HC Deb 03 July 1991 vol 194 cc319-27 3.31 pm
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Peter Brooke)

The political talks which have been taking place at Parliament buildings, Stormont have been brought to a conclusion. I should like to take this opportunity to explain to the House the background to that decision, to describe what has been achieved during the talks and to set out the Government's hopes for the future.

Hon. Members will recall that my statement to the House on 26 March was accepted as a basis for political talks which would address, as part of the same process, relationships within Northern Ireland, including the relationship between any new institutions there and the Westminster Parliament; relationships among the people of the island of Ireland; and relationships between the two Governments. I announced that talks would take place in three strands corresponding to those three main sets of relationships. To allow an opportunity for the wider political dialogue which the four main constitutional political parties in Northern Ireland and the two Governments envisaged, the two Governments had agreed not to hold a meeting of the Anglo-Irish Conference between two pre-specified dates, subsequently confirmed as being 26 April and 16 July. This interval, allowing some time at each end for the Anglo-Irish secretariat to complete the business of servicing one conference meeting and to make preparations to service the next, provided 10 clear weeks for substantive political exchanges. The talks began on 30 April.

It became clear that it would not be possible to launch the other strands of the talks and thus to complete the process as a whole before the end of that interval, and that that was beginning to inhibit our ability to make further substantive progress. After consultation with the leaders of the political parties, I concluded that the talks should therefore be brought to an end. I have also been in touch with the Irish Government to recount my conclusion.

I should now like to take stock of what has been achieved during the talks and of the further prospects for securing constructive political development in relation to Northern Ireland. As the House knows, it did not prove possible to move as rapidly as we had hoped to plenary sessions of the first strand of the talks. A range of new procedural issues had to be resolved. A series of bilateral exchanges succeeded in determining the venues for meetings in the second strand of the talks, arrangements for chairing that strand of discussion, the identity of the chairman and the procedural guidelines which would be observed.

Plenary sessions started on 17 June. After my opening statement, the parties presented their initial position papers, after which the papers were discussed, examined and clarified. Subsequently, during a more intensive schedule of meetings, there was a debate on themes that had emerged from the initial presentations.

The commitment and seriousness of purpose shown by all the parties in these talks is a source of encouragement for the future. The plenary sessions provided the forum for some significant and constructive exchanges among the parties and with Her Majesty's Government on a range of fundamental issues. The nature of those exchanges served to confirm the judgment involved in initiating the talks process that the time is ripe for political talks in relation to Northern Ireland that address all the relevant relationships; that the process is of value and has potentially even greater value; that a degree of common ground exists; and that there is a good prospect that a comprehensive political accommodation can be reached. I would like to express my appreciation of the commitment shown by all the participants.

To those who would say, "I told you so—it would never work," I offer the reality of the past few weeks. While I am naturally disappointed at this moment that the current process has to end, foundations have been laid for progress in the future which neither cynics nor the men of violence will be able to undermine.

For myself, I hope that it will prove possible in due course to have further exchanges with the parties, and with the Irish Government, to explore, initially on a bilateral basis, whether we can establish terms on which fresh discussions could be held.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North)

The whole House will have listened with regret to the statement that the Secretary of State felt that he had to make today. That regret will also be felt by the peoples of these islands and more particularly by the people in Northern Ireland. The only people who will get any sort of consolation from the Secretary of State's statement will be the paramilitaries and, as the Secretary said, the cynics.

I pay tribute to the Secretary of State for the great determination of purpose that he has shown in keeping the talks going in the face of what at times appeared to be insurmountable obstacles. I pay tribute also to the other participants in the talks who were prepared to re-examine cherished positions in order to get the talks going.

At this point the Secretary of State clearly feels that there is little prospect of further progress. Nevertheless, his statement errs on the side of optimism and offers some encouragement for the future. We in the Labour party endorse the Secretary of State's last paragraph.

