HC Deb 14 February 1991 vol 185 cc987-90
6. Mr. Stanbrook

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the progress of negotiations with the political parties on the constitutional future of Northern Ireland.

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

I continue to seek agreement on a basis for formal talks which could lead to a comprehensive political accommodation satisfactory to all relevant interests and addressing all relevant aspects of the matter. I regret that it has not yet proved possible to bridge the gaps between the various parties' positions. I remain convinced of the powerful case for transferring political power, authority and responsibility to locally elected representatives in Northern Ireland, provided this can be done on a basis enjoying widespread support.

Mr. Stanbrook

Will my right hon. Friend give up his honest and brave attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable and will he eschew all new political initiatives involving the so-called Irish dimension and concentrate instead, with the political parties in Northern Ireland, on providing a decent system of local government and firm and fair central Government and, to coin a phrase, on "extirpating the IRA"?

Mr. Brooke

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the tone of his question. But I am determined to pursue the process on which we are engaged until it is absolutely clear that the positions of the various parties are incompatible. On the latter part of my hon. Friend's question, I will consider any workable proposals for changes in the role of local government in Northern Ireland if they seem likely to command widespread acceptance.

Rev. Martin Smyth

Can the Secretary of State say what are the inherent defects of the Anglo-Irish intergovernmental process which inhibit Ministers from responding positively to British suggestions and recognising Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom? A week ago today the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition united in opposing terrorism and seeking to maintain democracy. Does the Secretary of State recognise that that would demand retrospective restoration of democracy to Northern Ireland? Will he take steps speedily to restore it?

Mr. Brooke

If the hon. Gentleman had listened closely to my answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook), he would have heard me say how anxious I was to effect the transfer for which the hon. Gentleman asks. In terms of the context of the hon. Gentleman's question, political parties from both sides of the community want any talks to cover matters which must necessarily involve the Irish Government.

Mr. Kilfedder

Will the Secretary of State comment on the recent Dublin proposals? Does he agree that whether or not the talks fail, a considerable amount of goodwill has been generated by them and that it would surely be a tragedy if efforts were not made to build on that goodwill at either an official or an unofficial level?

Mr. Brooke

I have received some further proposals from the Irish Government. I believe that they have merit and will keep us in play, but I do not know whether they offer us the opportunity of reaching our goal. They are further evidence of the Irish Government's desire to contribute to bridging the gap. I concur with what the hon. Gentleman has said about the goodwill that has been engendered by this process, but, as we come to what I think will be the conclusion of this part of the process, I think that it will be necessary in the closing stages for there to be considerable political will to make sure that we bring the matter to a satisfactory conclusion.

Mr. Mallon

Will the Secretary of State confirm that in the summer of last year the Social Democratic and Labour party presented to him a written position which opened the way for full talks and negotiations? Will he further confirm that last week the Irish Government presented a written position paper to him which held out the prospect of moving forward to those real negotiations? Does he expect at any stage a written position from the Unionist party which might hold out some hope of moving towards the type of negotiations that we want?

Mr. Brooke

The hon. Gentleman is correct in what he says about both his party and the Irish Government, but he will be aware from the conversations in which we have been engaged mutually that there have been sticking points in all parties' proposals about how we proceed. We have sought to accommodate those in the decision that we reach. In response to the hon. Gentleman's question about the Unionists, he will recall his reluctance to engage in direct conversations and negotiations until we had reached an accommodation as to the basis of such talks. Therefore, he must find a way of putting that question to them by some other means.

Mr. Amery

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the House has been patient with him over the negotiations? We were led to believe that we would be given some statement by Christmas, yet we are now deep into February. That is frustrating. If the Secretary of State cannot make a statement yet, will he discuss with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House whether we could have a debate in which we can discuss all the matters raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook)?

Mr. Brooke

I am grateful for the patience of both my right hon. Friend and the House. The only time when we had hoped that I could make a statement was at the time of the renewal of powers debate last year. I understand the anxiety of the House to see progress in these matters. I believe that they are coming to a conclusion. I hope that in the aftermath of that, it will be possible for us to debate them.

Mr. Hume

Let me put the Secretary of State right on his recent mistaken remark. The position of the SDLP, long before the right hon. Gentleman became Secretary of State and since he has held that office, is that my party will sit down tomorrow with the Unionist parties to discuss any subject under the sun without any precondition. The Unionist parties chose to follow a process whereby they will talk to us only through the Secretary of State. Throughout that process I have seen written positions from the right hon. Gentleman and the Irish Government, and I have put the written position from my party. However, I have never seen a written position from either of the Unionist parties.

Mr. Brooke

I do not want to get into an altercation with the hon. Gentleman about this. He is slightly misremembering the process in which we have been engaged in the past 13 months if he does not believe that he has occasionally raised a point that has caused us to pause in that debate.

Rev. Ian Paisley

Can the Secretary of State confirm to the House that the first position paper ever given to the Government was given by the united Unionists when we engaged in talks with his predecessor? Will he also confirm that at the last meeting that he had with Unionist leaders a position paper was given to him and that we have given him other position papers during the talks? Will he now please confirm to the House the definition that is now accepted by his Government of widespread support`' Is he saying to the House that the Anglo-Irish Agreement was given widespread support, or that that widespread support does not come from Ulster but that it is widespread as long as Dublin goes with it, because Dublin stopped him from making a statement in this House on 5 July?

Mr. Brooke

In the terms of the first two questions put by the hon. Gentleman, I so confirm what he said. Position papers were put to my predecessor and myself by the Unionist parties. I reiterate, however, that I do not believe that we shall be able to reach a constitutional framework in terms not only of Northern Ireland, but of relations with the Government of the Republic arising therefrom unless there is a broad support for it across the community.

Mr. McNamara

Last week the Secretary of State spoke about putting up the shutters on the negotiations and today he anticipated that they would come to a conclusion. However, last week, having received the proposals from the Irish Government, he seemed to show a degree of greater optimism, but I am not quite sure how one measures the degree of greatness. Unfortunately, the right hon. Gentleman was unable to give, for reasons we well understand, those proposals to the Unionist leaders last Thursday, but he has said that he is prepared to test the present procedures to destruction. May I inform the right hon. Gentleman that the Opposition would prefer him to continue to test and probe and that we hope that all the parties concerned will consider the seriousness of the consequences should the talking cease? Can the right hon. Gentleman tell the House when he hopes to meet again the leaders of the Northern Ireland parties and representatives of the Irish Government as that will give us a better picture of what has been going on in the past 18 months?

Mr. Brooke

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the support that he gives to the process in which we are engaged and for urging us to continue with it. I have already said that I believe that matters are likely to come to a conclusion in the reasonably near future. By definition, that will not be a unilateral or arbitrary act on my part and it will involve, of course, conversations with all the others concerned.

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