HC Deb 29 November 1993 vol 233 cc785-812 3.31 pm
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Sir Patrick Mayhew)

With permission, I will make a statement about messages between the IRA leadership and the Government.

There has for some years been a means of communication by which messages could be conveyed indirectly between the Government and the IRA leadership. Clearly, such a chain could only function if its secrecy was respected on both sides.

At the end of February this year, a message was received from the IRA leadership. It said: The conflict is over but we need your advice on how to bring it to a close. We wish to have an unannounced ceasefire in order to hold dialogue leading to peace. We cannot announce such a move as it will lead to confusion for the volunteers, because the press will misinterpret it as a surrender. We cannot meet Secretary of State's public renunciation of violence, but it would be given privately as long as we were sure that we were not being tricked". That message came from Martin McGuinness. I have placed in the Library and in the Vote Office all consequent messages that Her Majesty's Government received and dispatched.

The Government had a duty to respond to that message. I will read to the House the substantive response that, after an intermediate exchange, we despatched on 19 March. The text published yesterday was no more than instructions as to how this was to be transmitted. The message was in these terms: 1. The importance of what has been said, the wish to take it seriously, and the influence of events on the ground, have been acknowledged. All of those involved share a responsibility to work to end the conflict. No one has a monopoly of suffering. There is a need for a healing process. 2. It is essential that there should be no deception on either side, and also that no deception should, through any misunderstanding, be seen where it is not intended. It is also essential that both sides have a clear and realistic understanding of what it is possible to achieve, so that neither side can in the future claim that it has been tricked. 3. The position of the British Government on dealing with those who espouse violence is clearly understood. This is why the envisaged sequence of events is important. We note that what is being sought at this stage is advice, and that any dialogue would follow an unannounced halt to violent activity. We confirm that if violence had genuinely been brought to an end, whether or not that fact had been announced, then dialogue could take place. 4. It must be understood, though, that once a halt to activity became public, the British Government would have to acknowledge and defend its entry into dialogue. It would do so by pointing out that its agreement to exploratory dialogue about the possibility of an inclusive process had been given because—and only because—it had received a private assurance that organised violence had been brought to an end. 5. The British Government has made clear that: — no political objective which is advocated by constitutional means alone could properly be excluded from discussion in the talks process; — the commitment to return as much responsibility as possible to local politicians should be seen within a wider framework of stable relationships to be worked out with all concerned; — new political arrangements would be designed to ensure that no legitimate group was excluded from eligibility to share in the exercise of this responsibility; — in the event of a genuine and established ending of violence, the whole range of responses to it would inevitably be looked at afresh. 6. The British Government has no desire to inhibit or impede legitimate constitutional expression of any political opinion, or any input to the political process, and wants to see included in this process all main parties which have sufficiently shown they genuinely do not espouse violence. It has no blueprint. It wants an agreed accommodation, not an imposed settlement, arrived at through an inclusive process in which the parties are free agents. 7. The British Government does not have, and will not adopt, any prior objective of 'ending of partition'. The British Government cannot enter a talks process, or expect others to do so, with the purpose of achieving a predetermined outcome, whether the 'ending of partition' or anything else. It has accepted that the eventual outcome of such a process could be a united Ireland, but only on the basis of the consent of the people of Northern Ireland. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] Should this be the eventual outcome of a peaceful democratic process, the British Government would bring forward legislation to implement the will of the people here. But unless the people of Northern Ireland come to express such a view, the British Government will continue to uphold the union, seeking to ensure the good governance of Northern Ireland, in the interests of all its people, within the totality of relationships in these islands. 8. Evidence on the ground that any group had ceased violent activity would induce resulting reduction of security force activity. Were violence to end, the British Government's overall response in terms of security force activity on the ground would still have to take account of the overall threat. The threat posed by Republican and Loyalist groups which remained active would have to continue to be countered. 9. It is important to establish whether this provides a basis for the way forward. We are ready to answer specific questions or to give further explanation. It is clear that that message was consistent with our declared policy: namely, that if such people wanted to enter into talks or negotiations with the Government they first had genuinely to end violence—[HoN. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear]—not just temporarily, but for good. If they did, and showed sufficiently that they meant it, we would not want, for our part, to continue to exclude them from political talks. That remains our policy.

The IRA sent a reply on 10 May which did not constitute the unequivocal assurance of a genuine end to violence on which we had insisted. Clearly, a temporary ceasefire would not do.

Substantive contact was resumed on 2 November. The IRA sent the following message: This problem cannot be solved by the Reynolds Spring situation, although they're part of it. You appear to have rejected the Hume Adams situation though they too are part of it. Every day all the main players are looking for singular solutions. It can't be solved singularly. We offered the 10 May. You've rejected it. Now we can't even have dialogue to work out how a total end to all violence can come about. We believe that the country could be at the point of no return. In plain language please tell us through the link as a matter of urgency when you will open dialogue in the event of a total end to hostilities. We believe that if all the documents involved are put on the table—including your 9 paragrapher and our 10th May that we have the basis of an understanding. Our reply was despatched on 5 November: 1. Your message of 2 November is taken as being of the greatest importance and significance. The answer to the specific question you raise is given in paragraph 4 below. 2. We hold to what was said jointly and in public by the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach in Brussels on 29 October. A copy of the Statement is annexed. There can be no departure from what is said there and in particular its statement that there could be no secret agreements or understandings between Governments and organisations supporting violence as a price for its cessation and its call on them to renounce for good the use of, or support for, violence. There can also be no departure from the constitutional guarantee that Northern Ireland's status as part of the United Kingdom will not change without the consent of a majority of its people. 3. It is the public and consistent position of the British Government that any dialogue could only follow a permanent end to violent activity. 4. You ask about the sequence of events in the event of a total end to hostilities. If, as you have offered, you were to give us an unequivocal assurance that violence has indeed been brought to a permanent end, and that accordingly Sinn Fein is now committed to political progress by peaceful and democratic means alone, we will make clear publicly our commitment to enter exploratory dialogue with you. Our public statement will make clear that, provided your private assurance is promptly confirmed publicly after our public statement and that events on the ground are fully consistent with this, a first meeting for exploratory dialogue will take place within a week of Parliament's return in January. 5. Exploratory dialogue will have the following purposes:

  1. (i) to explore the basis upon which Sinn Fein would come to be admitted to an inclusive political talks process to which the British Government is committed but without anticipating the negotiations within that process;
  2. (ii) to exchange views on how Sinn Fein would be able over a period to play the same part as the current constitutional parties in the public life of Northern Ireland;
  3. (iii) to examine the practical consequences of the ending of violence.
6. The attached Annex summarises the sequence of events and provides answers to the procedural questions concerning exploratory dialogue which have been raised. 7. If, in advance of our public statement, any public statement is made on your behalf which appears to us inconsistent with this basis for proceeding it would not be possible for us then to proceed. 8. If we receive the necessary assurance, which you have offered, that violence has been brought to an end, we shall assume that you are assenting to the basis for proceeding explained in this note and its attachment. Hon. Members will appreciate from what I have read out, and from the other messages when they have had time to study them, that our main objective has been to reinforce and spell out in private our publicly stated positions.

It is for the IRA and its supporters to explain why they have failed to deliver the promised ending of violence. They should do so at once. Murder in Northern Ireland is no more tolerable than murder anywhere else in the United Kingdom. We must never lose sight of the fact that it is the terrorists who must answer for the deaths, destruction and misery of the past 25 years. It lies therefore with the IRA, and with it alone, to end their inhuman crimes. It is for them and those who support and justify them to explain why they have wickedly failed to do that.

I promise the House and the people of Northern Ireland that, for our part, we shall not cease our efforts to bring violence to a permanent end. As my right hon Friend told the House on 18 November: if we do not succeed on this occasion, we must … keep exploring again and again that opportunity for peace."—[Official Report, 18 November 1993; Vol. 233, c. 28.] Peace, properly attained, is a prize worth risks.

If a genuine end to violence is promised, the way would still be open for Sinn Fein to enter the political arena after a sufficient interval to demonstrate that they mean it. Our message of 5 November spelt that out again. The key to peace is in the hands of the IRA.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North)

Is the Secretary of State aware that the House is grateful for his explanation of events over the past few months, and welcomes the opportunity to study carefully his statement and the accompanying documents which are now available in the Vote Office?

Any sensible British Government must not, in the words of my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition, be afraid to take risks for peace. Risks are necessary if the peace process is to be brought to a successful conclusion. We hope that the Government's recent mishandling of these matters will not deter them from believing that risk-taking is essential if progress is to be achieved. It is, in our view, essential to explore the sincerity of the claims of the Republican movement that it wishes to be brought into the political process and to contribute to an end to the violence. This the Secretary of State has sought to do.