Despite the optimistic note, the Secretary of State must feel intensely disappointed that, yet again, an opportunity has been lost to secure an internal political settlement in the Province that is acceptable to both communities in Northern Ireland and to the British and Irish Governments. I make it clear on behalf of the Labour party that we have supported and will continue to support the three-strand approach to the talks whatever refinements may have to be made to that. Our view is that this represents the best possible avenue for a lasting and peaceful political settlement within the Province. There is an increasing desire and hope among the people of Northern Ireland, not least among many of those to whom I spoke this morning who were saddened by the fact that I was leaving Ireland to come here to hear the statement, that in the not-too-distant future the Northern Ireland politicians will again feel sufficiently confident and able to reach a settlement.

There are a number of specific questions that I should like to ask the Secretary of State. First, will Sir Ninian Stephen, who manfully agreed to chair the second strand, now be stood down or will he be put on hold for a period of time? Secondly, will the Secretary of State give the House an indication of the positive achievements to come out of the talks so far?

Thirdly, what change in circumstances will lead the right hon. Gentleman to reconvene the talks? Fourthly, will he assure the House that the two Governments will maintain the highest possible co-operation in security and other areas in which the two parts of the island of Ireland have a mutual interest and common approach, and that the Anglo-Irish Agreement must still remain the basis of the relationship between the two parts of Ireland, this island and the island of Ireland?

Mr. Brooke

I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his opening remarks and for his remarks about myself and about those colleagues from other parties who participated in the talks and who, as I said when we concluded the talks at Stormont this morning, showed great courage in coming to the talks. The hon. Gentleman referred to the paramilitaries. Throughout the talks, the commitment of all those taking part to carrying forward the talks was noticeable, despite the actions of the paramilitaries.

Although I understand why the hon. Gentleman refers to an opportunity lost, in the time that we eventually had it would not have been possible to do the job with the thoroughness with which everyone would wish to see it done. As I have said, I hope that foundations have been laid for the future.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the three strands. The concept of conducting the talks in three strands has been wholly sustained by the frequency with which, even in the first strand of talks, colleagues wished to raise matters that belonged in the other two.

In answer to the hon. Gentleman's specific questions, Sir Ninian Stephen has, of course, been informed of the course of events. There is no immediate role for him to play in the circumstances that have developed. However, if we were able to make use of his services in the future at some stage, I hope that he would be as willing then to undertake them as he has been so far.

The hon. Gentleman asked me about the achievements of the talks. I have no hesitation in saying that, although exchanges were robust at times, there were also moments when the participants received encouragement from each other's contributions and the manner in which they were made. That was a positive development in terms of looking forward. I do not regard it as appropriate to go into the detail of what was said, not least because it is important to leave the field clear in the hope that these matters might be picked up again in the future. However, I am sure that all the participants would agree that they found good things to take away from some of the discussions.

On the question about reconvening the talks, I have said that I hope that it might be possible for fresh talks to take place, but whether they do so will be a matter for the parties themselves. Of course, I endorse what the hon. Gentleman said about security co-operation.

Mr. James Molyneaux (Lagan Valley)

Is the Secretary of State aware that even in the last few critical days he has retained the confidence and respect of all who participated in the talks? Does he agree that his efforts have greatly enlarged the capacity of the party leaders in Northern Ireland to get together, as they have many times in the past to deal especially with economic and social issues, and that they have got together and co-operated in a way that could not be matched by other party leaders in the House?

Mr. Brooke

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his opening remarks and accept them on behalf of my hon. Friend the Minister of State who also took part in chairing the meetings. I am also grateful for what the right hon. Gentleman said about enlarging the capacity of the parties and the party leaders in Northern Ireland to get together and agree that our mutual and collective experience has enlarged that possibility.

Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North)

As the right hon. Gentleman has made it clear that, in his opinion, the talks have been helpful and a degree of progress has been made, and as he has implied that if they had continued a greater degree of progress could probably have been made, will he now tell the people of Northern Ireland why, when we were making that progress, the date of 16 July suddenly became sacrosanct?

