HC Deb 13 June 1991 vol 192 cc1026-8
3. Mr. David Shaw

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland when he next expects to meet representatives of the political parties in Northern Ireland to discuss the future government of the Province.

4. Mr. Andrew MacKay

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

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

I plan to meet the four constitutional political parties taking part in the current talks next Monday when, as they indicated last week, they believe that plenary sessions should begin.

In the past few weeks a number of sensitive procedural questions have been resolved and we hope, in conjunction with the Irish Government and in consultation with the other participating parties, to reach agreement before long on the appointment of an independent chairman for the second strand of the talks.

Mr. Shaw

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the delicate and skilful way in which he has achieved this stage of the peace negotiations and discussions. Does he believe that the goodwill that has been established in the first stage will be enhanced in the next critical stage if the Irish Government reveal that they are flexible and can increase their flexibility on articles 2 and 3 of their constitution?

Mr. Brooke

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind remarks, but I must advise him that we still have a long way to go. In answer to his second question, the Irish Government have repeatedly made it clear that they will be willing to discuss the matter that he has raised once strand 2 of the current process has been launched.

Mr. Andrew MacKay

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is terrific respect in virtually all parts of the House for his patience in bringing together the constitutional parties of Northern Ireland, and that there is equal respect for right hon. and hon. Members from different parts of the House who have not been prepared to bow to terrorist threats and who have continued to attend the talks? Are the Government sufficiently flexible to consider re-arrangements or changes to the agreement in due course, provided that they are agreed by all the parties involved in the talks?

Mr. Brooke

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his opening remarks, and not least for the tribute that he paid to other right hon. and hon. Members for their contribution to the process so far. In answer to his question about the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the two signatories to the agreement—the British and Irish Governments—have made it clear that they would be prepared to consider a new or more broadly based agreement if such an agreement could be arrived at through direct discussion and negotiation between all the participants in the talks.

Mr. Trimble

Will the Secretary of State give us an assurance that the agreement made by the three Ulster party leaders about the first plenary session next Monday will be honoured, and that the right hon. Gentleman will not allow the meeting to be frustrated in any way by the difficulties that he is encountering in his dealings with another Government about finding an independent chairman to replace him at a later stage of the talks?

Mr. Brooke

The announcement on Wednesday last week was made by the leaders of the four parties in Northern Ireland, who stated that they had decided that the plenary talks would commence on Monday 17 June.

Mr. Hume

Does the Secretary of State agree that before hon. Members advise the Secretary of State about the constitutions of other countries it might be wise for them to take a look at their own? Given that it might be regarded as offensive if the Cardinal Archbishop of Armagh were the only person who could be President of Ireland, and if the Catholic archbishops of Ireland had seats as of right in the Irish senate, should we not also consider the fact that the only person who can be head of state in this country is the head of a particular church and that the archbishops of a particular church have seats as of right in the House of Lords?

Mr. Brooke

The hon. Gentleman will recall with the same pleasure as I do that when the Catholic emancipation legislation was going through this Parliament, the then Prime Minister—the Duke of Wellington—was about to propose the Catholic Archbishop of Armagh as Archbishop of Canterbury without realising that there were two.

Sir Michael McNair-Wilson

While I recognise the need for the talks to make progress, will my right hon. Friend consider whether, in view of the time lost in seeking an impartial chairman for the second stage, flexibility could be shown about the date on which the first stage of the talks is to conclude?

Mr. Brooke

The time allocated for the talks was decided between the parties and announced in my statement of 26 March. Any discussion of what we might do after 16 July when we have the next meeting of the intergovernmental conference should take place when we approach that date.

Mr. McNamara

The House will welcome the statement made by the four party leaders last week, because there was considerable disappointment in Northern Ireland and elsewhere about the difficulties that arose. The statement is therefore welcome and the leaders are to be congratulated on it. Can the Secretary of State inform the House whether in Monday's discussions he hopes to say something about the possibilities of a chairman for the second strand of talks?

Mr. Brooke

It may be helpful if I say a word about 1 he actions taken by the two Governments. Both before and since the four party leaders announced on 5 June the decision to start plenaries next Monday, the two Governments have continued to work actively for the appointment of a chairman. We have been assisted in that respect by names being put forward to us from several quarters, including some of the Northern Ireland parties. I shall meet the Irish Foreign Minister tomorrow to consider the matter, so, although we are not yet in a position to announce a name, the matter is very much in hand.

Mr. Budgen

Since the early 1970s there have been four or five initiatives of this sort, all of which failed. Will my right hon. Friend explain what special circumstances attach to these talks which enable him to believe that they will succeed where others have failed?

Mr. Brooke

My hon. Friend has always brought an agreeably sceptical attitude to these matters, but I remind him that one encouragement to all of those taking part in the talks is that we have been engaged in the process in one way or another for 17 months and we have managed to keep everyone involved and concerned that we continue to make progress. Until that ceases to be the case, I for one do not intend to speak in terms of failure.