We know that the Government have said that all parties must make concessions if the peace process and the ambition of a constitutional settlement are to be accomplished. The Government have rightly said that concessions must be forthcoming from the Government of the Republic and from the Republican movement. The Government must also recognise that they too must make concessions if those ambitions are to be realised.

Moreover, the Government must call upon the Ulster Unionists to play their part in achieving peace and settled democratic government in these islands. That requires the Government to address two fundamental issues which the Ulster Unionists have refused consistently to address. First, we need an institutionalised Irish dimension in he government of Northern Ireland which the nationalists in Ireland could feel addresses their aspirations, just as article 1 of the Anglo-Irish Agreement rightly recognises and protects the constitutional status of the majority in Northern Ireland.

Secondly, we need institutions of government which allow both communities to share power and responsibility in Northern Ireland. Any new agreement between the British and Irish Governments and the parties in Northern Ireland must meet the aspirations of northern nationalists for institutions of Government with which they feel they can identify and which connect them with the Republic of Ireland.

If the Government intend to demonstrate their sincerity and show that they are prepared to take risks for peace, we expect to hear from the Government about concrete proposals which will satisfy the aspirations, needs and interests of both communities. I will remind the Secretary of State of the words of the Prime Minister: No party and no organisation can exercise a veto on progress."—[Official Report, 18 November 1993; Vol. 233, c. 28.] Provided that the Government hold firmly to the Anglo-Irish Agreement and the need for an Irish dimension and institutions which share power and responsibility in Northern Ireland, they should not be inhibited in the search for peace and a settlement which would be acceptable to all the peoples of these islands.

The Opposition trust that it has been thinking of that nature which has motivated the Government's interactions with the Republicans, and that is why we seek to make no party advantage today. The pursuit of peace is more important than anything else. We understand that 3 December is a date which remains open for both Governments to meet, if they wish. We hope that such a summit can take place.

We believe that the Prime Minister is right to say that the best opportunity for peace exists now. That opportunity must be grasped. We trust that the Government's courage will not now be dissipated, despite the criticism which they are likely to encounter later this afternoon. The pursuit of peace is more important than anything else.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his initial words in welcoming the statement. It is with the IRA, and with it alone, that the key to peace lies. It is for the IRA to decide whether it brings to an end violence that should never have been begun.

The hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not follow him in the observations which followed his opening remarks. They seem to me to be related not so much to a statement about messages between the IRA and the Government, as to the agenda for those constitutional political talks which took place last year between the four main constitutional parties and the two Governments, and which have resumed under a different format under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram).

The hon. Gentleman asked me about the summit. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach will be discussing together, over the next few days, the date for the next summit meeting. I cannot conclude without observing that I shall base my reaction to the hon. Gentleman's denial of any desire to take party advantage on the fact that no such advantage offers itself to him.

Mr. James Molyneaux (Lagan Valley)

I hope that the Secretary of State will agree that, if Mr. Adams feels that he ought to have a spokesman in the House, he need look no further than the Opposition spokesman. It remains for those who sit beside and behind that hon. Gentleman to decide whether he speaks for them.

When the Secretary of State came to the Northern Ireland Office, did he consider dismantling the links with the various paramilitary bodies, which links have existed since 1973 under successsive Governments and 10 Secretaries of State? Were those links necessary to distribute what are called the bomb warning recognised code words, on a weekly or monthly basis? Finally, were those links used a year ago to convey the existence of the 51-point contingency plan—described by the former security Minister, the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates) this morning—to deal with an extended ceasefire over last Christmas?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

The first part of the right hon. Gentleman's question relates to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara). The hon. Gentleman speaks for himself. Perhaps that occasionally gets him into some difficulty—[Interruption.] No doubt the hon. Gentleman speaks for his party as well, but I would not wish to follow further the right hon. Gentleman's point. As to the second and third part of the right hon. Gentleman's question, the answer is no in each case.

Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North)

Why has the Secretary of State not taken up the point that has aggravated and exacerbated the situation in Northern Ireland? It is not a matter of whether there is a channel conveying messages to the provisional IRA or whether the Government have had contacts in the past, or have in the present, but that those statements have been denied by the Secretary of State.

The Secretary of State has rubbished any suggestion of such talks. He has rubbished anyone who dared, at a press conference, to put questions on that to him. When we met him and the Prime Minister in the past week, he rubbished the suggestion again and said that there was no such thing. The people of Northern Ireland today demand that the Secretary of State explains why he issued falsehoods himself, got officials to issue falsehoods and got Downing street to back up those falsehoods.

Madam Speaker

Order. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is being as restrained as he can be at this moment. However, falsehoods mean one thing to the Chair—lies. I would be obliged if he could rephrase what he is saying.

Rev. Ian Paisley

I would like to ask the Secretary of State a question that everyone in Northern Ireland is asking. Even if the message that he got in February, and to which he responded, said that the conflict was over, surely he would have known after one exchange that the conflict was not over. What has happened? Those talks were going on, but we had Warrington. The talks were going on while the bombing was going on in this city. Even when the bombing took place in the Shankill road, the lines were still open. Surely the Secretary of State cannot think that, after his behaviour, he can have any trust with the Northern Ireland people. If he wants a settlement, the only honourable thing that he can do is resign.

Sir Patrick Mayhew


Madam Speaker

Order. I really must seek a withdrawal from the hon. Gentleman of the word "falsehood". I am sure that he has tried to couch his words very carefully this afternoon, but I ask him to reflect for a moment while I am speaking so that he may withdraw and allow proper order in our exchanges and our questions. Dr. Paisley, I am sure that you will oblige.

Rev. Ian Paisley

Because of the seriousness of the situation, I cannot oblige you, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker

I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman would reflect. It is very important to me and to the House that he is able to question the Secretary of State. I do not want to have to use the powers that are given to me by Standing Order at this time. I would ask him to reflect in all sincerity. I want him to be in the House to hear the exchanges. I ask him, as a long-standing Member of the House, senior statesman and parliamentarian, to oblige the House and the Chair by withdrawing the word "falsehood". I should be most obliged if he would do so.

Rev. Ian Paisley

I would like to stay in the House, but there are far too many issues in Northern Ireland that weigh on me at this time. The people of Northern Ireland would say to me, "Why did not you stand by what you said outside the House?", and I stand by what I said. It was a falsehood: it was worse, it was a lie.

Madam Speaker

In accordance with the power given me by Standing Order No. 42, I order the hon. Member to withdraw immediately from the House for the remainder of this day's sitting. [Interruption.] I am not naming him; I am using the Standing Order that is open to me, which is No. 42 and which requires the hon. Gentleman to withdraw from the precincts of the House for the remainder of this day's sitting.

Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker

There is no point of order at this stage. I am dealing with a Standing Order.

Dr. Paisley, I should be obliged if you would see that the order that I have just given you is carried out. Dr. Paisley, I require you to leave the precincts of the House for the remainder of the day's sitting. In that case, I name Dr. Ian Paisley.

Motion made, and Question put,

That Rev. Ian Paisley be suspended from the service of the House.—[Mr. Newton.]

The House divided: Ayes 272, Noes 25.

Division No. 5] [3.59 pm
Ainsworth, Peter (East Surrey) Duncan-Smith, Iain
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE) Dykes, Hugh
Aitken, Jonathan Eagle, Ms Angela
Alison, Rt Hon Michael (Selby) Eggar, Tim
Alton, David Etherington, Bill
Ancram, Michael Evans, David (Welwyn Hatfield)
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E) Evans, Jonathan (Brecon)
Arbuthnot, James Evans, Roger (Monmouth)
Armstrong, Hilary Evennett, David
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham) Faber, David
Arnold, Sir Thomas (Hazel Grv) Fabricant, Michael
Ashby, David Fatchett, Derek
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy Faulds, Andrew
Atkins, Robert Fenner, Dame Peggy
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset North) Forth, Eric
Baldry, Tony Foster, Rt Hon Derek
Barron, Kevin Fox, Dr Liam (Woodspring)
Bates, Michael French, Douglas
Batiste, Spencer Fyfe, Maria
Bayley, Hugh Gale, Roger
Biffen, Rt Hon John Gallie, Phil
Blackburn, Dr John G. Gardiner, Sir George
Blair, Tony Garnier, Edward
Booth, Hartley Gillen, Cheryl
Boswell, Tim Gorst, John
Bottomley, Peter (Eltham) Grant, Sir A. (Cambs SW)
Bowden, Andrew Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)
Bowis, John Grocott, Bruce
Boyson, Rt Hon Sir Rhodes Grylls, Sir Michael
Brandreth, Gyles Gunnell, John
Brazier, Julian Hague, William
Bright, Graham Hamilton, Rt Hon Archie (Epsom)
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter Hampson, Dr Keith
Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thorpes) Hanley, Jeremy
Browning, Mrs. Angela Hannam, Sir John
Burns, Simon Hargreaves, Andrew
Burt, Alistair Hawksley, Warren
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge) Hayes, Jerry
Carlile, Alexander (Montgomry) Heald, Oliver
Carlisle, John (Luton North) Heath, Rt Hon Sir Edward
Carrington, Matthew Hendry, Charles
Churchill, Mr Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael
Clappison, James Higgins, Rt Hon Sir Terence L.
Clark, Dr David (South Shields) Hill, James (Southampton Test)
Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford) Hordern, Rt Hon Sir Peter
Clarke, Eric (Midlothian) Howard, Rt Hon Michael
Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Ruclif) Howarth, Alan (Strat'rd-on-A)
Clarke, Tom (Monklands W) Howarth, George (Knowsley N)
Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey Howell, Rt Hon David (G'dford)
Congdon, David Howell, Sir Ralph (N Norfolk)
Conway, Derek Hoyle, Doug
Coombs, Anthony (Wyre For'st) Hughes Robert G. (Harrow W)
Coombs, Simon (Swindon) Hughes, Simon (Southwark)
Cope, Rt Hon Sir John Hunt, Rt Hon David (Wirral W)
Corbett, Robin Hunter, Andrew
Cormack, Patrick Hutton, John
Couchman, James Ingram, Adam
Cummings, John Jackson, Glenda (H'stead)
Cunningham, Jim (Covy SE) Jackson, Robert (Wantage)
Currie, Mrs Edwina (S D'by'ire) Jenkin, Bernard
Curry, David (Skipton & Ripon) Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey
Darling, Alistair Jones, Robert B. (W Hertfdshr)
Davies, Bryan (Oldham C'tral) Jopling, Rt Hon Michael
Davies, Quentin (Stamford) Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Davis, David (Boothferry) Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine
Day, Stephen Key, Robert
Devlin, Tim Khabra, Piara S.
Dickens, Geoffrey King, Rt Hon Tom
Dixon, Don Kirkhope, Timothy
Dorrell, Stephen Knapman, Roger
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James Knight, Mrs Angela (Erewash)
Dover, Den Knight, Greg (Derby N)
Duncan, Alan Knight, Dame Jill (Bir'm E'st'n)
Knox, Sir David Robathan, Andrew
Kynoch, George (Kincardine) Roberts, Rt Hon Sir Wyn
Lait, Mrs Jacqui Robertson, George (Hamilton)
Lang, Rt Hon Ian Robinson, Mark (Somerton)
Lawrence, Sir Ivan Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne)
Leigh, Edward Rogers, Allan
Lennox-Boyd, Mark Rowe, Andrew (Mid Kent)
Lester, Jim (Broxtowe) Rumbold, Rt Hon Dame Angela
Lestor, Joan (Eccles) Ryder, Rt Hon Richard
Lidington, David Sackville, Tom
Lilley, Rt Hon Peter Sainsbury, Rt Hon Tim
Lloyd, Peter (Fareham) Scott, Rt Hon Nicholas
Llwyd, Elfyn Shaw, David (Dover)
Lord, Michael Sheerman, Barry
Luff, Peter Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert
Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas Shephard, Rt Hon Gillian
Lynne, Ms Liz Shersby, Michael
Macdonald, Calum Short, Clare
McGrady, Eddie Sims, Roger
MacKay, Andrew Smith, C. (Isl'ton S & F'sbury)
Maclean, David Smith, Rt Hon John (M'kl'ds E)
Maclennan, Robert Snape, Peter
McNamara, Kevin Spencer, Sir Derek
Maddock, Mrs Diana Spicer, Sir James (W Dorset)
Madel, David Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)
Maitland, Lady Olga Spink, Dr Robert
Major, Rt Hon John Spring, Richard
Mallon, Seamus Squire, Rachel (Dunfermline W)
Malone, Gerald Squire, Robin (Hornchurch)
Marshall, Sir Michael (Arundel) Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John
Martin, David (Portsmouth S) Stern, Michael
Mates, Michael Strang, Dr. Gavin
Mayhew, Rt Hon Sir Patrick Streeter, Gary
Meale, Alan Sykes, John
Merchant, Piers Tapsell, Sir Peter
Michael, Alun Taylor, John M. (Solihull)
Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll Bute) Temple-Morris, Peter
Milligan, Stephen Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Mills, Iain Thurnham, Peter
Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling) Townsend, Cyril D. (Bexl'yh'th)
Mitchell, Sir David (Hants NW) Tracey, Richard
Moate, Sir Roger Tredinnick, David
Moss, Malcolm Trend, Michael
Mowlam, Marjorie Twinn, Dr Ian
Murphy, Paul Walker, Bill (N Tayside)
Neubert, Sir Michael Waller, Gary
Newton, Rt Hon Tony Walley, Joan
Nicholls, Patrick Watts, John
Norris, Steve Wells, Bowen
O'Brien, Michael (N W'kshire) Wheeler, Rt Hon Sir John
O'Brien, William (Normanton) Whittingdale, John
Onslow, Rt Hon Sir Cranley Widdecombe, Ann
Orme, Rt Hon Stanley Wiggin, Sir Jerry
Ottaway, Richard Wigley, Dafydd
Patnick, Irvine Wilkinson, John
Patten, Rt Hon John Willetts, David
Pattie, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Winnick, David
Pickles, Eric Wood, Timothy
Portillo, Rt Hon Michael Worthington, Tony
Randall, Stuart Yeo, Tim
Raynsford, Nick Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Rendel, David
Richards, Rod Tellers for the Ayes:
Riddick, Graham Mr. David Lightbown and
Rifkind, Rt Hon. Malcolm Mr. Sydney Chapman.
Beggs, Roy Madden, Max
Benn, Rt Hon Tony Maginnis, Ken
Benton, Joe Mahon, Alice
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V) Marek, Dr John
Clapham, Michael Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)
Cohen, Harry Molyneaux, Rt Hon James
Corbyn, Jeremy Paisley, Rev Ian
Cryer, Bob Parry, Robert
Forsythe, Clifford (Antrim S) Ross, William (E Londonderry)
Gerrard, Neil Skinner, Dennis
Livingstone, Ken Taylor, Rt Hon John D. (Strgfd)
Trimble, David Tellers for the Noes:
Walker, A. Cecil (Belfast N) Mr. Peter Robinson and
Wicks, Malcolm Rev. William McCrea.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Madam Speaker

In compliance with the order that the House has just made, I have to direct the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) to withdraw.

The hon. Member withdrew accordingly.

Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh)

Will the Secretary of State accept from our party that he was right to enter into these deliberations? Had he not done so, it would have been a dereliction of duty on his part.

At this important and sensitive time, the controversy surrounding these deliberations should not be allowed to hide the real challenge that faces us all: the challenge of creating peace in the island of Ireland—a peace that will affect all sections of the community, and a peace that will last.

Will the Secretary of State also note that I fully support his statement that the Government hold to the views expressed by the two Prime Ministers in Brussels? Will he further accept that it is not enough just to hold to those views, and that the two Prime Ministers must honour them and act upon them, recognising that time is of the essence? If they do not, the day and the opportunity may be lost, and that will mean more lives lost in the north of Ireland.

I ask the Secretary of State with all the power at my command to impress on the Prime Minister the fact that, unless he takes this opportunity and moves with the Irish Government to solve this problem and create peace now, there will be a backlash in the north of Ireland. It will not be a physical backlash; it will be a backlash of despair that will engulf us all for many years to come.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

Naturally I welcome what the hon. Gentleman said at the outset. He asked that there be no diversion from the search for peace. I can readily assure him on behalf of the Government that there will be no diversion from their continuing efforts to secure a permanent ending to the violence. In my experience the people of Northern Ireland do not ask for peace at any price—it has to be peace properly attained.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will have heard what the hon. Gentleman has said. He is committed, as are the Government, to doing everything proper to bring an end to terrorism. The exchanges that I have described show that to be the case. We will not negotiate with terrorists in advance of a demonstrated cessation of violence. If it is clear that violence has been brought to an end, then a party such as Sinn Fein would no longer be subject to a continued exclusion from the political process—once it had shown that it was for real that it no longer espoused or justified the cause of violence. I repeat: it is for the terrorists alone to decide whether and when they will bring violence to an end.

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)

The Secretary of State has made a detailed and thorough statement to the House. Many hon. Members will congratulate the Government on their courage in having initiated this process. It requires great courage, and any Government would be open to the charge of being damned if they. did and damned if they didn't. It is not surprising that the Government find themselves in that position today.

The Government should not be deflected from the task of finding a fair and lasting settlement. Will the Secretary of State reaffirm his commitment to placing the Government's plan before all the parties in Northern Ireland should the present process stall? The Government should not see themselves as spectators or umpires but should continue the process on which they have embarked, which requires imagination and courage, and which the whole House should welcome.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. May I gently correct him? He implied that this exchange, which began with the message in February of this year, was initiated by the Government. That was not the case.

I reaffirm the Government's commitment to carrying forward the process of political talks embarked upon by my right hon. Friend the Member for City of London and Westminster, South (Mr. Brooke). I was fortunate enough to take over in April of last year, when, because of his infinite patience and perceptiveness, all the procedural matters had been cleared out of the way. We want to see that process continue.

The process has been resumed since September of this year, with the considerable assistance of my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I reiterate that, at an appropriate stage, we will put forward our own proposals about what is most likely to secure an overall agreement, which is an essential prerequisite to any lasting accommodation.

Sir James Kilfedder (North Down)

There is undoubtedly grave concern in Northern Ireland, and it would be wrong for the House to be blind to that concern. I regard the Prime Minister as a man of integrity, who is genuinely seeking peace and political progress in Ulster, as is the Secretary of State. Will they give an assurance that, despite these contacts, there will be no let-up in the battle against the terrorists; that there will be no amnesty for terrorists who have been convicted; and that terrorists who have committed offences will be pursued by the police?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I am grateful for everything that the right hon. Gentleman has said. There will be no let-up in the campaign to bring an end to the violence that should never have begun, should never have continued and should not be perpetrated now. The security forces, the Royal Ulster Constabulary with the Army in support, are securing substantial successes, not all of which can be made public, as the right hon. Gentleman knows. That effort will continue, without the slightest rebate by reason of any other approaches that may be made to the Government.

It is necessary that no opportunity should be lost to secure a proper means by which this campaign of violence can be brought to an end. There will be no amnesty. There are no political prisoners in the United Kingdom. Those who are inmates of the prisons in Northern Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales are there because they have been convicted of criminal offences. That is why everyone must remember that there will be no let-up whatever in the Government's efforts, by all lawful means open to them, to bring the campaign of violence to an end.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

Is the Secretary of State aware that, after the Hume-Adams talks—which were widely welcomed—the Mayhew-McGuinness exchanges will be seen as very important and comparable in character? Is he also aware that the desire for peace is widespread in Britain as well? Are not the British people entitled to hear for themselves what comes from Sinn Fein, rather than relying on what the Secretary of State chooses to tell us through the publication of limited documents in his possession?

The Secretary of State will know that I wrote to the Prime Minister about this matter last night. Is it not time for a lifting of the exclusion order placed on Gerry Adams, so that all Members of Parliament may hear what he has been saying, and for a lifting of the Sinn Fein ban? Given its enormous importance, this is not a matter that can be left to private, secret discussions and exchanges; it concerns the whole country, and the whole country is entitled to know all the arguments used in the pursuit of peace, which must be the objective of all.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

The right hon. Gentleman knows that the exclusion order is a matter for my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary. I can only express my personal view: I do not think that the country would have understood if the opportunity to make an exclusion order against Mr. Adams had been left unused recently, when it became relevant.

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that this is not the first such approach from such sources? Is he aware that it was his absolute duty to pursue those sources to establish whether it was possible to bring an end to the appalling violence from which the whole of the United Kingdom has suffered—as, indeed, has the whole island of Ireland? Is he also aware that his statement—which makes it clear that there can be no negotiations with people who perpetrate violence—is absolutely right? It might have been in the better interests of the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) to read the papers before making his allegations.

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that he was absolutely right to seek, in every way that he could, to preserve the confidentiality of such approaches? The House need only reflect on the problems that are now following from the premature disclosure of perfectly proper approaches, and the problems that may be caused—not least, I suggest, to certain Republican leaders in Belfast.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. We had no doubt that it was our duty to respond in the way we did, remembering always that actions, not words, would be the ultimate test.

As the documents make clear, we have at no stage offered to negotiate in advance of a permanent ending of violence. That must be right. I am not conscious of having given any reply to the press—during the daily doorsteppings that are the lot of a Minister in Northern Ireland—that was not justified and justifiable by the facts.

It has always been known perfectly clearly that the British Government have never authorised anyone to enter into talks or negotiations on their behalf. There is only one context in which there is public interest in talking and having contact with Sinn Fein or the IRA: the context of public anxiety that the Government might do a deal with them before they had given up violence. That is the anxiety that has been expressed, and it has always been addressed in every answer given by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and myself.

Confidentiality is, of course, of vital importance. I very much agree with the latter remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King): I believe that all who have been responsible for breaking the confidentiality of this channel of communication—whose value was rightly emphasised a few moments ago by the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux)—will have a lot to answer for.

Mr. Doug Hoyle (Warrington, North)

Does the Secretary of State accept that the people of Warrington and my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South (Mr. Hall) and I bow to no one in our desire to pursue the quest for peace? Does he also accept, however, that there was a feeling of outrage and revulsion in Warrington at the fact that talks with Sinn Fein actually took place two days—[HoN. MEMBERS: "Not talks."] Contacts, then; I do not mind. Let me say to hon. Members who are shouting that this is too serious a matter for the people of Warrington for me to engage in a discussion of whether they were talks or contacts. Let us call them contacts.

There were contacts on 22 March—two days after the bombing in Warrington as a result of which two small boys died and 56 people were injured, and while one of the boys was still fighting for his life. Can the Secretary of State tell me how that squares with the statement that the conflict was over and, in view of the Warrington incident, why that meeting went ahead?

May I emphasise to the Secretary of State that those of us who want peace and want an end to the killings and the violence also want to know just what is going on and would like from the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister more honesty, less hypocrisy and more frankness with the House?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I readily appreciate the hon. Gentleman's concern for the feelings of his constituents in Warrington. He will know that we met in his constituency at the launching of the Warrington project a month or two ago. The hon. Gentleman speaks of a sense of outrage that there should have been any contact with Sinn Fein after the Warrington bombing. I think that the House will attach much importance to the fact, which I have already made clear, that the response was sent by the British Government before then. It was delivered, through the channel of communication that I have mentioned, afterwards.

It is noteworthy that Mr. Parry, the father of one of the two boys who were murdered on that occasion, has spoken movingly about his own feelings towards the policy that the Government have followed. I respectfully endorse what Mr. Parry has publicly said.

The hon. Gentleman rightly asked how Warrington and subsequent outrages square with the assertion that the conflict is at an end. Plainly, they do not. Such outrages are totally inexcusable. When the hon. Gentleman has an opportunity to read the bundle, he will see that the Government have repeatedly said in response to the IRA leadership that it is conduct, behaviour and events on the ground that will determine whether any credence can be placed on what that leadership has suggested.

Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend take note of the widespread feeling that in this business he has acted entirely correctly and wholly honourably, and has very great support? Will he take this opportunity to assure the House that the search for peace will never slide into the search for appeasement, and that the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland remains absolute so long as that is the democratically expressed wish of the people of Northern Ireland?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

On the last point, I readily and warmly give that assertion to my hon. Friend who takes so close an interest in these matters. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said in his Blackpool speech in October, the Government will always stand behind the democratically expressed wishes of the people of Northern Ireland. That could not be more clearly expressed and could scarcely have been more frequently expressed than it has been this autumn.

My hon. Friend asks whether I will make sure that the search for peace does not degenerate into appeasement. Yes—quite unequivocally—is the answer to that. It is made abundantly clear in the bundle of documents that there is no suggestion of any price, inducement or bargain being offered to these people to do what it is their common duty to humanity to achieve here and now.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is the Secretary of State aware of the real question that needs to be answered, not only here but outside? The Government have involved themselves in a peace initiative which most people want, and from listening to some views in the House, it seems that more people want that initiative to continue than was the case several weeks ago. We should all be pleased about that, but that is not the issue.

The issue is that, in this democracy, everybody has been taught to believe Ministers when they say at the Dispatch Box and outside on behalf of Parliament and the Government that they are doing one thing. But behind the people's back they are doing another, and that raises the question of honour and resignation. I did not hear the Secretary of State mention the word "apology" in connection with this mess. There was no reference at all to anyone's stomach turning.

The question that he has to answer—it will hang round his head for a long time—is whether anybody can again trust the Secretary of State or the Prime Minister. The problem that they have to face rather than the question of the peace initiative is whether they will ever be believed again. The Secretary of State should do the honourable thing and resign.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

There is no question of resigning by reason of any of the efforts that I or my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister have made to secure by proper means peace in Northern Ireland. I am aware of the Opposition point. I repeat that the Government's policy is perfectly clear and has always been expressed as the fact that nobody has been authorised and nobody will be authorised to enter into talks or discussions with people who are responsible for violence or who justify the use of violence.

That has been made perfectly clear in all my responses. I have looked through all the transcripts that are available to me. It was well expressed in "The Week in Politics" on 24 October on which I was interviewed by Mr. Jim Dougal. Referring to the disgraceful Shankill episode, Mr. Dougal asked: What does this do to the attitude of the Government to a party like Sinn Fein? I replied: The attitude of the Government to a party like Sinn Fein is quite clear and it does nothing to it whatsoever. We will not discuss for political purposes with a party that brings a bomb and a bullet to the aid of its political viewpoint. After further material, I said: To do that would be to undermine those who practise constitutional politics and it would be to feed the appetites of those who get their way by bombs. It is perfectly clear from everything that I have said that that is the British Government's position, and nothing has taken place that conflicts with that policy.

Rev. William McCrea (Mid-Ulster)

The Secretary of State will bear in mind the fact that the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) spoke about the backlash of despair. Unfortunately, there is already a backlash of despair in Northern Ireland. The Secretary of State said that the Government entered into these negotiations in February. [Interruption.] They were in the context that channels of communication were open. Responses were given in February because of a contact from Sinn Fein that the conflict was over.

Even if one accepts that the Government had to respond to that—and that is a matter for another occasion—the Warrington bomb came after that. Did that not convince the Government that the conflict was not over? Then the London bomb came. Did the Government need more convincing that the conflict was not over? Then there was the Shankill bomb. Did the Government need more convincing that this contact from Sinn Fein and the IRA was rubbish? How many more bombs must go off before the Government accept that Sinn Fein and the IRA have been playing them along?

I listened carefully to what the Secretary of State said—and he said that the fight against terrorism would continue unabated. The question that needs to be answered is, how can that stand side by side with the fact that one of the leading terrorists in Northern Ireland is Martin McGuinness? Two programmes were put out on the airwaves, but Martin McGuinness was never questioned. He was never arrested. Why not? How could he be questioned or arrested when he was that channel of communication?

I appreciate that the issue is delicate. The House may play around with words, and some may agree on whether it is a matter of talks, authorisation for talks or negotiations. However, this House was not under any illusion on any occasion on which the Prime Minister or the Secretary of State stood at the Dispatch Box—no contacts had been made.

Madam Speaker

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but I must remind him and the House that we are not in debate; we are questioning a statement by the Secretary of State. Will the hon. Gentleman now put his question so that I have the opportunity to call as many as possible of the other hon. Members who have been standing?

Mr. Benn

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. You have already had to deal with one hon. Member who breached the order of the House. The hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Rev. William McCrea) said that someone was a terrorist, but he has not been convicted of that. The hon. Gentleman used the privileges of the House to condemn somebody—

Madam Speaker

Order. I am listening very carefully to every word that is uttered in these exchanges. The hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Rev. William McCrea) is not out of order, other than for the fact that I hope that he will now ask his questions so that the Secretary of State can respond.

Rev. William McCrea

No matter how we play with words, there were contacts with the IRA behind the backs of the people of Northern Ireland. They were not told about them. Sinn Fein knew about them, the British Government knew about them, Dublin says it knew about them and America says it knew about them—but the people of Northern Ireland, whose lives are at stake, did not know about them. There is a deficit of belief between the people of Northern Ireland and the Secretary of State. How will the right hon. and learned Gentleman correct that?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I shall deal with the hon. Gentleman's comments bit by bit. His first remark was that the Government had entered into negotiations. I do not know where he has been this afternoon, but he could not have heard the central point of what I said to the House—that there have been no negotiations, none have been offered and there will be none unless and until the IRA gives up violence and Sinn Fein gives up justifying it.

The hon. Gentleman said that the question whether it was right for the Government to reply to the initial message was for another occasion. It is not—it is for this occasion. It is very much a technique of those from his Benches who criticise the Government to make assertions outside the House that they are not prepared to make here. They have said that it was disgraceful that we replied to that message, and that is a matter for this occasion. I say to the House—and to the hon. Gentleman in particular—that it would have been culpable in the extreme if we had not replied.

The hon. Gentleman then asked why Martin McGuinness had not been arrested. I must tell him—as a Northern Ireland Member, he should know this perfectly well—that the prosecuting authorities are independent of Government— [Interruption.] His hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) laughs. I shall have something to say about him in a moment. He may laugh, but as I know very well, it is a fact that the prosecuting authorities in Northern Ireland are independent. People cannot be brought to trial unless there are people willing to take the risks inherent in Northern Ireland of giving evidence in court.

Next, the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster said that the people of Northern Ireland were not told about the messages that I have described, and then said that that had put me in a position where there could be no trust. I do not believe that for one minute. The Government have said consistently, and I have repeated many times, that nobody has been authorised to undertake talks or negotiations on behalf of the Government. I made it absolutely clear that was always in the context of political negotiations. That is what people such as the hon. Gentleman rightly mind about—whether some price or inducement is being offered for an ending of violence. That would be profoundly wrong. None has ever been offered, and none will be offered.

I invite the hon. Gentleman, in the light of his public remarks about my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, to consider what contribution he has made to stability and confidence. What contribution has he made by apparently handing covertly to a journalist—as we understand the hon. Gentleman did—the document that I mentioned? The hon. Gentleman might care to say where he got it and how he got it. Rather than tell my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister when he met him, "I have this document. It is a worrying document. What do you say about it?", we understand that the hon. Gentleman slid it to a journalist. Why did he do that?

Mr. Ken Maginnis (Fermanagh and South Tyrone)

Taking account of the folly of anyone believing that the word of the Provisional IRA can ever be taken at face value, and that any evasion and equivocation by members of the Government Front Bench only presents republican terrorists with a propaganda victory, can the House take some comfort from the fact that right hon. and hon. Members would not have any official confirmation of the rumours that have been circulating since May or June if the IRA's political demands had not been rejected by the Government? May we continue to rely on assurances by the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister that the democratic process will never be subverted in favour of terrorist demands?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

The hon. Gentleman has an unmatched record of resistance to terrorist demands and to the threats and violence that terrorists offer so many people in Northern Ireland. I give him the assurance that he seeks, without equivocation.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that political demands made by the IRA and by Sinn Fein on the Government in advance of any ending of violence were rejected out of hand. Contrary to all the rumours now being sedulously put about on behalf of Sinn Fein, that has been the case. That is why there came to be considerable interest in what talks, contacts or whatever had been taking place. That, and that alone, was the context. That is the context in which I have answered all the questions put to me.

Mr. Peter Temple-Morris (Leominster)

Despite a few of the things said in the House, does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that many people in the House and outside it congratulate him on, and do not criticise him for, his efforts in pursuing a proper peace in Northern Ireland? Will he proceed undaunted, notwithstanding recent events? In doing so, will he realise that those who oppose him and who make life difficult for the Government in this regard will increasingly be perceived to be opposing peace as well?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and take heart from his remarks. I know that he is speaking not only for those on the Government Benches but for those on the Labour Benches and throughout the House. I believe that the House is absolutely at one, that there must be no surrender to terrorist demands, and equally that there must be no relenting in all proper searches for ways to bring violence to an end.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Does the Secretary of State accept that, while in 25 years there has not been the slightest indication that the British people or the House would surrender to terrorism, there is an overwhelming wish on the mainland, no less in Northern Ireland, for any steps that could lead to a negotiated settlement? The father of one of the children killed at Warrington bravely said that steps leading to peace should be taken, if that could possibly be done, and that concessions must be made by all—by the majority and minority communities in Northern Ireland.

While one acknowledges some of the problems that have undoubtedly arisen during the past few days, can the Secretary of State tell the House today that no steps will be taken to stop the summit that is to take place in Dublin between the British and Irish Prime Ministers?

Is there not a strong argument now for every possible step to be taken by both Governments, to see whether there is a possibility of an honourable agreement in Northern Ireland, recognising that Northern Ireland would remain a part of the United Kingdom but also—as my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) said—that the legitimate aspirations of the nationalist community must be pursued, as the majority recognises, by peaceful means?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

The hon. Gentleman always takes a courageous line in matters connected with Northern Ireland affairs. As to his first point, I acknowledge that there is an overpowering demand among the everyday people of Northern Ireland for an end to violence. However, they do not want peace at any price.

