HC Deb 02 December 1993 vol 233 cc1155-9
8. Mr. Burden

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on progress towards the resumption of the inter-party talks, and on talks that he has had with the Irish Government.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), is engaged in private discussions to explore the basis on which the parties can come together for further dialogue. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has recently met the four main constitutional party leaders. Additionally, we are in discussion with the Irish Government on matters of mutual interest, including constitutional issues. It remains our objective to return to multilateral talks involving the two Governments and the four main constitutional parties at the appropriate point.

Mr. Burden

Given article 1 of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, will the Secretary of State tell the House plainly whether he accepts that the Irish people have a right to national self-determination, based on consent freely given—north and south?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I think that the Anglo-Irish Agreement speaks for itself. What is of most immediate importance to those concerned for stability, in Northern Ireland in particular, is that it should be thoroughly understood, as the Prime Minister has made it abundantly clear, that the British Government—the Government—stand firmly behind the democratic wishes of the people of Northern Ireland as regards the constitutional status of Northern Ireland.

Sir James Kilfedder

Does the Secretary of State accept that it would be a great mistake for the media or anyone else to interpret the present yearning for peace as a movement for appeasement at any price? Does he not agree that the majority of Ulster people want peace, political progress and the best of relations with the Irish Republic, but not at the cost of weakening their position within the United Kingdom?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

That is absolutely right. As my hon. Friend said, we went into the matter with some care on Monday. There is an overwhelming demand, as well as a yearning, for peace—but not, as I endeavoured to say on Monday, at any price. Peace properly attained is what people require and that is what the Government and all people of good will are striving to help the people of Northern Ireland to attain.

Mr. Molyneaux

In response to any inquiries from foreign parts, will the Secretary of State explain clearly that those conversations and informal discussions being so ably pursued by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), have the aim and object of restoring accountable democracy to all the people of Northern Ireland and that that is a necessary first step to restoring stability and subsequently peace?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his well-deserved tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes. My hon. Friend has made good progress with those with whom he is talking in the bilateral discussions. There is a good measure of agreement on the need for new political institutions in Northern Ireland. Those institutions are essential if democratic accountability is to be restored, and everyone recognises that that would be a good thing.

I am not sure that I would agree with the right hon. Gentleman in saying that that is the first requirement. I believe, as I have just said, that the first requirement for the restoration of stability in Northern Ireland is for everyone to accept beyond question that the democratically expressed wishes of the people of Northern Ireland will determine their future status.

Mr. Peter Robinson

Will the Secretary of State tell the House why, at a press conference in Northern Ireland on Sunday, he said that he had only recently learnt of some unapproved contacts on a face-to-face basis between British Government officials and the IRA, when the documents that he supplied to the Library indicate that he knew back on 10 May? Why did the Secretary of State tell the press conference that they did not form part of the process that the Government were having with the IRA when they formed part of at least three of the messages?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman persists in saying that they were unapproved contacts. Why did he never at any stage after he was made aware of them indicate to the IRA that it was talking to loose cannons? Is it not about time that the Secretary of State came clean? Has he not stretched credulity beyond breaking point?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I said at the press conference that I gave on Sunday in Northern Ireland that it had recently come to our notice that there had been an unauthorised meeting between somebody of official status and a member of Sinn Fein. The reason I said that was because it was true. It had come to our notice—that there had been an unauthorised meeting—something like 10 days or perhaps a couple of weeks previously.

We also learned that some three years ago there had been—or probably had been—a meeting with somebody of similar status in the circumstances which were probably described by Martin McGuinness recently. That happens to be the case. I want to make it clear that there is no question of there being anybody who is authorised to conduct talks or negotiations with Sinn Fein or the IRA, or with any other organisation that either perpetrates or justifies the use of violence.

Mr. Alton

Will the Secretary of State repeat the Prime Minister's recent comment that this still remains the best opportunity for peace? Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that the participants in the middle east process—which is so often cited—were not subjected to the full glare of media speculation or to leaked documents, and were helped by the presence of an independent arbiter? Can not we learn from that process?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

It is only a partially apt analogy, because the middle east process was one of negotiations. No negotiations have taken place of the character that I described on Monday by use of the chain of communication. That chain is a secret and valuable one.

The hon. Gentleman is right to point to the value of a secret means of communication with groups such as Sinn Fein. It should not be assumed that there is a direct analogy with the Israeli-Arafat process because no negotiations have been conducted by means of that chain.

Lady Olga Maitland

Will my right hon. and learned Friend join me in welcoming the remarks by the Archbishop of Armagh yesterday here at Westminster when he called on Sinn Fein and the IRA to cease violence and, more than that, called for them to accept unambiguously the democratic process?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I have heard many tributes paid to the speech made by Cardinal Daly yesterday which, unfortunately, I was not able to hear. The Archbishop was a fine record of resistance to and denunciation of violence which is pursued for political purposes or for any other purpose. His speech will repay a careful examination.

Mr. McNamara

Does the Secretary of State acknowledge the value of the goal of a united Ireland?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

One needs to be careful when speaking in language that attributes value to a particular notion. The British Government cannot join the ranks of the persuaders. Here we differ from the Opposition who wish to persuade the people of Northern Ireland to leave the United Kingdom and join a united Ireland. We believe that it should be for the people of Northern Ireland to determine for themselves, without persuasion from us, whether they wish to remain in the United Kingdom. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman asks a rather naively loaded question when he asks whether we will sign up to the value of a united Ireland. What we sign up to is the value of maintaining a democracy and the rights of all democrats within the United Kingdom.

Mr. Butcher

I welcome the hint that my right hon. and learned Friend gave earlier that he may be considering restoring some of the functions of local government within the Province of Northern Ireland, but will he reassure me on whether a stage has been reached in which a foreign Government have a say in the internal constitutional affairs of the United Kingdom, or do the conversations that are going on with the Government of southern Ireland exclude that possibility?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

No, the Government stand by the agreement reached between all the four main constitutional parties and the Irish Government and ourselves back in 1991 that there should be discussions—political talks—with a view to achieving an overall settlement of all the political relationships within Northern Ireland, between north and south and between Dublin and London. The parties agreed that there should be a place in that process at a particular point for the Irish Government and that point was reached. When sufficient progress on strand 1 had been attained, the Irish Government came in. We hold to that agreement to which all the four main constitutional political parties adhered and we are not at the moment in the course of conducting any discussions that are incompatible with that agreement.

Mr. Hume

Following what the Secretary of State has just said, he will reaffirm that the talks process to which both Governments and all parties agreed involved facing up to all the relationships that go to the heart of the problem, and those relationships include relationships with this Parliament. Have the Government already agreed a relationship with any party in this Parliament behind the backs of other parties?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

The hon. Gentleman knows the answer very well. He had better come out openly and ask whether a deal has been done between the Government and the Ulster Unionist party. If he asks that—[Interruption.] I would rather the hon. Gentleman did not shout while I am trying to answer his question, because I assume, in his favour, that he is interested in an answer. If that is what the hon. Gentleman means, I have nothing to add to what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux) have said. If, on the other hand, the hon. Gentleman is referring to the report issued by the Procedure Committee last night, the Government have not reached a conclusion on that. The Government will study what has been said and will take account of the views of parties in the House in the ordinary way. Much has been said here about the need to reduce the democratic deficit in Northern Ireland and affecting Northern Ireland, and it might be said that there is some value in having a Select Committee to look at the affairs of Northern Ireland rather than six separate Select Committees taking part of Northern Ireland's affairs into their ambits as they discuss the matters of individual Departments in Westminster. I simply offer that as an answer to the hon. Gentleman.

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