HC Deb 29 October 1992 vol 212 cc1120-3
6. Mr. Winnick

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

10. Mr. Riddick

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the latest developments concerning the constitutional talks on the future of Northern Ireland.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I shall continue to do all I can to achieve a positive outcome for the talks, which all the participants, under the distinguished guidance of Sir Ninian Stephen, have been and are still working hard to secure progress. The Government remain determined to find a widely acceptable basis for effecting a significant transfer of power and authority to locally accountable institutions within a framework of relationships that are stable within Northern Ireland, in the island of Ireland and between the people of these islands.

Mr. Winnick

If the talks do not succeed—if that is the case, no blame will be attached to the Secretary of State —does the right hon. and learned Gentleman accept that it will be even more important to have the closest links between the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic, including on matters involving Northern Ireland? Should not those links have been there from the beginning? Now that they have been established, they should remain, for obvious reasons.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's opening remark. I have been concentrating my attention, as has everyone taking part in the talks, on their succeeding. I have not spent very much time contemplating the possibility of their failing. If we do not reach heads of agreement within the short time remaining, that will be regarded by all as merely the arrival of another intermission in a process which has had a number of intermissions. I hope and believe that we shall take up the process thereafter, starting a good way further down the road than many believed possible.

I agree that close links with the Republic of Ireland are desirable. We have friendly relationships with the Government of Ireland and we are in close co-operation with them on many aspects. That is very much to be encouraged.

Mr. Riddick

But now that a deadline looms, does my right hon. and learned Friend believe that it will be possible to reach heads of agreement by 16 November?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing attention to that date. It is the date of the next intergovernmental conference under the Anglo-Irish Agreement. As my hon. Friend knows, it has always been the understanding that the political talks should take place during a gap or intermission. The previous conference was on 27 April, since when there have been two further postponements. Accordingly, the two Heads of Government, the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach, agreed that the final extension should end on 16 November. I believe that it is practically possible for us to reach heads of agreement within that time and everyone concerned is working hard to achieve that. I will not tell my hon. Friend whether I think it probable or not. The main point is that everyone is working towards that and I believe that it is a practical possibility.

Mr. Maginnis

Does the Secretary of State accept that it is becoming virtually impossible, irrespective of the total commitment of the Government and of the Ulster Unionist party, for any delegation to negotiate meaningfully with an Irish Government who are so acrimoniously divided by in-fighting and who are so obviously split on both political and ethical issues?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

The hon. Gentleman is taking an uncharacteristically pessimistic view. While not adopting or, I hope, appearing to adopt the language he used, I reiterate that I believe that it is entirely practicable for all parties, with the assistance of his own, to reach a successful conclusion within the time available.

Mr. Hunter

Now that the constitutional talks have reached such a sensitive position, does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that those of us who care deeply for the island of Ireland can usefully employ our time urging party leaders to reach positive conclusions and to remember that failure to do so could well result in the furthering of the cause of men of violence on both sides of the sectarian divide?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who takes a close interest in the affairs of the Province, and who was there only the other day. I believe that those who lead the parties involved are well aware of the strength of public opinion. Those who have longer experience in these matters than I do tell me that there is something quite new about the strength of public opinion demanding that the politicians get something better together. That is entirely encouraging, and I believe that it is well known to those who lead the parties.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend about the potentially harmful consequences if the process came to an end.

Mr. Mallon

As one who has spent the past three years involved in the talks process—right from the time at which it was initiated by the previous Secretary of State—I think that it is time that we knew the British Government's mind on a fundamental question: can we ever settle the problem on the basis of partition? I should like to hear the Secretary of State's view on that. Does it accord with the view of the situation in Cyprus given by his right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary yesterday at column 1008 of Hansard: I do not agree partition can be the basis" —

Madam Speaker

Order. I cannot allow quotations during Question Time, but I am sure that the Secretary of State has got the hon. Gentleman's point.

Mr. Mallon

The Foreign Secretary made it clear that he did not believe that partition could be the basis for a settlement in Cyprus and that only in the context of rule by one sovereign Government could a lasting solution be found. Is that the Government's view in relation to the other place that they partitioned—the place where I live —or does not the Secretary of State share the view of the Foreign Secretary?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

The hon. Gentleman has, indeed, been engaged in the talks for a very long time and, with each succeeding month, he has become more ingenious in asking questions.

For my part, I am entirely satisfied that it is possible for us to reach a successful conclusion to the talks within the time available and within the constitutional guarantee set out in the House by my predecessor on 26 March 1991. That statement was the product of diligent consultation and discussion in which the hon. Gentleman and his party played a part.

It was well understood by all that that constitutional guarantee would be the basis upon which the British Government entered the talks. It follows from that that, of course, we think now—as we thought then—that it is possible to bring the talks to a successful conclusion within the terms and continuity of that guarantee. That is the proper answer for me to give the hon. Gentleman, and it certainly represents my sincere belief.

Mr. Bill Walker

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that, in other parts of the United Kingdom, although we wish the talks well and hope that Northern Ireland will eventually have local government similar to that in the rest of the United Kingdom, we feel that anything beyond that could have constitutional implications of great magnitude, particularly in Scotland?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I understand my hon. Friend's point. At the moment, however, I am responsible for the affairs of Northern Ireland. I was surprised enough to find myself in that position, and I do not propose to enlarge upon that jurisdiction for the time being.

Mr. McNamara

The Secretary of State will be aware that the whole House hopes that the talks will end on a positive note. It is for that reason that the House has exercised a self-denying ordinance over the past 18 months in quizzing successive Secretaries of State on the progress of the talks. Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman now undertake to make a statement to the House when the current series of talks concludes? Will he couple that statement with the publication of a statement of what appear to be the agreed positions of the parties—including, if necessary, a note of heads of agreement—to be counterbalanced by a list of areas of contention? In each case, will he state Her Majesty's Government's attitude to the problems? Finally, will he try to arrange with his right hon. Friend the Leader of the House for an opportunity for us to debate the current state of the talks before Christmas?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I acknowledge what the hon. Gentleman said and that the House has been very understanding on all sides about the need for reticence and the confidentiality which the parties to the talks have said should apply. I think that the House would be entitled to a statement from me at the conclusion of the talks—whether for good or ill. I therefore undertake to make such a statement.

The hon. Gentleman then became rather more particular about the contents of such a statement. I believe that it will be sensible for the parties to agree what kind of public statement shall be made when the talks conclude —whether successfully or unsuccessfully. Therefore, I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the undertaking for which he asks about the particularity of the statement. However, the House is certainly entitled to a sensible account of where we are, how we got there, what has happened and, within reason, why.

Lady Olga Maitland

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that great tribute should be paid to those who have taken part in the talks? It has not been easy for some, but the talks have continued and I wish for the best in future. However, we should bear it in mind that the talks have the great support of the communities outside which wish them well. A successful outcome will guarantee economic success for Northern Ireland and attract inward investment if there is a settled future.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. She takes a close interest in these matters and she was in the Province the other day with three Opposition Members. I was glad to see them all.

I am grateful for the tribute that my hon. Friend paid to those who have taken part in the talks. Their diligence, courage and imagination reflect the desire of ordinary people in the Province—and more widely—that they should come to a successful conclusion. They will not succeed if everybody thinks that, individually, they must get the best and absolutely everything that they are looking for. They will succeed if there is a process of give and take and I believe that that is on the cards.