Also, why was the right hon. Gentleman not prepared to give us injury time? In any other game injury time would have been given. If he is suggesting that he can hold successful talks again by trying to suck the Unionist leaders into compliance with the Anglo-Irish Agreement, or build on a foundation that can be sabotaged, as the foundation of these talks was sabotaged by Dublin, the Unionist leaders can have no part in that.

Mr. Brooke

I understand the emotion that underlies the hon. Gentleman's question, but it would be wrong to say that 16 July was suddenly injected into the process as a firm date. The two Governments agreed earlier this year that, to enable the talks to take place, the conference would not meet between two pre-specified dates. Those dates were subsequently specified as 26 April and 16 July, leaving a clear 10 weeks for the talks. The two Governments' commitment to hold a conference on 16 July has been in the public domain since the last conference on 26 April. Therefore, the conference on 16 July is very much part of the agreed framework for the talks, which was settled before the 10-week period began and was clearly stated in my statement of 26 March.

As for what the hon. Gentleman said about injury time —I understand the nature of that question—I do not think that any of us, in the long period in which we were constructing the statement of 26 March, could have identified all the contingencies that could conceivably have arisen during that period. The hon. Gentleman implied that I was seeking to suck the Unionist leaders into a predicament. He knows, from all the contacts that we have had in the past two years, that I respect the Unionist leaders far too much to imagine that they would be misled in any way by me or would do anything other than what was governed by the principles of their party and the Province.

Mr. John Hume (Foyle)

May I, too, express my deep appreciation of the Secretary of State, the Minister of State and their staff for the intense efforts that they have put into these talks. The Social Democratic and Labour party very much regret that the talks have come to an end, but we recognised the inevitability of that once it became clear that certain parties could not proceed in the talks after 9 July. Once that date was set, it was obvious that the process could not be completed and that strand 2, involving the Irish Government, could not even begin. We also regret that the other parties could not accept our proposition for breaking that deadlock, which was that once we accepted one gap in Anglo-Irish Conferences between 25 April and 16 July, we should have another betweeen 16 July and some date in September or October to allow us to continue. I see no change in principle in that. Regrettably, for their own reasons, the other parties could not accept that proposal.

We welcome the exchanges that took place. Many of them were very valuable and differed greatly from exchanges that have taken place in the past. We hope that they can be built on in the future. However, the whole experience has underlined our consistent view that such talks should take place without preconditions of any description because, ultimately, preconditions hang people on hooks.

In the meantime, as the talks have broken down, we must face certain realities. The absence of agreement emphasises the need for both Governments to intensify their co-operation so that there are no vacuums. We wish to express our appreciation to both Governments for all the steps that they have taken to make the talks possible and we hope that they will continue to work together in the same spirit.

Mr. Brooke

I am grateful to the hon Gentleman for his remarks about me and about my hon. Friend the Minister of State. In exactly the same way as the two Governments have held to the rules set out in the statement of 26 March, it is also wholly appropriate that any other participant in the talks should honour and subscribe to those rules. If we are to regard those rules as sacrosanct in the process—it is good that they should be—I wholly understand why any party would want to be governed by them.

During the time when we have been engaged in the talks, all who have taken part agree that it has been a sufficiently supple process to enable us to make the progress that we have. I cannot prejudge what people would say if we explored the idea of resuming talks hereafter.

The hon. Gentleman referred to conducting talks without preconditions. The greater the flexibility, the better—but we shall have to deal with that issue when we come to talk to the parties.

Mr. Peter Temple-Morris (Leominster)

Will my right hon. Friend accept that his patient and worthy efforts have been much appreciated in all parts of the House? Does he agree that for the immediate future it is best to avoid recrimination and to keep his door open to any possibility of building on this undoubted achievement? Last but not least, will he confirm that the status quo continues and that that status quo includes the Anglo-Irish Agreement?

Mr. Brooke

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks about the talks. I wholly agree that the most likely basis for progress will lie in avoiding recrimination and rancour at this stage. My door will be open; and my hon. Friend was correct about the status quo.

Sir David Steel (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale)

It must be rare for a Minister of the Crown to come to the Dispatch Box and report a relative failure—at any rate, a relative lack of positive progress—and yet be met with such universal sympathy, because we all recognise his considerable efforts in these endeavours over the past few months. The leader of the Alliance party in the Province told me this afternoon that the talks had had some of the' positive and encouraging features that the right hon. Gentleman has outlined to the House.

As one who watched the proceedings from this side of the Irish sea, may I tell the right hon. Gentleman that the people of Northern Ireland must feel a deep sense of frustration? But they will have the same opportunity as the rest of us some time during the next 12 months to elect representatives to Westminster, and in so doing they will be well advised to look to those who put the urgent quest for peace and prosperity in the Province above the time-wasting and procedural trivia pursued by some.

Mr. Brooke

I very much appreciate what the right hon. Gentleman said about the manner in which the talks were conducted and I thank him for the sympathy that he offered. All who have participated in the talks have been struck and impressed by the interest in them and by the good will shown by people in the Province towards the talks.

It would not surprise me if, after this conclusion to the process, there was continuing pressure from the people of Northern Ireland to see that the talks are carried forward. But it would be quite wrong to suggest that the politicians of Northern Ireland have failed the Province thus far. 'We have been somewhat frustrated by circumstances, but I regard the fact that everyone is encouraged by the progress that we have made as a good omen.

Mr. James Kilfedder (North Down)

May I urge the Ulster people to look to the future with optimism and not to dwell on the past? I agree with the Secretary of State that the talks provide a reasonable basis for future progress in Northern Ireland. Will he, as one who has shown great perseverance, continue with his efforts to bring about a political rapprochement in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Brooke

I am particularly touched by the hon. Gentleman's remarks. He was present when I made my speech in Bangor on 9 January last year. I know that he feels that I have perhaps not kept him quite as fully informed in the ensuing 18 months as I should have done. I am touched by what the hon. Gentleman said and I totally concur with his optimism.

Mr. Merlyn Rees (Morley and Leeds, South)

The Secretary of State, as ever, has persevered and I join in the congratulations. The bald fact is that the talks have concluded and, to use the expression of the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume), they have broken down. To aid those of us watching from this side of the water, will I he Secretary of State tell us about the stumbling blocks that he will have to overcome before there can be fresh talks, rather than a continuation of talks?

Mr. Brooke

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for the way in which he phrased his question, because it enables me to clarify a matter.

I do not think that anybody who engaged in the talks would say that they had broken down. The talks were constructed to take place within a specific time. However, we spent much time on procedural matters relating to strands beyond the first one and that left us with inadequate time to address the matter of substance. The talks ended because we ran out of time, rather than because of frustration amongst the parties.

Sir David Mitchell (Hampshire, North-West)

Is it not significant that each of the party leaders involved in the talks has today praised the role of the Secretary of State in helping to make them possible and in measuring their achievements? Has the way in which the talks ended left it possible for a further initiative to be taken later this year to see whether further progress can be made?

Mr. Brooke

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I hope that what I said earlier makes it clear that any praise about the conduct of the talks applies to all those who participated. My hon. Friend asked whether fresh talks would be possible. It is sensible to wait a few weeks before taking any steps in that direction, but, of course, I shall listen closely for any rustling in the undergrowth.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. The House knows that there is a statement on Yugoslavia after this one, and there is considerable pressure on the two debates that will follow. I shall take two more questions from each side. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Order. I have to balance the time that I can allow for this statement against other business of the House. [Interruption.] Order. I hope that Ulster Members will understand when I say that, as I have called the leaders of the Northern Ireland parties, I propose to give an opportunity to other Members of the Parliament of the United Kingdom to ask questions.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

Is the Secretary of State aware that the good will expressed to him personally does not alter the fact that his announcement is another setback in a long series of attempts to bring peace to Ireland? There has been partition, Stormont, direct rule, power sharing, internment without trial, strip searching, plastic bullets, the Diplock courts, and the Anglo-Irish Agreement, none of which has brought the peace that we were told each one of them would bring. There are 12,000 British troops, 8,000 members of the Ulster Defence Regiment and 12,000 armed policemen in Northern Ireland. We are engaged in a civil war in Ireland. We are about to hear a statement on Yugoslavia. It is time that we learned the lesson that the rest of the world knows, which is that the problem in Northern Ireland is a British one and not an Irish problem in the United Kingdom.

