7. Mr. John D. Taylor
To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what is the main obstacle to political progress in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Dr. Brian Mawhinney)
We believe that the main obstacle is the absence of talks with and between the Northern Ireland political leaders about political matters. However, there is now a significant common understanding on the issues such talks might address and I am hopeful that the conditions for holding such talks may exist soon.
Does the Minister agree that while the different political parties in Northern Ireland understand each other's position, the Government's position is as clear as mud? Will the Minister come clean on the long-term policies of the Northern Ireland Office? Is he aware that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has confirmed in writing that his objective is devolution, but that two fellow Members in the ministerial team have been canvassing in Upper Bann for a candidate who is opposed to devolution and wants integration? When will we get consistency in the Northern Ireland Office?
§ Dr. Mawhinney
The Government's position on political progress in Northern Ireland is absolutely clear. We are committed to seeking devolved institutions in 385 Northern Ireland to allow locally elected representatives to have a greater say in the decisions that govern their constituents' lives. With regard to Upper Bann, I am told that the right hon. Gentleman is wrong yet again. His party is having some difficulty in convincing the electorate about why its members are always to be found in the voting lobbies with the socialists.
§ Mr. Peter Robinson
As a general principle, does the Minister agree that in entering negotiations no party should be at a disadvantage? To ensure that the Unionists are not at a disadvantage at the negotiating table would the Minister accept that the Anglo-Irish Agreement should not be operating at full belt?
§ Dr. Mawhinney
I certainly accept the hon. Gentleman's first point that no one party should be at a disadvantage. With regard to his second point, he will know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has recently made it clear that in the context of such discussions on possible future arrangements for the government of Northern Ireland, we would give serious consideration to any implication for the agreement that such arrangements might have. I can confirm that in the context of those discussions, we would also consider including any proposal for an alternative to the agreement that the Northern Ireland parties might put forward that would advance the underlying objectives that I believe we all share.
§ Mr. Hume
Does the Minister agree that anybody who is serious about making political progress in Northern Ireland would want to address the relationships that go to the heart of the problem and have never been satisfactorily addressed? Those relationships are within Northern Ireland, within Ireland and between Britain and Ireland. Does he agree that if the Unionists, who say that they are British, do not trust the British Government to negotiate those relationships on their behalf, either with ourselves who share the North with them or with the Irish Government who share the island, then logically they should be willing to negotiate those relationships themselves?
§ Dr. Mawhinney
I think that it is common ground between the Government and all the constitutional parties in Northern Ireland that the relationships to which the hon. Gentleman refers must be addressed. That must be done first in the context of Northern Ireland, which means that the representatives of the Nationalist and Unionist traditions must sit down together, with the Government or without, to address those issues. In addressing them, other relationships will, of course, come into play.
§ Mr. Andrew McKay
In view of the remarks by the right hon. Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor) and the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), does my hon. Friend agree that less charitable people than I might think that one of the main obstacles to political progress in the Province is the intransigence of some of the political parties there?
§ Dr. Mawhinney
We have been seeking to address the political future of Northern Ireland, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has devoted much time and energy to that. We have done that, recognising the legitimate concerns and aspirations of the various parties, and we have been seeking to cause arrangements to be put 386 in place that will enable them to talk together constructively with Government about an objective that I believe is shared by the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland.