HC Deb 21 May 1992 vol 208 cc485-7
5. Mr. Nicholls

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he proposes to recommend any change in the constitutional position of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom.

11. Mr. Paice

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he proposes to instigate any amendments to the constitutional position of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

The Government's position on the constitutional status of Northern Ireland is unequivocally clear. Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom and will not cease to be so without the consent of a majority of the people who live there.

Mr. Nicholls

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for that reply. Will he report to the House on the progress of the talks taking place at Stormont between the constitutional parties; and can he assess the prospects of those talks being brought to a successful conclusion?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I can report to the House that the talks which began in March of this year were resumed on 29 April, and that they continue. That that is so owes a great deal to the preparatory work initiated by my right hon. Friend the Member for City of London and Westminster, South (Mr. Brooke), whose work is greatly respected in Northern Ireland and more widely.

I should like to express my gratitude to all who have taken part in the talks so far. There has been great value in the confidentiality that has been agreed upon, and I hope that the House will understand if I do not depart from that principle, because I believe that by maintaining it we have the best prospect of bringing the talks to a successful conclusion.

Mr. Paice

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the talks would be greatly assisted if the Irish Government took steps to amend their constitution to remove all those aspects in it that lay claim to Northern Ireland?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

The Government have welcomed the assurance of the Taoiseach that the question of articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution will be on the table at the appropriate stage of the political talks. They certainly have a deep significance.

Mr. John D. Taylor

The constitution of Northern Ireland covers not only its place in the United Kingdom but the means by which it is governed. Why does the Secretary of State continue to deny to the people of Northern Ireland the same rights in this Parliament that are extended to the people of England. Scotland and Wales? Why does he give to a foreign Government a greater role in the government of Northern Ireland than is given to the elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I am not at all sure what the hon. Gentleman means by the latter part of his question—

Mr. Taylor

The Anglo-Irish Agreement.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

That agreement gives the Government of the Republic of Ireland a consultative role which will be diminished with the advent of devolved government in Northern Ireland, to the extent that that devolved government has jurisdiction in Northern Ireland.

It is the purpose of the Government—I think, with the approval of the House—to harness the abundance of political talent that undoubtedly exists in Northern Ireland to the business of governing it. That is the policy of the British Government, and it is to secure it that the talks arc taking place.

Mr. Hume

Does the Secretary of State agree that people who consistently require reassurance about their constitutional status but never accept such reassurance and keep on requiring more of it will never be reassured?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

That is perfectly legitimate question to ask the Secretary of State, but I have no hesitation in repeating the constitutional guarantee that has been on the statute book since 1973. There is no question of its being changed so long as it has the support of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland.

Mr. Kilfedder

I commend the Secretary of State on the firm and unequivocal words that he used in answer to the original question. His remarks echo the firm words of the Prime Minister, who believes passionately in the unity of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and whose stance rebuffs those who believe that they can kill and mutilate and thereby weaken the resolve of Her Majesty's Government.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I am grateful for what my hon. Friend said at the beginning of his question. It is compatible with a reassertion of the constitutional guarantee to agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Budgen) said about the absurdity of Westminster Ministers answering questions about such relatively minor matters as potholes and, dare I say it, metal window frames on housing estates. It is to overcome that, and to restore to the elected representatives of Northern Ireland a jurisdiction over matters that pertain to Northern Ireland, that we are striving in our constitutional talks.