another young sectarian murder victim yesterday? He said that those who would put obstacles in the way of the talks initiative would be letting the people down. Would not those who would put obstacles in the way of the talks bear a heavy responsibility if those talks were to fail?

Mr. Brooke

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for the nature of his question. I would not wholly concur with Bishop Cahal Daly—although I am grateful for his comments—about being able to embark on such talks without conditions, because I think that there are perfectly understandable conditions that everyone would bring to the talks. The fact that the bishop expressed that thought is a vivid index of the desire in Northern Ireland for talks to begin.

Mr. Peter Robinson

Does the Secretary of State accept that if agreement were reached on the subject matters that he has listed to the House, in effect it would be a new agreement that would replace the Anglo-Irish Agreement? Has progress been made since he last spoke to the House, and do those with whom he has spoken since then share his view that the gap has narrowed?

Mr. Brooke

Obviously, in the fortnight since I last addressed the House on the matter, talks with several parties have continued for a fairly long time. The gap has been narrowed, which gives one encouragement in persisting in the task, but there is still a gap.

Mr. Mallon

Does the Secretary of State agree that all those involved in discussions over a long period of time, like the right hon. Gentleman himself, have also shown great restraint and have been consistently constructive? Does he agree that political parties in Northern Ireland are under enormous pressure and that such restraint augurs well for the future? Before he considers camping on the racecourse, he should realise that a weekend is a short time in Northern Irish politics and that every last effort must be made to ensure that proper discussions and negotiations begin as soon as possible.

Mr. Brooke

I join the hon. Gentleman in endorsing the restraint and the confidentiality that have been shown throughout the negotiations, which demonstrate the desire of the parties to make progress. The hon. Gentleman asked about camping on the racecourse. That metaphor was constructed for a particular purpose, and every time I reflect on it I am struck by what a dangerous process it would be. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman can be assured that we should want to take every step before doing that.

Mr. Stanbrook

Was not my right hon. Friend's honest initiative doomed from the moment the Prime Minister of the Irish Republic insisted that the Irish Republic should be consulted at every stage of the negotiations? Was not the Anglo-Irish Agreement the biggest mistake the Government have ever made? Why should a foreign state have a say in the government of Her Majesty's subjects?

Mr. Brooke

I should not want in any way to amend my hon. Friend's question, but he was slightly tempting providence in calibrating the scale of the mistake that might have been made. The involvement of the Irish Government in internal talks has not been an issue between the two Governments. As I told the House during the debate on the renewal of powers, the Irish Government have acknowledged that they would not be directly involved in any inter-party talks about internal arrangements for the government of Northern Ireland. However, there is general recognition that any comprehensive political accommodation must emerge from a process of dialogue involving all the main constitutional parties in Northern Ireland and the British and Irish Governments.

Mr. John D. Taylor

As the Anglo-Irish Agreement gave a veto to many parties including the Dublin Government, and as it now appears that that veto is being exercised, will the Secretary of State consider those matters of reform and progress in Northern Ireland that are not connected with the Anglo-Irish Agreement, such as giving British Members of Parliament for Northern Ireland the same rights as English, Welsh and Scottish Members, and reforming the system of local government in Northern Ireland or, as a cricketing fan does he prefer to spend the entire summer at Malahide and the Mardyke?

Mr. Brooke

I understand the subjects that the right hon. Gentleman raises. The Government have agreed that they should he happy to consider them and to discuss them with Opposition Members. However, it would be preferable to consider such issues as elements in an overall accommodation rather than reviewing them in isolation.

Sir Michael McNair-Wilson

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that it is up to the House and the political parties in Northern Ireland to decide what is the best form of devolved local administration for that sovereign part of the United Kingdom that we call Northern Ireland and that whether we choose to consult the Government in Dublin is a matter for us and not for that Government?

Mr. Brooke

I hope that I gave my hon. Friend some reassurance in the answer that I gave a moment ago. The scope of the discussions that we now envisage would go beyond the present agreement. It is generally acknowledged that any comprehensive political accommodation must address all aspects of the problem and involve all those concerned.

Mr. McNamara

In his initial answer the Secretary of State did not talk about making a statement before the House rises. Although we respect the right hon. Gentleman's desire to make a statement to the House—I wish that many of his colleagues would do so more frequently—if he feels that it would be in the best interests of the talks and negotiations that are taking place that a statement should not be made to the House, I am sure, speaking for the Labour party and, I think, for the whole House, that we would rather he made progress than that we should insist on any sort of statement.

Mr. Brooke

I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the constructiveness that underlies his question.

Rev. Ian Paisley

Lest what the Secretary of State has said today at the Dispatch Box should be misunderstood, will he confirm that he stands by what he wrote to the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux), my colleague across the way, and myself: that the Government are prepared to consider an alternative to and a replacement of the Anglo-Irish Agreement?

Mr. Brooke

I gladly repeat the words that I uttered earlier this afternoon: that in the context of any discussions on possible future arrangements for the government of Northern Ireland, I would give serious consideration to any implications for the agreement which such arrangements might have. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Taoiseach and the Irish Government have expressed a similar view.