Mr. Brooke

The right hon. Gentleman recited a litany of past events. In the context of developments in the Province I do not take the right hon. Gentleman's apocalyptic view. Those of us who took part in the talks did not make extravagant claims about what would happen in the context of peace. We were not engaged in a peace conference. The difference between the talks in which we have been engaged and some of the past events about which the right hon. Gentleman spoke is that the parties in Northern Ireland that participated in those talks will, I hope, have been sufficiently encouraged by the course of events to contemplate carrying matters forward at some future stage. I do not regard the conclusion of the talks as a setback in the way that the right hon. Gentleman did. In passing, may I say that he exaggerated the size of the security forces?

Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

While I commiserate with my right hon. Friend on what one hopes is a suspension rather than the ending of these talks, may I ask him to confirm that no blame should be imputed to any of the political parties in Northern Ireland? After all, what other country grants to its neighbour the right to meddle in its domestic affairs? Is it not the case that it was within the power of the Irish Republic to lift the obstacles to the continuation of the talks—the 16 July meeting? Why did it not do so?

Mr. Brooke

I certainly concur with what my hon. Friend said about no blame attaching to any of those who participated in the talks. As to the conference on 16 July, that was a clear fixture, which was established in the minds of everybody taking part in the talks, not only when I announced them on 26 March but when I specified the date on 26 April.

Mr. Dennis Canavan (Falkirk, West)

Does the Secretary of State accept that if further talks on the future of Northern Ireland are to have any chance of success, it would be better to state honestly at the outset the ultimate objective and the means of achieving it? As the choice is basically between two mutually exclusive objectives—the preservation of the unity of the United Kingdom and the restoration of the unity of Ireland—should not the means of deciding and determining the achievements of the objective be the democratic consent of the people of 32 counties rather than of six counties?

Mr. Brooke

The objective with which all those taking part in the talks were concerned was to address a series of relationships specified in my statement on 26 March. It has consistently been the view of the Government that we need to find workable and durable arrangements and, in particular, ones capable of enjoying widespread support. I have the advantage over the hon. Gentleman in having heard the exchanges among the parties, and I continue to be impressed by them, in that each of the two traditions understood the position of the other.

Mr. Michael Latham (Rutland and Melton)

If these talks were so robust and constructive, and made as much progress as my right hon. Friend encouragingly stated, can he explain to the House, because some of us are feeling exasperated as we listen, why the politicians locally just cannot go on talking?

Mr. Brooke

My hon. Friend will recall that, when we set out the basis for the talks in my statement of 26 March, we set out the ground rules that had been hammered out among all the parties over a considerable time and which all of them were able to endorse and sustain. I hope that if I approach the parties a little later this year about the possibility of entering talks again, of starting fresh talks, I shall receive the same warm welcome as on the previous occasion. We shall need to renegotiate the basis on which we do so. All those who have taken part in the talks so far think that we may wish to vary some of the elements of procedure.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. 1 remind the House that next Thursday we shall have Northern Ireland questions, and that there may be a further opportunity on the Consolidated Fund Bill, which we shall debate before the recess, for this matter to be raised again.

Statement—Mr. Secretary Hurd.

Mr. Nicholas Budgen (Wolverhampton, South-West)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (Norfolk, North)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member was here when I had my altercation with the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton). I shall take points of order later.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Please sit down.

Rev. Ian Paisley

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I will take points of order after the statements. I will not take them now.

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