Recently, I attended a service for the association that represents disabled police officers, and I attended a memorial service for those who lost their lives in the prison service. The mothers, widows and other relations of those who have suffered hideous injuries or death say, "We want peace, but we do not want it at any price." It is terribly important to remember that, and it is never out of the Government's mind.

The hon. Gentleman asked that no steps be taken to frustrate the Dublin summit. I told the House that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach will be discussing over the next few days the date of the summit. On "The Frost Programme" recently, the Taoiseach said—I speak from memory rather than quoting his words exactly—that any solution emanating from one side alone could have no chance of success.

That certainly represents the British Government's view. We are at one in wanting violence to come to an end, but it must come to an end before there can be any negotiations or exploratory talks as to how parties may enter the constitutional talks process—from which they exclude themselves by perpetrating or justifying violence at present.

Mr. Michael Mates (East Hampshire)

While those who have no responsibility in these matters can indulge in the semantic differences between communications, talks and negotiations, is it not the case that those who have that responsibility must deal with human life and limb, and with the wanton destruction of property? When this froth of mostly artificial rage has died down, will not the IRA leadership be left exposed for its utter cynicism in saying that it could stop the killing, but asking for some way of doing that while saving face?

Will my right hon. and learned Friend make it clear to the IRA leadership that there is no way that it can save face for its actions over the years? As long as my right hon. and learned Friend pursues with vigour and honour the path that he has chosen to try to bring the IRA to a peaceful means of discussing solutions, he will have the backing of every right-thinking person in this country and of most right hon. and hon. Members.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend. Cynicism is seen as a very strong suit of the IRA and of Sinn Fein, and especially of those who express regret for the entirely foreseeable and intended consequences of the violence that they perpetrate. That is extremely hard to bear for the hard-pressed people of Northern Ireland. Of course duties are placed upon those who have responsibility for every life in Northern Ireland, and they must face up to them. Others do not have the disciplines that responsibility imposes.

Yesterday, I watched my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates) on "The Frost Programme", in which the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) also participated. My hon. Friend asked the hon. Member for Belfast, East—whose face was on the screen, transmitted from Northern Ireland—what the Government should have done in the face of the message. Should they have done nothing, or should they have responded? Answer came there none from the hon. Member for Belfast, East. But those with responsibility for lives in Northern Ireland must make up their minds—and they must take proper risks.

Mr. Ken Livingstone (Brent, East)

Can the Secretary of State confirm that those contacts did not just start with this particular round but, in the words of Lord Gowrie, contacts with the IRA were instrumental in bringing the hunger strike to a close, and certainly contacts were still continuing between Sinn Fein and officials at the Northern Ireland Office in 1983 when the Greater London council delegation met Gerry Adams for the first time?

Does the Secretary of State agree that part of his problem with the public and media response to this news is not that talks or contacts have been taking place, but that successive Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland, and the former Prime Minister, Lady Thatcher, have roundly condemned anyone who went openly, and in front of the public, and discussed with the leadership of Sinn Fein? They were condemned for doing openly what the Government have been doing behind the backs of the British people and the people of Northern Ireland.

Does the Secretary of State also agree that most people outside the House will not be terribly concerned, because this is more of a parliamentary point. People outside the House will be amazed, however, given the terms that Martin McGuinness used in his contacts with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and they will ask, "Why did not the British Government have more imagination in seizing the opportunity? Where is the imagination in their response that is shown by people like Rabin or de Klerk?" Why is imagination so lacking on the Conservative Benches? Is it because the Conservatives rely on the votes of the Ulster Unionists?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I think that what the hon. Gentleman would describe as imagination, most of the people of our country would describe as appeasement—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]—feeding those who, in a democracy, know that they cannot attain their political objectives by the ballot box and therefore bring bombs and bullets to the conference table, to the discussions, to fortify their case. That is what I think that the hon. Gentleman would have described as an imaginative response, but I and, I think, most people in our country would describe it as a disgraceful response.

I believe that the Government have made an entirely proper, and certainly understood, distinction—that once one has shown oneself qualified to become a constitutional political party, one may take one's place in the political arena. As long as one shows oneself not to be able to accept the disciplines of democratic and constitutional politics, one excludes oneself.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)

Does the Secretary of State recall that he took part in BBC "Breakfast Time" on 16 November and that during that programme he made three denials? First, he denied that there were contacts through emissaries between the Government and the Provisional IRA or Sinn Fein. He also denied that there were talks between the Government and the IRA, and he denied that there were negotiations between the Government and the IRA. Do not the papers that the Secretary of State has selected to put in the Library today indicate that such contacts did take place? If there were no talks, why was his emissary sent off to do the job with speaking notes?

Does the Secretary of State recognise that he needs more than the confidence of his colleagues in the House to do his job and to do it well; that he needs the confidence of the people of Northern Ireland, and that he does not have it any more?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I have heard the hon. Gentleman proclaiming that for some time. I walk about as much as I can in the streets of Northern Ireland to talk to people, and I seem to get a reasonable and—I am very grateful for it—friendly reception. The hon. Gentleman speaks of BBC "Breakfast Time." It is certainly true that I took part in BBC breakfast television on 16 November. I was asked this question: Let's look further at what Gerry Adams was saying last night. As I have already said, and I think the House has recognised, Gerry Adams has been putting it about that we have been negotiating. The question continued: Has there been contact between people who could be regarded as emissaries or representatives of the Government? I said: No, there hasn't. There has been no negotiating with Sinn Fein; no official, as I see is alleged has been talking to Sinn Fein on behalf of the British Government. We have always made it perfectly clear that there is going to be no negotiating with anybody who perpetrates or justifies the use of violence. That's been our public policy, and it is our private policy and we have stuck to it. The question was asked: You choose your words, I am sure, very carefully. You say no negotiating, but perhaps there have been exploratory talks at some level? I replied: There has been no talking whatsoever about what is to be a price, if there is to be any price for the giving up of violence or anything of that sort, which is what is alleged, nothing of that kind at all. We have always said that there is to be no bargaining whatsoever with people who espouse, who perpetrate violence, and that's absolutely the case. Nobody on the part of the British Government has done that or anything like it. I stand by that. I made it perfectly clear what I was replying to, and I stand by that answer. I do not make any apology to the hon. Gentleman or to the House for, as the questioner put it, choosing my words carefully. Of course I was not going to volunteer that there was a channel of communication, which was one whose value has been maintained for, as has been clear, many years—20 years.

Supposing the time were to come when the IRA were to say, however belatedly, that the conflict was over and that they needed advice only as to how it was to be tied up, am I to have supposed that the public would have been better served if there had been no such channel—if there had been no means by which the IRA could send a message? If that is what the hon. Gentleman is saying, I do not think that the House is with him. This stuff about "Of course there have been talks—how could there be a speaking note otherwise?" is a lot of rubbish.

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down)

I ask the Secretary of State to take comfort from the fact that the people of Northern Ireland—at least in my constituency, which he knows is roughly half and half Unionist and Nationalist and which genuinely reflects the ordinary people of Northern Ireland—want him to continue the peace process. They do not want him to be deflected by the rituals of the House or the deliberate diversions of the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) but to concentrate on the core issue of pursuit of peace.

Alongside that, in parallel to it, are the inter-party talks. I ask the Secretary of State to accelerate those, so that they may run in parallel with the peace initiative. Perhaps at those talks he can advise and, one hopes, convince the members of the Unionist parties that there is nothing—nothing at all—to fear in peace. That would create a new dimension for us all.

I ask the Secretary of State to convey to his right hon. colleague the Prime Minister the fact that a lot rests on his shoulders and that, although the Secretary of State terminated his statement with the words The key to peace is in the hands of the IRA", it is a combination lock and the Prime Minister holds the other key to that process.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I know how closely in touch he is with the opinions of his constituents because I visited his constituency with him not long ago. Of course there is a desire for peace and I will not repeat what I have said about that and the qualification that the people of Northern Ireland place upon it.

There is no need to urge me or my right hon. Friend to press on with the political talks. Those are very important and much progress is being made, albeit in a different format from last year. I believe that the hon. Gentleman would acknowledge that the Unionist parties played a valuable part in that process, as he did himself and as did his party, and that much progress was made towards contingent agreement.

I therefore think that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who has heard what the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) said, needs no encouragement in the direction that the hon. Gentleman urged. However, in our search for peace, it is no good looking for a solution to the problems that emanates only from one quarter. It must again be brought to the attention of the House that both Governments, at the end of the Brussels summit on 29 October, said that there could be no question of the Government's accepting and endorsing the report of the Hume-Adams dialogue that had been given to the Taoiseach, although not to the Prime Minister.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)

At the beginning of today, some people in the media were making much of an apparent difference of evidence between the Provisional IRA and the Government. Having seen the evidence and heard the speech of my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State, people here and outside—in Northern Ireland, in the Republic and in Great Britain—will think that he is to be trusted and supported, and that what he has done is right.

Can I go further and say to those who are not here—the torturers and murderers, and those who make women into widows and children into orphans—that they still have the responsibility, which they appeared show in February, that they realise that the past 20 years and the 3,000 lives have not got anywhere near their aims, and they will not get near their aims? The sooner they bring an end to violence, get into talks and become constitutional parties, the better it will be for everyone.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

The message that my hon. Friend has given to those outside, especially those who use or justify terrorism, is an important one. It comes with great authority because of his record of service in Northern Ireland and continuing interest thereafter. I am grateful for what he said at the beginning of his question. I have watched with admiration his contributions to various programmes, and I am extremely grateful for his support.

Mr. William Ross (Londonderry, East)

In his statement, the Secretary of State used the terms "Sinn Fein" and "IRA" as though they were interchangeable and simply different faces of the same creature. If that is so, is he treating all the papers that he published today as coming from and being directed at the same organisation? Can he give an assurance that all the papers and contacts, with the reports of the messengers, have been published? Since the roots of this lie further back than February, will he publish all the papers from at least 1990 until the present time?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I do not propose to accede to the hon. Gentleman's last request. I agree that there is a distinction to be made between Sinn Fein and the IRA. Sinn Fein is a political party. In many instances, members of Sinn Fein are spokespeople for the IRA. But the two organisations are not the same, although there is a substantial overlap.

The bundle of documents that I have published include the messages that we received—they were mostly orally transmitted, as is clear from the beginning—from Martin McGuinness and others. We think it right to characterise that as messages coming from the leadership of the IRA, and replies consequential of the first message in February have been sent through the chain of communication to the same people.

Mr. Michael Jopling (Westmorland and Lonsdale)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that many people will not be surprised, nor wish to have been told, that private indirect communication links have existed for some time? Does he agree that, if eventually we are to get formal negotiations started on the conditions laid down by the Government, the violence should have come to an end? It is almost inconceivable for those negotiations to open without some preliminary discussions of that sort earlier.

Finally, will he tell the House what he meant when he said at the beginning of his statement that the links have existed for some time? Is it true that the links have existed for many years, and if so, how many?

Mr. Molyneaux

About 20 years.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

As the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux) saays, the links have existed for some 20 years, and they have shown their value. I recognise what my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) said about the great value of the opportunity to pass communications in each direction if we are ever to reach a stage at which negotiations can take place.

I believe that that was rightly expressed in the leading article in The Sunday Times yesterday, which said that the time for negotiations has not yet arrived. That time can arrive only when an end of violence has genuinely occurred, but before that, there must be a means by which the two sides can pass messages one to the other, and do it in secret.

Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

Does the Secretary of State accept that, following the exchanges that have occurred this afternoon and the publication of documents yesterday, the majority of my constituents in Birmingham will basically say, "Thank God someone was searching for peace"? Searching for peace does not mean that one is soft on terrorism. That has clearly come across this afternoon, and I say thank God for that too.

A couple of weeks ago in my constituency, two local councillors from Northern Ireland told me that the people of Northern Ireland are afraid that the House of Commons is not interested—every time there is a debate or questions asked about Northern Ireland, the benches are green. The exchanges and the attendance this afternoon will signal to the people of Northern Ireland that the House of Commons, while it is not the place to negotiate, wants not peace at any price but peace that is honourably sought by all parties.

If we can still, in the words of one of the leaders in the newspaper this morning, hear the sound of silence of the Armalites for the foreseeable future, will the prospective exploratory meeting that was promised in the November exchange to start the week after we return in January still take place?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I shall deal with the last part first. I am not interested in ceasefires, with their implicit threat of a resumption, unless something is yielded in the meantime. There must be an assertion that violence is at an end, and that must be made perfectly clear.

I agree with what the hon. Gentleman says about the need for people in Northern Ireland to believe that the House of Commons is concerned about them. Today, I entirely recognise that it is abundantly clear for all to see the concern that exists. Perhaps I will be forgiven if I go back to what I said towards the end of my statement. I quote: Murder in Northern Ireland is no more tolerable that murder anywhere else in the United Kingdom. We must never lose sight of the fact that it is the terrorists who must answer for the deaths, destruction and misery over the past 25 years. We must never allow ourselves to become inured to what might sometimes be suspected—that there is a tolerable level of murder and violence. There is no acceptable level of violence. I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman said about the message that goes forth from the House today.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

I see those hon. Members who are standing and I have a note of their names. I ask now for brisk questions and brisk answers so that I can call all those hon. Members who are currently standing.

Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East)

I endorse what has been said by hon. Members on both sides of the House. As a member of the British-Irish parliamentary body, I must say that, far from apologising, the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister should be not proud—that is the wrong word—but glad that this has now been revealed through one circumstance or another, because this is the way forward, and the opportunity is great.

Can my right hon. and learned Friend—I entirely accept that he is speaking theoretically at this stage—indicate possibly and putatively what might be the scenario leading to the next stage of possible peace talks developing?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

Speaking briskly, that must depend on how the IRA behaves. We have made clear what is an absolute requirement by way of precondition. It is for the IRA to say and show whether that will happen. As to the rest of the question, I believe that what we have said in the bundle of documents provides an answer.

Mr. John D. Taylor (Strangford)

The way forward in Northern Ireland is to ensure that there is trust in our Government within the community, irrespective of which party forms that Government in the United Kingdom. The Secretary of State dismisses too lightly the reality that there is little trust in the Government in Northern Ireland at present.

When people heard him say on that BBC television programme on 16 November that there were no contacts, and then we saw the revelations this weekend, people lost trust and confidence. Younger people then move towards the loyalist paramilitaries. That trend is becoming more dangerous, and should not be ignored by this Parliament. Will the Secretary of State urge the Government to try to restore greater confidence among the majority Unionist community by reaching policy decisions which will gain their support? Secondly, are the Government in contact, through intermediaries or otherwise, with the Ulster Volunteer Force, the Ulster Defence Association or the Ulster Freedom Fighters?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I note what the hon. Gentleman says about the breakfast programme. I have read the question that I was asked, and the reply that I gave. I am not going to describe the character of the chain of communication, but I am entirely satisfied that what I said was accurate. I believe that I am entirely justified in saying that.

Naturally, I recognise the importance of trust, but that trust would not have taken a turn for the better if it were known that I had quite unnecessarily volunteered the existence of a chain of communication. That chain, at that time, was being used for a process which offered the possibility—it is not for me to say whether it was a probability—of ending the violence which has lasted for 25 years. I would have wantonly destroyed that chain by destroying its secrecy.

I entirely agree with what the hon. Gentleman said about the importance of trust. As for contact with the organisations to which the hon. Gentleman referred, the situation is precisely as I have described it. There will be no negotiations with them, and there is no similar chain or channel of communication with them, as has been the case for so long with the leadership of the IRA.

Mr. Roger Knapman (Stroud)

May I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on his statement, for which I greatly admire him? Is it not immensely sad that he should be criticised most strongly by those who potentially have the most to gain?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

Briskly, I am grateful. Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

Why should hon. Members and the public be denied the full information on the peace debate while the Government are secretly negotiating with Sinn Fein? At the same time, the Government are condemning those people such as myself who wanted to urge on the peace process by entering into negotiations with that very body. Is it not time, since the process is now in the open, that the absurd restrictions in which actors mimic the voices of the representatives of Sinn Fein should be removed? Is that a card which the Secretary of State is holding in his negotiations?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I have watched the hon. Gentleman pointing his finger at Conservative Members for all the time that we have been in the House together. That does not make more sensible a question that is based upon a false premise, which is that we have been negotiating with Sinn Fein. That is absolutely wrong.

The hon. Gentleman's point about whether the broadcasting restrictions should remain is a separate matter, and that is for the Secretary of State for National Heritage to decide. I will point to out to the hon. Gentleman that much tougher restrictions have been in place in the Republic for longer.

Mr. Winston Churchill (Davyhulme)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that the overwhelming majority of hon. Members will feel that he and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister have acted with honour and responsibility in the matter? Furthermore, is it not the case that they were quite right to respond as they did to the remarkable message from the IRA of last February? No blame can be attached to them for the fact that they were less than frank with the House in pursuing the initiatives for peace, with which we wish them well.

Given the Government's prompt and fulsome response earlier this year and more recently, is it not clear that the burden of responsibility for the continuation of carnage on both sides of the water rests squarely with the provisional IRA? The IRA could have peace tomorrow if it was to set aside the Armalite and put away the bomb. Is that not the next step on the agenda?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

My hon. Friend, of course, is absolutely right, and that is the crucially important point. We are in a democracy, and those people know perfectly well that they cannot get their way by the democratic process. Therefore, they bring bombs and bullets to give force to their argument. They must never be appeased, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right. I am grateful to him for what he has said.

I take issue gently with his assertion that we have been less than frank to the House. We have not volunteered—it would have been wanton to do so—the existence of a secret chain of communication that has a value which is recognised by all hon. Members. That chain would have been destroyed had we volunteered that it was in existence and that it was being used currently for the purposes which the House now knows about.

Mr. Roy Beggs (Antrim, East)

The Secretary of State will be aware of the warm reception which he received earlier this year in my constituency. I must say with some regret that many of those people who welcomed him warmly have a deep sense of betrayal and bitterness with regard to the recent disclosures.

Has the Secretary of State, on reflection, been too economical with the truth with regard to the contacts with the IRA and with Sinn Fein? What assurance can he give which would enable me to encourage my constituents to welcome him warmly should he visit us again? Will the Secretary of State restate the conditions under which the meeting that is scheduled for January might go ahead?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

The hon. Gentleman reminds me of the welcome that I received when I went to his constituency. I am glad that some of the welcome was for me. I thought that it was more for the Prime Minister, who was also present. I look forward to visiting his constituency again.

The hon. Gentleman said that I had been economical with the truth. The House will know that he means that I have been dishonest with the people in Northern Ireland. I have not, and it would be better if the hon. Gentleman said so.

Mr. Skinner

He would have been thrown out if he had.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I agree that certain restraints are imposed upon the clarity of the utterances which adhere to Ulster Members. I accept that.

I have already said why I reject that charge. In the light of Madam Speaker's ruling, I am not going to take time to say it all again. Time has elapsed and the offer, which was made in circumstances which were perfectly clear and which were dependent upon a declaration that violence was at an end, no longer stands, because that declaration has not come. If it were to come, the matter would be reopened.

Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam)

May I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on his endeavours in maintaining contact? I agree totally that, had he not done so, it would have been a great dereliction of his duties.

Does he agree that, while the IRA says it wishes to end conflict, those fine words are not matched by fine deeds? Murderous events have happened ever since. Therefore, will he continue with his endeavours to combat terrorism, with all the methods at his command? In whatever develops, will my right hon. and learned Friend bear in mind the fact that 65 per cent. of the people in Northern Ireland voted for the Union with Great Britain in the previous general election?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

My hon. Friend takes such an interest in Northern Ireland matters, and is such a frequent visitor, that she speaks with particular knowledge. She could perhaps slightly increase the strength of her case. I believe that 67 per cent. voted for one of the three parties which support the maintenance of the Union as an act of policy.

Sir James Kilfedder

There are four parties.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I beg my hon. Friend's pardon. There are in fact four parties. I am getting into deeper and deeper water.

My hon. Friend speaks with great authority. The fine words, as she put it, of the IRA and the leadership of the IRA have not been matched, and perfectly inexcusable outrages have occurred. That is why I assure my hon. Friend that the Chief Constable and the General Officer Commanding, with the full support of the Government, will bear down as hard as is possible by all lawful means upon those who resort to violence.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

It would have been preferable if the documents had been available to us at an earlier stage so that we could have studied them. However, I have already noticed two points. The document setting out the Government message of 17 July says: consideration was being given at the highest level to a far-reaching response. What was that response, and was it delivered?

Secondly, there is reference to "unauthorised contacts" with Sinn Fein/IRA, in addition to authorised contact. I understand from the briefings given by the Northern Ireland Office to the press that that unauthorised contact included members of MI6, or the Secret Intelligence Service, during 1991 and 1992. Is that the same as the contact that Mr. McGuinness claims that he had with what he called a British Foreign Office official in the spring of 1990?

When did the unauthorised activity by the secret intelligence service begin, when did it end, what measures have been taken to bring the SIS under control, and what disciplinary action has been taken with regard to the officers who engaged in that unauthorised activity?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I am not prepared to say more than I said at a press conference in Northern Ireland yesterday, which is that it has come to our notice that there were probably two instances over the past three or so years where unauthorised contact was made by somebody in an official position.

Mr. Peter Robinson

It was authorised.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

It was unauthorised by the British Government. Nothing derived from that contact in each instance that affected any message subsequently sent in the manner that I have described to the House by the British Government to the leadership of the IRA. I am not prepared to say any more than that.

As to the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question, a reply to the message of 10 May was not, in the event, sent, for the reasons that are set out in the document of 17 July.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

My right hon. and learned Friend will be conscious of the deep desire in all parts of the House that his stewardship should be crowned with the success of a just and lasting peace that is not an accommodation of terrorism and that is fully in line with the principles of constitutional democratic government.

In the pursuit of that objective, for which most reasonable people will give him a wide degree of latitude and discretion, can he bear in mind the fact that, time and time again since 1969, successive Secretaries of State have realised that seeking to reduce the alienation of the violent minority which constitutes the IRA/Sinn Fein should never be sought at the expense of alienating the Loyalist majority in the Province?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

My hon. Friend eloquently expresses the hopes of all of us, but it is no good addressing the problem in a way that results in the transferring of violence from one end of the political spectrum to the other. That is what would happen in certain circumstances.

I readily acknowledge the need to reassure those who constitute the greater number of people living in Northern Ireland—those who wish to see the Union within the United Kingdom maintained—that the Government will continue always to stand behind the democratic wishes of the people of Northern Ireland. That is the fundamental reassurance they need, and it is one that has been given as authoritatively as possible. It is meant by the Government and every Minister.

Mr. Geoffrey Hoon (Ashfield)

Will the Secretary of State explain why he has refused to publish the exchanges between the Government and the Provisional movement in the period before 22 February 1993? In particular, will he give further consideration to whether he should publish the text of any message sent by the British Government immediately before that date?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I can assure the House that the message received in February, which begins the published body of messages, was not one that had been prompted by us or heralded. It would not be right to publish, to however far back I was asked to publish, all the records of the messages sent back and forth by that means of communication. It would not be in the public interest to do so. It might very well encroach upon intelligence matters that, as will be widely understood, should not be published. I shall give further consideration to the matter, but I do not hold out any expectation, or offer any commitment, that I would think it right to do so.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Stamford and Spalding)

The House has always had a high regard for the integrity and judgment of my right hon. and learned Friend, and that has been clearly reflected this afternoon. Does he agree that the IRA is a criminal organisation, and one involved in the very worst form of crime—murder—and it should be dealt with only on that basis?

Does he also agree that, while it is legitimate to use the democratic process to campaign for a united Ireland, it would be a devastating day for democracy if the idea ever arose that a group that owed its power not to the ballot box but to the bullet could influence the future shape of political and constitutional arrangements?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

My hon. Friend is right, and that is at the basis of the defence that is necessary for democracy. It is always expensive to defend democracy, but the country has had some experience of that, and knows that the price is always worth paying. The Provisional ERA resorts to criminal methods and therefore can be characterised as a criminal organisation, and it must never be enabled to influence constitutional development by resorting to violence. In thanks for the kind words with which my hon. Friend began, I bow towards him.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend is pleased to know that I appear to be the last Back Bencher rising to ask him a question in this marathon. Does he accept that it now appears, regrettably, that the whole business, from the first message in February from McGuinness to the statement made this morning by Adams, has been nothing more than a political ploy? There has never been any hope of the IRA giving up violence.

Does he accept that what happened arose entirely from Sinn Fein's desire to make political capital? Does he therefore agree that the extraordinary reaction—the hypercritical and naive reaction—of almost all the press, many politicians and some hon. Members today, criticising the Government, has played into the hands of the IRA, has given Sinn Fein its political capital and is giving comfort to those evil terrorists who are the enemies of the House, the United Kingdom and the people of Northern Ireland?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. It may prove to be the case that nothing will come, and that nothing ever would have come, from the message that we received in February. That was not an assumption that was open to us, in duty, to make. There was always hope that it would, but so far that hope has been dashed. It may be that it was nothing more than a political ploy. All must hope that that was not the case. It was not open to us to treat it on that basis.

The concluding part of my hon. Friend's question related to the way in which the Government's response has been addressed. Yesterday, at a press conference in Northern Ireland, I mildly observed that, from the tone of some of the questions addressed to me, it might be thought that it was not the IRA but the Government who had bombed the Shankill.